Libraries across Hong Kong have begun clearing their shelves of pro-democracy books. So far, nine titles have been culled from public libraries in the region, including books by young activist Joshua Wong and pro-democracy politician Tanya Chan.

The books are under review, to determine whether they comply with Hong Kong’s new national security law effected on June 30th. In the mean-time, they can neither be accessed online nor in hard-copy.

Joshua Wong, the face of democratic activism in Hong Kong, has condemned the suppression of literature, tweeting that ‘Hong Kong now lives in an Orwellian society of the 21st century.’

This is not the only suppression squeezing Hong Kong. Since China imposed the national security law – without consulting Hong Kong officials – the region’s citizens have seen their freedoms squashed.

The law prohibits ‘subversion’, defined as resistance to the authority of China’s mainland government. Anyone who disobeys could face life in prison. China justifies the law as a way to prevent unrest like that of the 2019 protests.

Hong Kong citizens are grappling with what it means for their day-to-day lives, but the early signs are discouraging. Numerous protesters have recently been arrested for holding banners deemed subversive, including one who held a banner on his bike that read ‘liberate Hong Kong’. Meanwhile, police forces have adopted banners of their own – purple signs, which they flash at protesters of the new law to indicate that their chants transgress acceptable speech (to continue Wong’s Orwell reference, the purple sign flags ‘Oldspeak’).

This is not China’s first intervention in Hong Kong’s literature, however. In 2015, five staff members at Causeway Bay bookstore, Hong Kong, went missing. It was later revealed that they had been detained in China for investigations.

China alleged that these investigations concerned a drink-driving incident involving Gui Minhai, one of the detainees, but many speculated that this was a cover-up. That incident was 12 years-old at the time Minhai was arrested. And it seemed too much of a coincidence that Minhai was a loud government critic, having written on subjects like the secret promiscuity of Chinese politicians.

Faced with the Causeway Bay incident, the world spoke up. NGOs and national governments condemned China for menacing free speech. And, faced with interference from the mainland, protesters in Hong Kong in 2019 successfully pressured China to repeal an old extradition law.

Today’s opponents of the new law hope to replicate both outcomes. Thousands have taken to the streets to reclaim their right to ‘subvert’. Others have looked further afield: prominent activist Nathan Law fled H.K., in part fearing for his safety, but also to appeal for international support. He has since been busy testifying in front of the U.S. congress.

Countries should not wait for Nathan’s call to act. China’s law is nudging Hong Kong away from democracy, towards dystopia. Their suppression of literature is a threat, not just to H.K.’s 7 million inhabitants, but to all of us that advocate freedom of speech.

Nial Perry