One night in the fall of 2015, a bookseller from Hong Kong was blindfolded, handcuffed, and abducted to China, where he spent months in solitary confinement for selling controversial political books banned in mainland China. Four other booksellers met the same fate, and since then–despite mass protests over what happened–several bookstores have closed.
In a new pop-up bookstore in central Hong Kong, open on February 16 and 17, Amnesty International will sell more than 1,000 books with blacked-out passages to call attention to the censorship. Hong Kong, which is part of China but has a separate political system, has laws protecting freedom of expression.
The new bookstore points out how those laws are threatened, affecting both booksellers and the press.
“It’s a critical time for press freedom and self-censorship in Hong Kong,” Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, tells Co.Exist. “Every day we see reports of journalists who are facing censorship, or not reporting ‘sensitive’ issues, while some journalists are being fired, threatened, or even physically attacked due to their role in reporting.”
In one case, Kevin Lau, the former editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was brutally attacked by knife in what some believed was retaliation for an exposé about Chinese leaders’ offshore bank accounts.
To stock the pop-up bookstore, Amnesty International worked with a group of volunteers to redact the books, blacking out words with paint, marker, or tape, or tearing out pages. They chose to make the “censored” books as a statement, rather than directly selling controversial books themselves.
“By redacting/censoring unused books, we’ve turned them into pieces of art, poignant reminders of the importance of freedom of expression,” Au says. “We wanted the bookstore to be more of an installation and spectacle, coinciding with our art carnival, rather than a direct challenge to the authorities. We also felt people would want to keep these pieces, as a reminder that our liberties are being challenged.”
As part of the campaign, the nonprofit also partnered with the Hong Kong Free Press to temporarily redact its entire home page. Amnesty International will also run short videos on public buses, each showing an artist sketching a controversial scene in Hong Kong. The films show the sketch happening in reverse, so the drawing disappears.
In the film above, the text in the beginning is Hong Kong’s freedom of expression law: “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form trade unions, and to strike.”
“The inspiration for the films came from the thought that when rights vanish, so does the truth,” says Au.