Thursday, January 14, 2016

Curious tale of missing Hong Kong publishers

My article Curious tale of missing Hong Kong publishers appeared today in the Edit Page of The Pioneer

Here is the link...

Hongkongers' rights and freedoms were enshrined in the basic law, but it is unfortunate that Beijing believes that ‘one country’ is paramount. The disappearance of the publisher raises questions about freedom of expression

Hong Kong ( ‘Fragrant Harbour’) was to be a model of governance, it may not be. In 1997, the territory’s transfer of sovereignty from the British Crown to the People’s Republic of China marked the end of 156 years of ‘imperialism’ for the Communist leadership, while for the British, it signalled the disappearance of the last remnants of their Empire.
Hong Kong became China’s Special Administrative Region, governed by a principle known as ‘One Country, Two Systems’, a genial brainchild of China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, who thought that the recipe could later be applied to Taiwan, the ‘rebel island’. But recently, the scheme has again shown its limits.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997 had provided Hong Kong with ‘a high degree of autonomy in all areas except defence and foreign affairs’, while the territory’s political and judicial systems could continue to function independently from those of the mainland.
The guarantees for Hongkongers’ individual rights and freedoms were enshrined in the Hong Kong basic law, the territory’s ‘Constitution’. Today, the entire system is in jeopardy due to some strange events. What has happened?
When in late December, Mr Lee Bo, a bookshop owner and publisher in Hong Kong went missing, his wife filed a police complaint saying that he had “disappeared”. Soon after, alarm bells started ringing louder: Four of Mr Lee’s colleagues — Mr Gui Minhai, Mr Cheung Ji-ping, Mr Lui Bo and Mr Lam Wing-kei — were also untraceable.
Mr Lee Bo was last seen in the Chai Wan warehouse of his Mighty Current publishing house which specializes in books banned on the mainland, often revealing the latest secrets about the Party’s apparatchiks.
According to some rumors, Mr Lee Bo who had specialised on books about the Chinese President, was working on a ‘private life’ of Mr Xi Jinping? Tricky business; one can understand that it was not really appreciated in Beijing, which in the recent months has greatly tightened its grip on Internet and literary freedom in general.
Mr Teng Biao, a fellow at Harvard Law School and formerly an academic at the Chinese University told The South China Morning Post: “China is very worried that the freedom of expression and of publication in Hong Kong would affect mainland politics.”
Political and gossip books on the Chinese leadership have been a lucrative business for Hong Kong booksellers as mainland visitors are avid readers of ‘censured’ literature, unavailable at home.
Mr Lee Bo could have been abducted to intimidate other publishers distributing ‘messages unfavourable to China’s ruling regime’, says the Hong Kong newspaper. Beijing has always believed in the saying, “Kill a few chickens to scare the monkeys”.
What exactly happened to Mr Lee Bo is not known, but in a note to his wife, he said that he was in China mainland assisting some ‘investigations’, since then, his wife has withdrawn her case. The issue has taken a serious political turn as Hongkongers are particularly attached to their special status and freedom of expression.
Remember the ‘Occupy Central’ movement in September 2014, when tens of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets in the former British colony to pressure Beijing to keep its promises. In 2004 already, Beijing had warned that it would have to ‘approve’ of any changes to Hong Kong’s election laws. Ten years later, the pro-democracy activists fought to make the second part of Deng’s scheme, ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as important as the first. Beijing unfortunately believes that ‘one country’ is paramount.
To come back to Mr Lee Bo’s case, Reuters comes to the same conclusion: “While the facts surrounding Mr Lee Bo’s case are still unclear, there is significant public disquiet over the circumstances of his disappearance with speculation that he was abducted to the mainland by security officials or triads. Much more than just the ‘whodunnit’ questions, it is the implications of Mr Lee Bo’s disappearance with regard to the One Country, Two Systems model.”
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying joined the fray and warned: “It is unacceptable for mainland law enforcement officers to carry out duties in Hong Kong, because it does not comply with the basic law.” The basic law clearly guarantees not only a high level of autonomy, but also freedom of speech, rule of law and judicial independence. To further complicate the situation, Mr Lee Bo is a British passport holder.
UK Foreign Minister Philip Hammond suggested that Beijing would be guilty of an “egregious breach of the principle … if speculation that Chinese security forces had abducted Lee in the former colony was confirmed”. Mr Hammond added: “It would not be acceptable for somebody to be spirited out of Hong Kong in order to face charges in a different jurisdiction. …It is an essential part of the settlement in Hong Kong that it has its own judicial system and it is solely responsible for trying offences that occur in Hong Kong.”
During the same Press conference, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not answer directly a question on whether the ‘missing persons’ were under Chinese detention, but he asserted that, even if Mr Lee Bo held a British passport, he was ‘first and foremost a Chinese citizen’.
In a recent editorial, The Global Times articulated Beijing’s position: The booksellers were exercising an ‘evil influence in China through their political publications’. The tabloid went further; it argued that it was reasonable for Chinese law enforcement agencies to “circumvent the law when they seek cooperation from an individual for investigation.” Quite frightening!
The Global Times suggested it was legal for the Chinese authorities to probe Causeway Bay Books, as it publishes and sells political books targeting mainland readers and “creates special interference to the maintenance of order in the mainland”.
The same editorial said it was fine to use means to “get around local laws …and make one comply with their investigations without breaching systemic bottom lines”.
What ‘breaching bottom lines’ means is not clear, but Beijing probably feels that the basic law is ‘first and foremost a Chinese law’.
On January 10, tens of thousands demonstrators gathered outside Government headquarters in Hong Kong, where the pro-democracy protests were held in 2014; they shouted slogans such, ‘Release Hong Kong Booksellers Now!’ or ‘Today’s Lee Bo is you and me tomorrow’.  But will Beijing listen?
Today, while the younger generation in Hong Kong is certainly not ready to become another of China’s ‘minorities’, the question is also vital for the future of ‘greater China’. While Taiwan will certainly watch carefully the unfolding of the situation in Hong Kong, in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, the populations also aspiring to ‘another system’ too will follow the Hong Kong events closely.

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