The disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers is having everyone wonder whether the city's autonomy hasn't already become fiction
Leaders know they're in for a rough time when what their lawmakers make is mostly trouble. That much became clear to Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, as he stumbled through his annual address to the city’s Legislative Council on Wednesday. Four people had to be expulsed from the chamber; many others punctuated Leung’s two-and-a-half-hour speech with indignant protests.
Lawmakers had reasons to be disappointed. Many of them were expecting concrete announcements on labour and education issues, which formed part of Leung’s manifesto when he got elected in 2012. They waited in vain. But their frustration turned into anger when they realised he would also omit the one topic that's been gripping the island since October: the disappearance of five booksellers with a penchant for mocking the Chinese leadership.
It was bad enough that three staff members of Causeway Bay Books - now closed - went missing while visiting the mainland. Worse was the disappearance of a co-owner of the shop’s parent publishing house, a Swedish citizen who’s given no sign of life since travelling to Thailand. Although little clarity has since emerged on the publisher's fate, a chilling suspicion started to form that China was no longer afraid to chase critics beyond its border.
But histeria really started to kick in when Lee Bo, the publishing house's editor, failed to return home after visiting his warehouse on 30 December. The news had particular resonance: under terms China agreed to when it took Hong Kong back from the UK in 1997, the island is to be granted a “high degree of autonomy”. A legal guarantee is supposed to shield it from Beijing’s reach until mid-century. Lee’s disappearance is now casting doubts on whether this independence of sorts will survive until 2020.
Further twists to the story, indeed, have only added to the confusion. In early January, Lee’s wife told a television channel that he’d called her to say that “he was assisting in investigations” linked to other disappearances. Later a faxed letter surfaced - purportedly of Lee’s calligraphy - stating something along the same lines. His wife then abruptly withdrew a missing person’s report she’d filed with the police. And last week a pro-Beijing lawmaker suggested Lee and his colleagues were actually sneaking across the border to visit prostitutes, and had been caught red-handed.
None of this really stacks up. Hong Kong border officials say they have no trace of Lee ever leaving, and his wife said he didn’t take his travel permit. She added that over the phone he’d spoken Mandarin - the official language of mainland China - rather than Cantonese, Hong Kong’s dialect. He reportedly also sounded harassed. Being arrested for visiting prostitutes is said by locals to be an old Communist smearing tactic, and the disparaging lawmaker later apologised.
Yet China’s done little to allay fears. UK foreign minister Philip Hammond, who happened to be touring Beijing last week, said he’d raised the question during his visit. Since Lee is also a British national, it indeed seemed right for him to poke his nose in the affair. But the Chinese foreign ministry’s response was unequivocal: “Mr Lee is first and foremost a Chinese citizen”. Neither have mainland newspapers shown much sympathy for the missing editor. Some have instead tacitly encouraged the authorities to muzzle the “hostile forces” using Hong Kong as a base from which to “subvert the system.”
Even Hong Kong authorities seem fearful. On 4 January, in a rare swipe at Beijing, Leung used an improvised press conference to warn that any incursion by mainland agents would represent a breach of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution.
But there are reasons to doubt he will ever press charges against China, on this or else. His address this week did not once mention “one country, two systems”, the arrangement supposed to guarantee the island’s autonomy. Instead he made more than 40 references to ‘One Belt One Road’, a Beijing-led programme aimed at fostering integration in Asia. A year after pro-democracy protests rocked Hong Kong for nearly three months, you don’t need to read between the lines to understand that the leader and his people are not on the same page.
Want Weetabrics delivered to your mailbox? Subscribe by clicking here