HONG KONG, (REUTERS) - Hong Kong schools should not provide reading material that violates a new national security law unless they use it to "positively teach" students about the issue, the city's Education Bureau said on Monday (July 6).
The legislation imposed by Beijing came into force last week and it punishes what China defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison.
Critics see it as a tool to quash dissent.
Hong Kong and Beijing officials insist that the city's freedoms remain intact and the law only plugs national security "loopholes".
Despite such assurances, public libraries have taken some books written by some pro-democracy activists and politicians off their shelves while they check if they violate the law.
The Education Bureau, in a statement sent to Reuters, said schools were the gatekeepers for their teaching resources and school management and teachers should review "all teaching materials, including books".
"As with other serious crimes or immoral behaviour that is not socially acceptable, materials should be removed and re-selected," the bureau said, adding that such materials could only be used "for positively teaching" about national security.
Books by young activist Joshua Wong and pro-democracy politician Tanya Chan have suddenly become unavailable in public libraries.
Mr Albert Wan, co-owner of Bleak House Books shop, said the law had a "chilling effect".
"The law is so vague and so new that no one really knows where the red line is. Until we know, we're just going to keep doing what we're doing," Mr Wan said.
"The biggest challenge is to try as hard as you can to not self-censor because once you do it, you open up a can of worms. Just like once you enact the national security law, there's no going back."
A Reuters visit to one public library showed that books discussing Hong Kong independence, which is anathema to Beijing, were still available.
A separate online search showed books by Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winning political dissident Liu Xiaobo could also be borrowed.
"It's very arbitrary," said Associate Professor Fu King Wa of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at University of Hong Kong, who studies Chinese social media and information control.
Prof Fu said the public should not expect clear criteria or justification for censorship, which he said would likely extend into the digital sector.
"Some form of the censorship system in China now will be introduced to Hong Kong. It's a matter of time," he said.
The government also said a team would review the "governance and management" of public broadcaster RTHK from July 15 for about six months.