Hong Kong writers relaunch literary group in face of ‘unprecedented’ threat to free speech
Head of local chapter of PEN International says disappearance of five booksellers shows the need to unite writers, journalists and academics is ‘greater than ever’
A group of around 30 writers in Hong Kong has revived a literary organisation that aims to promote freedom of speech, warning that the need to defend the right has taken on “unprecedented urgency”.
Jason Ng, president of the Hong Kong chapter of PEN International, said Beijing’s “long arm” was being felt in “nearly every corner of civil society”.
The move comes at a sensitive time in the city with pro-independence activists and Beijing clashing over the future of Hong Kong and the city’s legislature and mini-constitution, while the controversial disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold works banned in mainland China are still fresh in many minds.
PEN International stood for poets, essayists, and novelists when founded in 1921 but now includes other types of writers. Ng explained that the original chapter in the city was founded in the 1980s by a handful of expat writers and journalists, but it became inactive around 2007 after a number of founding members left the city.
Ng, who is also a lawyer, said that in view of the recent high-profile disappearances of booksellers from Causeway Bay Books, who later turned up on the mainland, and the interference in academic appointment in universities, the need to unite writers, journalists and academics was “greater than ever”.
He said the Hong Kong chapter, relaunched on Sunday, would now be bilingual. Other members of PEN Hong Kong include Bao Pu, publisher at New Century Press, Tammy Ho Lai-ming, assistant professor in Baptist University’s department of English language and literature, award-winning journalist Ilaria Maria Sala and novelist Mishi Saran.
Ho said she decided to join the self-funded association because she had noticed a general “fear and paranoia” in Hong Kong academia.
She shared a story of a friend who emailed her two years ago to take down a picture she shared on her Facebook page. The post contained an academic’s criticism of the president of a local university who refused to confer a degree on a student who brought a yellow umbrella – symbol of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 – on stage for a commencement ceremony.
Her friend advised Ho “not to get involved or make any comment on social media or anywhere else” as she was applying for a teaching contract extension.
Other members also noted the increased pressure on writers and publishers in Hong Kong, especially after the disappearances of the booksellers.
According to Bao there had been a long-running campaign to end the city’s role as a beacon of independent publishing in China.
“Sales of books about mainland politics have dropped, and the case of Causeway Bay Books has sufficiently deterred not only mainland buyers and Hong Kong book stores, but even many in Hong Kong’s printing industry from publishing books on politically sensitive topics on mainland China or Hong Kong,” he said.
Ng said future programmes could include publishing reports on freedom of expression and outreaching to secondary schools and universities.
No topic would be off limits in discussions, Ng added, including the contentious idea of independence for Hong Kong. But the chapter would cover all angles without taking sides.
Ng said the association did not take a position on the topic of independence.