Not Hampstead But Hong Kong: George Orwell and the Booksellers

[Our anniversary articles have identified the stylistic similarities between George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying and his bleaker and better known Nineteen Eighty-Four. Professor Douglas Kerr of Hong Kong University points out more disturbing connections between the two in the real world now]

When Gordon Comstock, in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, went to work in a bookshop, he thought he had entered a profession where the worst danger he might encounter was being bored to death. But people in the book trade in Hong Kong today face quite different hazards.

What would Orwell have thought of the saga of the Hong Kong booksellers? We can be pretty sure, at least, that he would not have been surprised. The “Hong Kong booksellers” in question are five men associated with the Mighty Current publishing house, and its retail shop, Causeway Bay Books. Lui Por was general manager of Mighty Current, Cheung Chi-ping its assistant general manager, and Gui Minhai one of the principal shareholders. Lee Po was co-owner of Causeway Bay Books and Lam Wing-kee was the shop’s manager. In October 2015, they started to disappear; four during travel to Thailand or southern mainland China but Lee (a British citizen, also called Lee Bo in British press reports) from Hong Kong itself.

It seemed that Orwell’s words in Nineteen Eighty-Four had come true: ‘…there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared… ‘.

On 17th January, Gui (who vanished from Pattaya) appeared on state television in China, in tears, saying that he had had a crisis of conscience, and had turned himself in for breaking the conditions of a two-year suspended sentence he had received after a drunk-driving offence on the mainland in 2004, in which a person was killed. Another letter from Lee to his wife was now published, in which he referred to Gui’s “complicated history” and called him “morally unacceptable”.

The following day, at last, Chinese authorities confirmed that Lee was detained on the mainland. In another letter, Lee asked the Hong Kong police to drop their investigation of his disappearance. Cheung, Lui, and Lam appeared on Phoenix TV at the end of January, to admit they had distributed unlicensed books on the mainland.

No doubt there will be further developments in the case. It has attracted a good deal of attention worldwide, which China habitually rejects as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs. The Hong Kong government, after making some ineffectual noises, fell silent. Various patriotic Hong Kong citizens told the press that Lee’s explanation had cleared everything up, and it was right that the booksellers should be investigated and punished if they had done something wrong. But it is not easy to maintain a faith that China respects the rule of law in Hong Kong, in the light of what seems to have happened to Lee and his associates.

Causeway Bay Books has closed down. Mighty Current publishing house seems to have been sold. In fairness it should be pointed out that Mighty Current was not exactly a purveyor of works of idealistic political theory. They specialized in gossipy and often scurrilous books about celebrities, principally powerful figures in China.

Perhaps we are too free in using the word “Orwellian”. Still, readers of Orwell may feel that many of the features of this case ring a whole symphony of Orwellian bells. In conclusion, I would just draw attention to one. It has to do with truth. When Orwell came back from Barcelona in 1937, he felt that both political forces and the press had lied so regularly, comprehensively, and shamelessly in the interests of propaganda, that it might never be possible for the truth about the Spanish War to be recovered. Truth is a casualty in the affair of the Hong Kong booksellers too, though in a different way.

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, most people believe the lies the telescreen tells them about the government’s achievements and victories, and the benevolence of Big Brother. In the case of the booksellers, however, there appears to be a further level of cynicism. A shoddy and ludicrous version of events is served up to the public. Do you believe it? Of course not. But the thing is, it doesn’t actually matter if you believe it or not. Causeway Bay Books has closed down. Mighty Current publishing house seems to have been sold. Case closed. Please return to your homes quietly.

As for poor Mr Lee, he wants us to know how well he has been treated and how civilized the mainland enforcement agencies are. Yes, he loves Big Brother.

[With thanks to Oliver Chou of the South China Morning Post. More coverage at]

A fuller version of this article can be found using the following link:

Members who have enjoyed this series of articles might be interested to know that our forthcoming Journal contains an article by Sylvia Topp, who is currently working on a biography of Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy. The article titled Orwell in Love shows how he may well have based the character, Rosemary, in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, on her.

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