Daniel Lee says a surge of new customers came to his Hong Kong Reader Bookstore after pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in the Chinese-ruled territory last summer, looking for books on political protest.
Now he fears he will have to take some bestsellers — such as Václav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” and a collection of eye-witness accounts of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 — off his shelves, as China prepares to introduce new national security legislation for Hong Kong.
“If one day they identify uncensored books as attempts to subvert state power, we would have little chance of continuing our business,” Lee told Reuters in the shop he opened 13 years ago.
The new law, designed to prohibit what China calls secession, subversion and external interference in Hong Kong, is set to be passed by China’s top legislative body next week, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of China taking back control of the former British colony.
Beijing has not made public a draft of the legislation, but many in Hong Kong fear it will be used to silence dissent.
Lee believes his small business and more than 4,500 others identified on activist sites as “yellow” — meaning they support the pro-democracy movement and vice-versa — will be targeted.
He is not alone.
“They can interpret the law themselves, they can arrest whoever they want, and we are afraid that we will be arrested too,” said Dave Lee, one of the founders of HK Protect, which sells helmets, respirators and other gear for street protesters. “If things really go that far, we will either close down or leave.”
Asked about such concerns, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s office told Reuters in an email that the city’s residents will keep their rights and freedoms under the new law: “The vast majority of Hong Kong people who abide by the law and do not participate in acts or activities that undermine national security will not be affected.”
China’s State Council Information Office, its Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the body that will pass the new law, did not reply to requests for comment.
There are signs that yellow businesses are a concern for China. The Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s top representative office in the city, said in May that such businesses violated free market principles and were “kidnapping” the economy for political ends. The Liaison Office did not reply to a request for comment on this story.
Lee and his bookshop became part of what is known as Hong Kong’s ‘yellow economic circle’ last year by shutting his shop several times as part of city-wide strikes in support of the protests and donating to legal aid funds to help people who were arrested.
Other businesses have joined the circle by employing activists who have been convicted of protest-related offences, offering shelter to protesters during clashes, or by donating water and snacks for long rallies in the heat. Some businesses are listed as yellow on activist sites for having protest paraphernalia on their walls or for their social media activity.
In return, pro-democracy supporters favor such shops over others. A campaign to support the yellow economy in May gave a shot in the arm to many small businesses battered by the new coronavirus.
Ivan Ng, whose Onestep Printing shop sells protest-themed paintings, posters and flags, said he will wait to see how strictly the law is implemented.
“We may need to stop selling these products, but we don’t want to give up immediately,” said Ng, who estimates he makes 90 percent of sales to pro-democracy protesters. “If someone gets arrested — or I am the first one to be arrested — I will give it up.”
According to Sandra Leung at Wefund.hk, which sells protest-themed artwork, clothing and accessories, some customers may avoid buying products with slogans on them after the law is passed. “What scares me the most is self-censorship,” she said.
Other yellow businesses such as the Fong Waa Parlour restaurant, Hair Guys Salon and egg waffle shop Ice Puff told Reuters they may take down protest-related decorations because of the new law.
Cartoonist Cuson Lo said he is worried that publishers may start rejecting his drawings unless he censors himself. Veteran pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-Yan said he is working on a website commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown in case the brick-and-mortar museum he helped set up is closed.
Last week Herbert Chow, the owner of a Hong Kong children’s clothes shop called Chickeeduck, refused a request by his landlord to remove a statue of a protester from one of his stores.
“What I am doing today potentially is going to be treason,” said Chow, once the law is passed.