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What Is Disappearing from Hong Kong

The recent disappearance of publisher Lee Po—allegedly kidnapped from Hong Kong and rendered to Mainland China—has prompted widespread alarm about the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy, both within the city and internationally. In a widely-shared video, Umbrella Movement student activist Agnes Chow claimed that “Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore.” In an interview with The New York Times, legislator Dennis Kwok said that, “this sort of stuff is just not supposed to happen in Hong Kong.” Even political figures traditionally viewed as pro-Beijing have felt compelled to express their concern. But the alleged rendition—the latest in a string of five disappearances linked to the Mighty Current publishing house—did not occur in isolation. Instead, it and the other Mighty Current disappearances should be viewed as part of a broader effort by Beijing to supress critical voices—not only in Hong Kong, but well beyond its borders.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are ostensibly guaranteed in Hong Kong, both under international law applicable in the territory and under the Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document. But Hong Kong’s media landscape, although freer than the Mainland’s, has increasingly come under Beijing’s influence. Pro-Beijing tycoons have invested heavily in Hong Kong media companies, the most recent example being Alibaba’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post (though Alibaba purchased it from another pro-Beijing owner). The scrappy pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily has suffered from withdrawn advertising, allegedly due to pressure from Beijing. And the Chinese government’s liaison office—which, under the terms of the Basic Law, is prohibited from interfering with matters within Hong Kong’s autonomy—controls three major bookstore chains within the city, as well as a variety of print and online media outlets. The result is a media landscape within which self-censorship is pervasive, as the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned in its latest annual report. Mighty Current, and the Causeway Bay Books bookstore it owned, were one of the few remaining avenues for distribution of “forbidden books”—mainly salacious exposés about Mainland political figures. The disappearances—along with other acts of intimidation such as that which led to the shuttering of independent news site House News in 2014—have the practical effect of damaging or silencing alternatives to a mainstream Hong Kong media that has largely been captured by pro-Beijing interests.

More worryingly, Lee Po’s disappearance, if indeed an abduction orchestrated by mainland authorities, suggests that Chinese security forces are becoming more brazen in their activities in Hong Kong. Online attacks targeting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians and other critics of Beijing’s rule have become commonplace; as Reuters reported in December 2014, such figures are also subject to surveillance by mainland security forces operating within the city. Religious organizations within Hong Kong have even been warned not to proselytise to visiting mainlanders. Although Ching Cheong, a veteran journalist and former editor of Party mouthpiece Wen Wei Po, cites previous instances of mainland-orchestrated kidnappings of people from Hong Kong dating back to 1999, such incidents have largely targeted Party members accused of disciplinary violations. Viewed against that background, Lee Po’s disappearance represents an apparent escalation in mainland interference in Hong Kong—but not a departure from a pattern of increasing meddling. Such conduct dovetails with increasingly belligerent mainland rhetoric toward Hong Kong. Beijing has consistently attempted in recent years to reframe the relationship between it and Hong Kong through documents such as the State Council’s White Paper of 2014, which demanded political pliancy of the city’s administrators, including its judges and through pronouncements by mainland officials that the Chief Executive transcends Hong Kong’s branches of government. Some commentators have even cited the rearrangement of the seating during the Chief Executive’s recent meeting with Xi Jinping as evidence that a recalcitrant Hong Kong is being brought to heel. Against such a background, mounting public suspicion of both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments is inevitable. The much-delayed extension of the national high-speed rail network into Hong Kong, for example, is now beset by arguments over whether mainland immigration checkpoints should be located on Hong Kong soil. And the reference in the mainland’s National Security Law to the Hong Kong and Macanese governments’ “responsibilities for the preservation of national security” has been criticised as a vehicle to force Hong Kong to enact its own national security legislation.

Nor should it be forgotten that the Mighty Current disappearances have ramifications far beyond China’s borders. Gui Minhai, one of the missing publishers, is a Swedish citizen and was last seen in Thailand; Lee Po himself is a British citizen. Gui’s disappearance, along with the rendition of dissidents and their relatives from Myanmar and Thailand to China, suggests the lengths to which the “long arm of China” might reach to silence dissenting voices. The books that Lee Po and his colleagues wrote may have borne greater resemblance to cloak-and-dagger political thrillers than to reality. But their as-yet-uncertain fate, and the newfound assertiveness of the Chinese security apparatus it suggests, are all too real.