Around the world, many authoritarian regimes — having largely corralled the internet — now have declared war on the written word, their oldest enemy. The received wisdom after the close of the Cold War was that physical books were outdated, soon to be swept aside in the digital age; and that the internet was instead the real threat to governments seeking to repress provocative thinking. A generation later, the opposite may be true.
The People’s Republic of China has been the most successful in curbing the internet. But their stranglehold on society is also the result of their largely successful push in the past decade to ban nearly all bookstores, books, authors and academics that do not adhere to the Communist Party’s line. Even before the current Hong Kong protests, there was a crackdown on Hong Kong publishers. In the fall of 2015, associates of the Causeway Bay Books store disappeared, later discovered to have been detained on the mainland, accused of trafficking in “illegal” books critiquing leading members of the Communist Party. In 2017, the Communist Party formally took control of all print media, including books.