In an unprecedented attack on press freedom, five men – owners and employees of a publishing house in Hong Kong – disappeared. Three were arrested in mainland China and two abducted from Hong Kong and Thailand, appearing subsequently in mainland China. No charges have formally been laid, but the actions appear to be part of a crackdown on Hong Kong’s freewheeling publishing industry, which the Communist Party fears is undermining the Chinese government.
By openly flouting a commitment to respect Hong Kong’s political system and flagrantly violating Thailand’s sovereignty, attempting to shut down publication of annoying books at the expense of its international reputation, China has demonstrated its deepening own insecurity.
Since 1997, when Hong Kong sovereignty was transferred from Britain to the mainland, concerns about China respecting the “one country, two systems” generally proved misplaced until now. Complacency was rudely shaken starting in October as the men connected with the Hong Kong–based publishing company Mighty Current Media disappeared – one while holidaying in Thailand. An unconfirmed report in London’s Sunday Times claims that the detentions were related to a secret Chinese directive to “exterminate” banned books and magazines at their source, “identifying 14 publishing houses and 21 publications in Hong Kong as targets.” Beijing makes no secret of its annoyance with Hong Kong’s freewheeling press, and many publications have had a tough time: The Nineties, established in 1970, went out of business in 1998. Open Magazine, established 1987, ceased publication in 2014.
But the book publishing industry continued with a proliferation of political and gossipy books sold around Hong Kong and at its airport, attracting the interest of millions of mainland Chinese travelers.
The books, some serious, others more fiction than fact, have provided sensational fare to Chinese who want to know more about insider politics and the personal lives of top officials. Bei Ling, co-founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center who was interviewed by the Chinese-language site of The New York Times, noted that Gui Minhai, who disappeared in October while in Thailand, has published books titled Mistresses of the Chinese Communist Party, Secrets of Wives of Chinese Communist Party Officials and Women of the Shanghai Clique.
Bei said Gui owned several publishing houses which every month put out four or five books, accounting for about a third of books on elite politics published in Hong Kong.
Other publishers have released serious books, such as the memoirs of the disgraced party leader Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed the use of force to suppress the students in 1989 and who spent the rest of his life under house arrest. His memoirs were smuggled out to Hong Kong and published in Chinese by New Century Press – run by Bao Pu, son of Bao Tong, Zhao’s former political secretary, and his wife, Renee Chiang. The book was published in English by Simon & Schuster as Prisoner of the State: the Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.
Needless to say, China bans such books, regardless of content, thus lending them the additional cachet of forbidden fruit.
Such books would annoy politicians anywhere, but China may have gone so far as to take the drastic steps – hitherto unimaginable –of carrying out abductions in foreign territory, Thailand, and in Hong Kong. Moreover, both those victims are foreign nationals. Evidently, from Beijing’s standpoint, these books are not merely an annoyance, but rather instruments that could erode support for the Communist Party and ultimately bring about its overthrow.
The Beijing newspaper Global Times, an affiliate of People’s Daily, justified Chinese action by suggesting that the Hong Kong bookstore had “to a large extent, targeted at the mainland” and “undercut the mainland’s rule of law system.” The Sunday Times report did not provide details about the background of the secret directive but, Ching Cheong, a veteran China watcher in Hong Kong, has asserted in an article in the Hong Kong Economic Journal that the five “disappearances” stem from a struggle within the party over efforts to deal with banned books in Hong Kong – with each side feeding information to various authors and publishers, not necessarily true, to benefit itself.
Former leader Jiang Zemin is seen as a significant player in anti-Xi maneuvers, with certain book publishers supporting him and others supporting Xi. Ching explains that publications of Causeway Bay Books, a subsidiary of Mighty Current Media, have attacked Xi with such titles as 2017: Upheaval in China, with predictions on what might happen during the 19th Party Congress.
In addition to an internal struggle, Ching said, the party as a whole feels threatened and wants to take action against banned books sold in Hong Kong.
Historically, China has opposed the use of Hong Kong as a base of subversion, and the British cooperated during colonial times. The revolutionary Sun Yat-sen was banned from the colony after 1895 because of his efforts to overthrow the Qing dynasty of the Manchus.
After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, China tightened provisions in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to ensure that the former colony would not be a subversive base. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and the local government is responsible for running the territory. Mainland security authorities are not supposed to exercise law enforcement functions, but rather seek the cooperation of the Hong Kong police if necessary.
Now, it appears, China is so insecure that it’s willing to jeopardize Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region under the “one country, two systems” formula, which is meant to continue at least until 2047.
Moreover, strains with other countries are emerging. The case of Gui Minhai, apparently spirited out of Thailand into China, affects Beijing’s relations with Bangkok, and, since Gui is a Swedish citizen, Stockholm is involved.
Not surprisingly, Gui addressed his nationality while appearing on Chinese television for a confession claiming that his conscience had been bothering him over involvement in a 2003 drunk-driving case resulting in the death of a young woman. He tearfully read from a text: “Even though I am a Swedish national, I truly feel that I am Chinese and my roots are still in China. So I hope that the Swedish side would respect my personal choice, rights and privacy and let me solve my own problems.”
It is perverse, to say the least, for someone in a serious legal bind to declare publicly, in effect, that he does not want diplomatic protection from the country where he is citizen.
Similarly, Lee Bo, the British citizen, reportedly wrote a letter to the Hong Kong police asking them to stop investigating his disappearance from the territory – apparently through illegal means since his travel documents remain at his Hong Kong home.
When British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond asked for information about Lee’s whereabouts during a January visit to China, Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that Lee was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.”
Quiet diplomacy may be underway. Thailand appears reluctant to complain to China and jeopardize visits from a million Chinese tourists a year. Neither Sweden nor Britain is standing up to China for now. The Communist Party seems determined to exercise power directly in Hong Kong despite solemn and voluntary promises made before the United Nations in 1984 – but China should know that the world is also watching the cross-border forays and wondering about its claim to global leadership.
*Frank Ching is a journalist and author of Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family.