(NEW YORK/LONDON)— In response to the statement by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee defending the removal of books from Hong Kong’s public libraries “if they spread any kinds of messages that are not in the interests of Hong Kong,” PEN America and PEN International issued the following joint statement:

“We have been following with alarm the ongoing removal of books from Hong Kong’s public library system. The right to access literature with a diversity of thought and opinion are fundamental rights that must be respected by Hong Kong authorities. The reported removal of books related to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre ahead of the 34th anniversary on June 4, exemplifies how Hong Kong is being reshaped in Beijing’s authoritarian image. The use of the National Security Law (NSL), which several UN bodies have called to be repealed, as a hammer to suppress expression that is critical or contrary to the Chinese or Hong Kong government policies is a violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the internationally-protected right to free expression. The removal of these books is also a breach of the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto, which the Hong Kong Public Libraries claim adherence to, and which proclaims the ‘public library as a living force for education, culture and information.’ We call on Hong Kong authorities to end its removal of books on the unjustifiable grounds that their content or authors have violated the NSL and to respect freedom of expression.”


Hong Kong’s public library system is a network of 71 centers and 12 mobile libraries that serves the 7.4 million residents of the territory. It is managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) which is overseen by the Culture, Sports, and Tourism Bureau of the Hong Kong government.

Immediately after Beijing’s imposition of the NSL on Hong Kong in June 2020, books began to be targeted in the free expression crackdown that followed. Books by pro-democracy figures like Joshua Wong were pulled from the public library system for review. In July 2021, a librarian was suspended after displaying books by imprisoned media publisher and writer, Jimmy Lai, in the recommended section of a public library. In November 2021, the LCSD reportedly had a list of 70 books “found” to be in violation of the NSL that were removed from libraries, though local media documented more than 100 books that had been removed. Some of the removed books covered topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, or books by authors who had become politically sensitive even if the book’s content was not political. 

The removal of books accelerated as a part of an audit of the 2 million books in the library’s collection, which according to the Culture Bureau, was preliminarily completed in April 2023. According to local media, the bureau said it had received 1,120 complaints in the past three years of books that were suspected of violating the NSL, though many were filed by the same person and were repeated cases. It refused to make public which books had been removed on the grounds that it may “cause certain individuals, organizations or the media to widely publish or disseminate the books.”

On May 10, Ming Pao newspaper fired satirical cartoonist Zunzi, whose real name is Wong Kei-kwan, following criticism from government legislators of his work. A few days later Hong Kong Free Press discovered 21 books authored by Zunzi or including his illustrations have been removed from circulation. Local media began to investigate the availability of books: an investigation by Ming Pao found that 40% of political titles available before the NSL have been removed from circulation (195 books out of 468 titles included in its survey), and diaspora media outlet Photon Media found that of 149 books about the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre available in 2009, only three are available to check out now. Books removed include titles like People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim.

About PEN America

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. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057