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Hong Kong publishers fear intensified censorship as city's biggest book distributor SUP announces move to mainland China

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 24/4/2019 Su Xinqi

Hong Kong’s largest state-controlled book distributor has announced plans to move its warehouse to mainland China, triggering fears of intensified censorship across the city’s billion-dollar publishing industry.

The proposed relocation of SUP Publishing Logisticshas been most alarming for Hong Kong’s independent publishers, with the city’s biggest source of local literature – Spicy Fish Cultural Production – saying it would consider terminating a partnership with SUP that was lasted over a decade.

SUP Logistics was founded in 2004 by Sino United Publishing (SUP), a state-owned publishing group controlled by Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong. SUP is the largest publishing group in Hong Kong, and SUP Logistics operates the largest distribution network

As much as 90 per cent of all retail space in bookstores across Hong Kong is controlled by SUP, according to publishing industry insiders.

The SUP relocation issue reached the public last week after a “warehouse relocation notice” was posted online. The notice, dated April 18, told suppliers the company would move its main warehouse from Tai Po to the special economic zone in Nansha, Guangzhou province, by the third quarter of this year.

“The exact date of relocation will be announced in a separate written notice. Please deliver your products to the new address. Other conditions of distribution will remain the same,” the online notice said.

The company said the new warehouse would be managed by Guangzhou SUP Supply Chain Management Ltd, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based SUP Logistics.

On Monday, an employee of the Guangzhou company, who declined to be named, confirmed the relocation of the SUP warehouse.

English novels at the 2017 Hong Kong Book Fair. The city’s largest book distributor, SUP Publishing, controls as much as 90 per cent of all retail space in local bookstores. Photo: Sam Tsang © Sam Tsang English novels at the 2017 Hong Kong Book Fair. The city’s largest book distributor, SUP Publishing, controls as much as 90 per cent of all retail space in local bookstores. Photo: Sam Tsang

Hong Kong’s publishing and printing industry employed over 30,000 people as of March 2018. The city’s printing exports amounted to HK$5.7 billion (US$728 million) in the first half of 2018, according to the Trade Development Council.

SUP Logistics represents more than 400 publishing houses and managing about 200,000 square feet of storage space, according to the company’s website.

It was not clear if SUP Logistics would continue to operate other warehouses in Hong Kong after moving its main storage centre to Nansha, or how many publishers would be affected by the relocation. SUP and SUP Logistics did not reply to inquiries from the Post.

A customs official in Guangzhou said books printed in Hong Kong must clear a customs check before they could be transported in and out of Nansha.

An SUP employee in the Guangzhou branch said staff would help Hong Kong publishers clear customs after the new storehouse in Nansha was in use.

Even so, publishers in Hong Kong are worried that the two rounds of customs checks could lead to additional censorship and self-censorship. Industry insiders said they did not always understand the mainland authorities’ requirements, and that they would be forced to bear the loss if books were held or confiscated.

Beijing’s regulations on warehouses in special economic zones stipulate that goods judged to be “jeopardising public security, public hygiene and health, public morality and order” are not allowed to be imported or stored in the zones.

We do worry now about going through the mainland Chinese customs
Tim Kwan Tin-lam, editor-in-chief of Spicy Fish Cultural Production

Regulations on the import and export of publications list 14 prohibitions.

Among the banned publications are those “contravening the basic principles in the constitution [of mainland China]” and “jeopardising national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Other banned works include those “jeopardising national security or damaging national reputation and interests” and “attacking the Chinese Communist Party and defaming the People’s Republic of China”.

Finally, publications “jeopardising social morality and the nation’s excellent culture and traditions” are not allowed to be imported and exported.

The regulations maintain that customs authorities have the right to reject any import or export.

Tim Kwan Tin-lam, editor-in-chief of Spicy Fish and the literary magazine Fleurs des Lettres, said the relocation of the SUP warehouse had started a discussion about whether to end a distribution deal with the state-controlled company.

“We do worry now about going through the mainland Chinese customs,” Kwan said.

Fleurs des Lettres could be considered high risk because it often touches on current affairs. Its articles about the pro-democracy Occupy movement in 2014 were banned on the internet across the border.”

Kwan continued: “Our magazines and books are edited and printed in Hong Kong. If they are held or confiscated by mainland officials on their way to Nansha, we can’t handle the trouble and damage with our limited resources.”

About 1,000 copies of each issue of Fleurs des Lettres are distributed by SUP – out of a total of 1,600 copies. Books produced by Spicy Fish, about three to four per year, reach readers through SUP’s bookstore network.

Kwan said the only time Spicy Fish did not use SUP as a distributor was for a poetry collection commemorating the June 4 incident, know as the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which ended a pro-democracy movement in Beijing in 1989.

He said the entire atmosphere of Hong Kong’s publishing industry would be affected by SUP’s move.

“It will be easy for the mainland authorities to check the books after the warehouse is moved,” he said.

“Self-censorship is also likely to worsen because publishers will now worry about whether their books can make it through mainland Chinese customs”.

Keith Liu, president of non-profit publishing house Musical Stone Culture, said his staff members contacted SUP Logisitcs twice but the distributor could not describe how the mainland authorities would check their books.

“We were told that if our books are returned from Nansha, we need to pay HK$300 for each edition,” Liu said. “We don’t even know who this payment is for or why.”

Liu said Musical Stone would also consider changing its distributor.

“Most of our publications are poetry collections, but we are still quite worried because regulations on the mainland are like a black hole to us,” Liu said.

Albert Cheung, director of independent publishing house Dirty Press, said small-to-medium sized business and independent publishers would bear the brunt of the relocation.

“There are other distributors, but your books might not be granted the same favourable terms by the bookstores if they are not coming through the SUP network,” said Cheung, whose books are not distributed by SUP.

He said bookstores in the SUP network could also sideline publications presented by rival distributors – such as giving them less time on bookshelves – to reinforce the group’s market dominance.

Kwan was not as pessimistic about alternative distribution networks. He said he needed more details about the relocation plan.

He said local publishers might still have some leeway if SUP had other warehouses in Hong Kong, but he had concerns about the immediate impact of the move.

“If the relocation will be finished by the third quarter, we will have to move fast because the Hong Kong Book Fair is in July,” Kwan said.

“We will be in a weak position if SUP doesn’t clarify its plan soon.”

Patrick Lim, general manager of 16-year-old Red Publishing, said he was not seriously worried about SUP’s move.

“Our books are not political,” Lim said. “They are fiction, popular books, reference books and some guides for people on how to invest or improve their health.”

“It seems useless to worry. Everybody knows restrictions have been stepped up.”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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