HONG KONG—The abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities in late 2015 has sounded alarm bells within Hong Kong’s nearly $2 billion publishing industry and spurred fear among writers, activists, academics, and others that their liberties are in jeopardy as Beijing’s strengthens its influence in the territory, PEN America says in a new report. Writing on the Wall: Disappeared Booksellers and Free Expression in Hong Kong will be released today at an event at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. The launch event, hosted by PEN America and PEN Hong Kong at the Foreign Correspondents Club, will feature publisher Bao Pu, Democratic lawmaker James To Kun-sun, and abducted Causeway Bay bookseller Lam Wing-kee.

Writing on the Wall provides the most comprehensive account to date of the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers and its wide-reaching impact for Hong Kong as an international publishing center and safe harbor for free expression. For decades, “risky” books—books that would be banned on the mainland but could be produced in the Hong Kong—were available to mainland residents who travelled to the city to reach beyond censorship. But according to publishers, authors, lawyers, government officials, and others interviewed for the report, the abduction undermined Hong Kong residents’ expectation of safety under the “one country, two systems” framework established when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997. Since the incident, the report shows, multiple bookstores and publishing houses have closed, authors have pulled works from publication, printers have refused service to books on sensitive topics, and the mainland Chinese audience at popular literary events has dwindled.

“As Hong Kong residents grapple with continued encroachments by Beijing, the future of free expression in the territory and its status as the regional publishing hub is in question,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “The government of Hong Kong must act decisively, now, to buttress the rule of law and the ‘one country, two systems’ framework that protects creative freedom and has allowed Hong Kong to serve as such a vibrant commercial center.”

The 71-page report gives special attention to the worrying cases of booksellers Gui Minhai and Lee Bo, both foreign nationals who were seized by Chinese agents across borders—in Thailand and Hong Kong, respectively—in violation of international law. This unprecedented action reflects a dangerous escalation of China’s tactics to silence dissidents even beyond its borders. Some of those interviewed for the report also suggested that the dramatic contravention of China’s agreement with Hong Kong, the Basic Law, may be a galvanizing force in Hong Kong’s potent pro-democracy movement.

Writing on the Wall is the latest installment in PEN America’s continued research on threats to free speech in China and the surrounding region. The 2015 report Censorship and Conscience described the stream of international writers publishing books in Hong Kong to tap into China’s massive book market while evading its sprawling censorship machine. That same year, Threatened Harbor warned of new restrictions on the press in Hong Kong that could endanger expression more broadly. Released in September 2016, Darkened Screen details challenges faced by foreign journalists reporting on China. This new report demonstrates an acceleration along this troubling trajectory that threatens to constrain the breadth of writing available to Chinese audiences.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


Sarah Edkins, New York: sedkins@pen.org, +1 646.779.4830 (English)
James Tager, Hong Kong: jtager@pen.org,  +852 62534523 (English)
Karen Cheung, Hong Kong: cheungkalun.karen@gmail.com, +852 90601757 (Cantonese)