KEITH B. RICHBURG, Contributing writer
©Nikkei Asian Review
HONG KONG — The mysterious disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers in recent months has stoked fears that the former British colony’s vaunted media freedoms may be under assault, and has raised questions about whether the self-governing territory still enjoys “a high degree of autonomy” from an increasingly assertive China.
The concerns reflect widespread suspicion, so far not officially confirmed, that the five men may have been abducted by Chinese security agents, or perhaps by “triad” gangsters hired by security forces, to face criminal charges on the mainland. If so, say analysts, their successive individual disappearances since October would confirm a growing — and chilling — new pattern of China using extraordinary means, including reaching beyond its borders, to silence dissenters.
Highlighting such concerns, the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said during a visit to China on Jan. 6 that Beijing would be guilty of an “egregious breach” of Hong Kong’s autonomy if speculation about Chinese abduction of at least one of the booksellers – a British citizen — was confirmed.
The bookseller, Lee Bo, a major shareholder in Causeway Bay Books, is the latest to disappear. His wife, Sophie Choi, filed a missing person’s report on Jan. 1, when she said Lee had not returned home two days earlier and had made a cryptic call from a phone number in Shenzhen, China, saying he was assisting in “an investigation.” She said Lee had not been carrying his travel permit, which would be required for him to cross the border.
Adding to the confusion, Lee’s wife on Jan. 5 withdrew her request for the police to help find him, explaining he had gone to China voluntarily. In a further plot twist worthy of an Agatha Christie detective novel, a handwritten note purportedly from Lee began circulating on social media sites, saying he had gone to China to voluntarily assist “concerned parties” with an investigation. Questions have been raised whether the note was coerced.
Lee’s disappearance follows those of four of his associates involved with the same publishing house, Mighty Current Media Co. Ltd, which owns Causeway Bay Books. Gui Minhai, co-owner of the publishing house, vanished from a vacation home in Pattaya, Thailand last October; Lui Bo, the publisher’s general manager and Cheung Jiping, the business manager, traveled to Guangdong province in southern China where they then disappeared; and Lam Wing-kei, who manages the bookstore, was last seen in Hong Kong.
China has so far not commented on the disappearances and would not confirm whether mainland security forces were involved. When asked, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said only that whatever happens in Hong Kong “are purely China’s internal affairs” and “no foreign country has the right to interfere.”
Hua also said, “any Hong Kong resident who is of Chinese descent” was considered a citizen of China. Lee Bo has a British passport and Gui a Swedish one.
In Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung, China’s handpicked chief executive for the territory, urged residents not to jump to conclusions about the missing men’s fate. He said there was no indication that they were abducted to the mainland. “No other law enforcement agencies, outside Hong Kong, have such authority” to detain anyone inside Hong Kong, Leung said.
But the nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, seemed to confirm Lee was in China, writing in a trenchant editorial on Jan. 5: “First, Lee is indeed ‘assisting an investigation’ in the Chinese mainland. Second, he was not taken away by Chinese mainland police officers.”
GOSSIP AND ‘PRINCELINGS’
In the absence of any solid evidence as to what happened to the missing men, suspicion and rumor have run rife — fueled by the fact that Mighty Current Media is known for its salacious, often thinly-sourced, books pillorying China’s ruling elite and the so-called “princeling” class; their ill-gotten wealth and, particularly, their sex lives, often involving “tell all” books by former mistresses.
Global Times seemed to offer backhanded support to the notion that the disappearances were linked to the publishing house’s works, thus inadvertently confirming fears that this is a case of stifling free expression in Hong Kong.
“Causeway Bay Books almost only publishes and sells mainland-related political books, many of which contain maliciously fabricated content,” the paper’s editorial said. “Those books have through various channels entered into the mainland and have become a source of certain political rumors, which have caused some evil influence to some extent.”
Since taking power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched a broad crackdown on dissent, jailing human rights lawyers, activists, bloggers, journalists and anyone deemed a threat to Communist Party rule. But under the Basic Law, the quasi-constitution that has governed Hong Kong since its transfer to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the territory was promised the right to maintain the open, free system it inherited from the British. Any mainland involvement in abducting local Hong Kongers would undercut that promise and show that Xi expects even Hong Kong to rein in free speech and tow the Party line.
The case also puts a spotlight on the Hong Kong government and police, and the degree to which they either allow, or are oblivious to, Chinese security agents operating with impunity on Hong Kong territory.
“If the Chinese government is indeed involved in the disappearances –and so far there is no hard evidence yet that this is the case– this would be an extraordinarily worrying development since it would reflect an extension of the political repression methods practiced on the mainland, such as extra-judicial detention and enforced disappearances, to Hong Kong,” said Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia director for Amnesty International.
“I would stress that we have no evidence that the Chinese government is behind these disappearances–as opposed to, say, a criminal group, or even a group of officials abusing their power,” Bequelin said. “In any case there is little doubt that this incident will have a lasting chilling effect on Hong Kong, leading to increased self-censorship, eroded confidence in the integrity of the rule of law, and concerns about the future of Hong Kong as an international financial place.”
While mainland involvement in the disappearances would mark an escalation in Beijing’s willingness to interfere, it would not be unprecedented. There have been similar recent cases.
In 2013, Yiu Man-tin, the chief editor of Hong Kong’s Morning Bell Press, was lured to Shenzhen, China, by a friend who asked him to bring him some paint. Yiu was arrested and charged with smuggling, and in 2014 was sentenced to 10 years in jail. At the time, Yiu was working on a new book entitled “Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping,” in collaboration with U.S.-based Chinese author Yu Jie, whose other well-known work was on China’s former prime minister, called “China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao.”
Two other Hong Kong publishers, Wang Jianmin and Guo Zhongxiao, were arrested in China under charges of illegally operating a business on the mainland, because they sent a small number of their magazines to friends and acquaintances in China.
Last July, the Thai military regime cooperated with Chinese authorities in forcibly repatriating more than 100 ethnic minority Uighur Muslims back to China, over the protests of human rights groups. Last October, Bao Zhuoxuan, the teenage son of a prominent mainland human rights activist, was snatched by Chinese agents from a guesthouse in Mong La, Myanmar as he was fleeing to the U.S. and was brought back to China.
“If you piece all these together, you see a pattern of a narrowing of space for the publishing industry in Hong Kong and also of the transportation of books back into China,” said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “As China becomes more economically powerful, its influence is felt outside its borders, in other countries, like Thailand.”
Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and a prominent China analyst, said there is “very little doubt, based on the circumstances of how [the booksellers] disappeared” that mainland security agents were involved, either operating along with or using triad members. But Pei said the abductions were likely instigated by lower ranking officials, “Someone who wants to please the top leadership. It probably wouldn’t come from the top leadership.”
“This case opens up a can of worms for China,” Pei added. “It will succeed in one way, but they will pay a huge price. China wants to be seen as a low-abiding, respectable great power. But you don’t just grab people.”
“It is quite sinister. The Chinese government has to ask – is this the image they want to be stuck with?”
©Nikkei Asian Review