Reporting from Malaysia last month on the mood of artists under a new government promising a more open and tolerant society, I found most people to be optimistic. There, censorship has meant the banning of books, performances, artworks and even traditional cultural practices following complaints from religious fundamentalists about “un-Islamic” elements. Some of the most ludicrous decisions have seen bans on yoga (too Hindu) and a Singaporean ballet performance (“indecent”: tutus and tights).
At least we don’t have to worry about that sort of nonsense in Hong Kong, which takes a common-sense approach to culture and has a solidly secular society.
But do we?
On June 15, Christian pressure group Family School Sodo Concern Group (“Sodo” is short for Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance, not sodomy) celebrated successfully lobbying the Home Affairs Bureau to pull 10 children’s books off the shelves of public libraries because they contain LGBT themes and feature same-sex parents. This is the same group that last year objected to the fact that Disney’s 2017 film Beauty and the Beast – which has one gay character – was classified as suitable for all ages.
It seems the decision by the bureau’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which oversees the city’s roughly 70 libraries, was one made purely out of fear.
The LCSD said in a statement that, having reviewed the books, it came to the conclusion they could not be seen as “encouraging or criticising single-sex marriage or homosexual, nor with other unethical messages or with other intimate acts [sic]”, but they would remove them from view and keep them in the “closed stack” just in case minors stumbled across the material on their own.
The statement adopts the language used by homophobes, who see homosexuality as an “unethical” lifestyle that will spread if “encouraged”. It also rings alarm bells over whether Hong Kong can continue to hang on to one of its great advantages: the free flow of knowledge and information.
The LCSD points out that public libraries acquire books in accordance with the Unesco Public Library Manifesto and is “committed to safeguarding access to free information”. That, presumably, led it to its original decision to stock titles such as And Tango Makes Three (2005), which is based on the true story of two male penguins bringing up a chick together in New York’s Central Park Zoo. The book is used in schools globally to promote tolerance and discourage gender stereotypes.
It is bad enough that Hong Kong faces growing pressure to impose political censorship from Beijing. Now, we have to worry about a censorship tantamount to the religious kind that Malaysians hope they have said goodbye to.