Missing booksellers bad news for freedom in Hong Kong
by June Cheng
Posted 1/06/16, 08:42 am
Five Hong Kong booksellers connected to a publishing house specializing in sensational books critical of China’s top leaders have gone missing, raising fears in the former British colony that its freedoms of press, speech, and religion are deteriorating.
The mystery deepened on Monday after the wife of Lee Bo, co-owner of Causeway Bay Bookstore, dropped the missing person’s report she filed last week. She claimed to have received a letter from Lee saying he was fine and just helping with an investigation in mainland China. But at the time of his disappearance last week, Lee had left his travel permit at home, and Hong Kong police said officials had no record he legally crossed the border.
“I believe he wasn’t forced to write it, so that’s why I withdrew the request for police help,” Lee’s wife Choi Ka-ping told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. But democratic lawmakers are skeptical and believe Choi may have been under pressure to drop the case after international media picked up on the disappearances. Lee is a British citizen.
The Causeway Bay Bookstore is known for selling salacious exposés on China’s top officials, including President Xi Jinping. Mainland tourists often come to Hong Kong and Taiwan to buy these titles, which are banned back home. Some believe the cause of the disappearances is an unreleased book by publisher Gui Minhai about Xi and his love life, entitled Xi Jinping and His Six Women. Gui, a Swedish citizen, disappeared in Thailand in October and has not been heard from since. After Gui’s disappearance and before his own, Lee told The Guardian that the other three booksellers who had gone missing while traveling in mainland China had nothing to do with Gui’s book.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, currently on a two-day visit to China, said during a news conference that he has “urgently inquired both Hong Kong authorities and of the mainland Chinese authorities what, if anything they know about [Lee’s] whereabouts.” When asked about whether Chinese security had abducted Lee, Hammond claimed that was still just speculation.
China has denied any knowledge of where the missing men may be. But at the same news conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed other countries had “no right to interfere” as Lee was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.” An editorial in the Global Times, a mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, said “Although the bookstore operates in Hong Kong, it has caused damage across the border in the rest of the country, which Lee Bo should have known.”
When the British government handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, China agreed to a “one country, two systems” relationship that would allow Hong Kong to keep its political, legal, and economic systems for the ensuing 50 years. Since Xi came into power, more and more Hong Kong citizens question whether China is keeping its end of the bargain: In 2014, China barred Hong Kong from fully democratic elections in 2017, leading to 100,000 people flooding the streets during the Umbrella Movement protests. Press freedoms also have been deteriorating as those who speak up against the Chinese government face physical threats, financial pressures, and self-censorship.
Churches also are feeling the strain, as Hong Kong often is a springboard for missionaries to enter China as well as a relatively safe place to hold conferences for mainland Chinese Christians. But it’s no longer outside the reaches of Beijing’s control. Last summer, Chinese authorities summoned outspoken Hong Kong Rev. Philip Woo to meet in the city of Shenzhen, where he was told to stop training mainland students in Hong Kong. It was the first time China had issued a letter to a pastor in Hong Kong.
Since then, Woo has continued his work but keeps his discipleship trainings much smaller as the pressure on Hong Kong increases. He only makes day trips into China, as he fears longer stays would attract the attention of authorities. He’s also lost financial support because Christian groups are afraid to stoke China’s ire and support a blacklisted pastor.
“A lot of people are nervous right now,” Woo said. He pointed to Lee’s case as the end of “one country, two systems,” as China literally makes its critics vanish. “It’s not just publishers that are under pressure, it’s journalists, Christians, democracy activists. … It’s very scary.”