Three years after the disappearance of five Hong Kong publishers, the last bookshop on the island still selling books banned on the Chinese mainland has closed – ending a long tradition of defying the Communist Party.

The closure of the People’s Bookstore “marks the definitive proof of Hong Kong’s lack of freedom”, Joshua Wong, an activist famous for his role in Hong Kong’s 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’, lamented to The Guardian on Wednesday. The British paper interviewed numerous activists in Hong Kong, all of whom are convinced that the bookshop was closed because of pressure from Beijing. The ChineseLiaison Office in Hong Kong refused The Guardian’s request for comment.

This small shop – just twenty square metres, in the heart of the city’s tourist district – was the most recent victim of the Chinese Communist Party’s hardline approach to publishing in Hong Kong over recent years. Perhaps the most striking manifestation of this crackdown was the disappearance of five publishers working for Hong Kong’s Mighty Current house.

Many observers regard this episode as evidence that the Communist Party is no longer interested in upholding the special status – formally enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in 1984, and known in China as the “One Country, Two Systems” framework – that Hong Kong has enjoyed since it returned to Chinese control in 1997.

‘Chilling effect’

However, according to a New York Times inquiry published in April, Beijing’s crackdown on publishers in the former British colony really began in 2013. This was when Chinese citizens going back to the mainland from Hong Kong with a supply of censored books were no longer just given a slap on the wrist while having their books confiscated – they were forced to pay increasingly hefty fines.

Then in 2015, the disappearance of the five publishers hit Hong Kong’s booksellers and publishing houses like a lightning bolt. All were linked to Mighty Current, a Hong Kong-based publisher and the biggest producer of banned books in China. Ergo, slowly but surely, forbidden works vanished from the shelves. “The chilling effect from any such case leads to self-censorship, Lisa Leung Yuk-ming, an associate professor in the department of cultural studies at Hong Kong Lingnan University, told The Guardian.

The People’s Bookstore was the last bastion of a culture in which publishing was used as a political weapon. Since China became a communist state in 1949, Hong Kong was a safe haven in which opponents of the regime could write about what was going on in the country, without having to sugarcoat it with state propaganda. Thus, the first book banned by the Chinese Communist Party, the memoirs of one of Mao Zedong’s traveling companions, was published in Hong Kong in 1960. This vitriolic portrait of the ‘Great Helmsman’, showing him as an obsessive paranoid keen to use violence in pursuit of his goals, was an immediate hit.

As long as Hong Kong remained a British colony, it remained a platform from which Chinese political observers could use the written word to provide a dissenting voice on events unfolding inside the country. Perhaps most notably, after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, a plethora of books was published on the ruthlessly suppressed protests, with their own section on bookshelves, marked under the sign “liu si”, meaning “6-4” – a reference to June 4, 1989, the day the brutal crackdown on the student demonstrators started.

After the 1997 handover and the consequent opening of the borders between Hong Kong and the mainland, the Chinese public could access books deemed beyond the pale by the censors in Beijing. Tourists from the mainland became gripped by these works that revealed another China, beneath the veil of Communist propaganda. Books about Chinese leaders and behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles were especially popular. “According to my estimates, about half of the books published in Hong Kong are on politics and cultural topics banned in China”, including lurid accounts of the love affairs of senior party leaders and their mistress’ memoirs”, exiled Chinese poet Bei Ling told PEN America.

The end of ‘One Country, Two Systems’?

These include such tomes as “Secrets of Wives of Chinese Communist Party Officials”, “The General Secretary’s Eight Love Stories” and “Xi Jinping’s Clan”, all of which made a fortune for Mighty Current.

This genre reached the zenith of its popularity in 2012, when Bo Xilai – the so-called “red prince” seen as a rival to Xi Jinping – fell from grace. This star of the Communist Party and his wife were suspected of being responsible for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood earlier the same year.

“For Hong Kong publishers, Bo’s downfall was a dream: a real-life soap opera playing out at the very pinnacle of Chinese power,” The New York Times put it. Within a year, more than 100 novels based on Bo’s alleged exploits were published in Hong Kong. According to PEN America, Gui Minhai, the co-owner of Mighty Current, would have earned more than a million dollars by riding this wave.

“In their rumor-mongering, [such books] share glimpses of truth”, one Hong Kong publisher told The New York Times. “They tell the Chinese people that their leaders aren’t saints,” he said. “They’re just like you and me   they’re petty, they make mistakes, they don’t act morally.”

The closing of Hong Kong’s last freethinking bookshop deprives the Chinese of this escape valve from Communist propaganda. As such, the demise of the People’s Bookstore is, in the words of Hong Kong political commentator Albert Cheng, a clear sign that the idea of “One Country, Two Systems” promised by Deng is on its way out.