How Haruki Murakami novel Killing Commendatore got its ‘indecent’ rating in Hong Kong
A government agency asked the city’s Obscene Articles Tribunal to classify the book after a public complaint over novel’s “explicit sexual details”
More than 2,100 people have signed an online petition opposing a decision in Hong Kong to classify a new novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami as indecent. The campaign was launched by local cultural and publishers’ groups after the Obscene Articles Tribunal – which rules on whether published items are indecent – rated the book on July 10.
This meant the novel, translated into Chinese, was pulled from the week-long Hong Kong Book Fair that ended on Tuesday and banned for those under 18 in public libraries.
1) Why the outcry?
Critics claim the decision has brought shame on Hong Kong’s culture of freedom and openness and have criticised the “flawed judging system”, in which adjudicators are not required to possess a certain level of literary knowledge.
They worry the rating for Murakami’s novel Killing Commendatore – which includes occasional descriptions of sex like most of his books – will set a precedent and “Hong Kong would become the most conservative Chinese area”.
2) What does each level of classification mean?
There is a three-tier classification under the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance – Class One rates something as neither obscene nor indecent; Class Two as indecent; and Class Three as obscene. Indecency is deemed to include violence, depravity and repulsiveness.
A Class Two publication, such as Killing Commendatore, is deemed unsuitable for those aged under 18, and must be wrapped with a warning on it when displayed on shelves. Violating these stipulations could lead to a fine of HK$400,000 (US$51,000) and 12 months’ imprisonment. To comply with the tribunal’s decision, exhibitors at the Hong Kong Book Fair removed all copies of the novel overnight last Thursday, and public libraries cancelled reservations made by readers aged below 18.
An article rated Class Three is forbidden from being published, and possessed or imported for the purpose of publication. Committing an offence could result in a fine of HK$1 million and imprisonment for three years.
3) How are books reviewed and classified?
An application for classification is submitted to the Obscene Articles Tribunal. A presiding magistrate and at least two members selected from a panel of adjudicators – appointed by the chief justice under a term limit of three years – classify the article.
A member of the public who has lived in Hong Kong for at least seven years and is proficient in written English or Chinese is eligible to be an adjudicator.
Members of the public cannot submit applications directly but must go through certain parties – such as anyone involved in the creation of the article, from author to printer or distributor, as well as the secretary for justice or any public officer authorised in that regard by the chief secretary.
In the case of Murakami’s novel, the director of the Office of Film, Newspaper and Article Administration – a regulatory agency under the Communications Authority – submitted the application.
A spokeswoman of the office said it received a public complaint about the novel containing “explicit sexual details”, and later submitted it to the tribunal “in line with the established practice”.
The adjudicators appointed as a tribunal usually consider the article in private and issue an interim classification within five days from when the application is submitted.
They take into account standards of morality, decency and propriety as generally accepted by reasonable members of the community, the people for whom the work is intended, and whether the article has an honest purpose or is merely seeking to camouflage unacceptable material.
Official data from the judiciary showed that from 2011 to 2017, 1,777 submitted articles were rated Class Two and 701 Class Three.
4) Can tribunal decisions be challenged?
Yes. Any person who submits, or is entitled to submit, the article for application can require the tribunal to review its decision at a full public hearing.
In 1994, an image of Renaissance sculpture David published in a newspaper was classified as indecent by the tribunal. The decision was later overruled by the High Court.
In 2007, a questionnaire touching on opinions on incest and zoophilia published by Chinese University Student Press was also rated as “indecent”. The High Court later ordered the tribunal to revoke the classification, citing the failure to identify the indecent aspects.
5) Do people want to do away with the tribunal?
Two rounds of public consultation to review the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance conducted between 2008 and 2012 concluded that the tribunal’s administrative function of classifying articles should be abolished.
In 2015, the government proposed several changes to the ordinance, including improving the representativeness of adjudicators and transparency of the tribunal’s decision-making process. But there have been no changes yet.
Reader response: With Murakami ban, Hong Kong is once again the target of jokes