As I see it
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Jailed editors and kidnapped booksellers: A cautionary tale for all critics of Beijing

Jason Ng says the fate of a friend, the Shenzhen-based editor who was recently jailed, shows the extent of the attacks on Hong Kong’s press freedom – and our inaction should shame us

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 11:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 11:56am

Last week, a Shenzhen district court sentenced Wang Jianmin, the 62-year-old publisher of Hong Kong-based political tabloids Multiple Face and New Way Monthly, to five years and three months in prison. His editor-in-chief, 41-year-old Guo Zhongxiao, received two years and three months. Their crime? Selling magazines in the mainland without state approval.

The sentencing of the two Hong Kong journalists drew immediate comparison to the abduction of the five booksellers earlier this year. Events that would have been dismissed as isolated incidents now look increasingly like a pattern. They form part of a broader context in which these and future crackdowns on the city’s press freedom must be analysed.

Yet, did we let the jailed journalists’ domicile temper our public outrage?

In echo of missing booksellers case, Shenzhen court jails two Hong Kong journalists for running illegal business

Outrage expressed in Hong Kong over missing bookseller, but no answers forthcoming

I met Guo five years ago on social media. At the time, he was a staff editor for the Hong Kong news magazine Yazhou Zhoukan (or Asia Weekly). His Facebook posts, alternating between commentaries on Chinese politics and selfies from his hiking exploits on the MacLehose Trail, caught my eye. In a city where people were never more than three degrees of separation apart, we quickly became friends.

Every once in a while, ZX – which was how I addressed him – and I would meet up for lunch to share thoughts on politics, blogging and digital journalism. A Hubei ( 湖北 ) native, he would speak Putonghua to me and I would respond in Cantonese. We communicated just fine – only on rare occasions did we resort to scribbling Chinese characters on restaurant napkins.

ZX was something of an internet celebrity in China. The blogger-cum-social activist got his big break in 2002 when his blog article “Shenzhen, who has abandoned you?” went viral on social media in the mainland. The 10,000-word manifesto, which criticised city officialdom for not doing enough to maintain Shenzhen’s competitiveness, earned him a meeting with the mayor. In Chinese politics, that’s about as rare as a hunk of mutton fat jade.

Using his blogosphere stardom, ZX went on to co-found Interhoo, an online think tank that advised government officials on economic policies. In 2003, he was named “Netizen of the Year” and one of China’s top 10 citizen journalists. His claim to fame landed him a coveted job offer a year later from the prestigious Asia Weekly in Hong Kong.

ZX’s success story inspired me to write a short story titled “Going South”, published in an English-language anthology in 2012 – roughly a year after we first made our acquaintance on Facebook. In April that year, I booked him for lunch near his office in Chai Wan to give him my new book. In return, he gifted me a signed copy of his book Shenzhen Shuipaoqileni, which was written under an alias and based on the blog article that had started it all.

It might have been at the same lunch that ZX told me his plan to leave his job to become editor-in-chief of two young political tabloids, Multiple Face and New Way Monthly. After spending eight years cutting his teeth at Asia Weekly, he was ready to flex his muscles elsewhere.

The two magazines specialised in exposés on the Communist leadership. The intense power struggles among rival factions and the often salacious private lives of high-level party members – the same topics covered ad nauseam by the publishing house operated by the missing Hong Kong booksellers – made for sensational reading. The spectacular downfall of erstwhile political superstar Bo Xilai (薄熙來) in early 2012 had further fuelled the demand for tabloid journalism and played a part in persuading ZX to seek greener pastures.

Bestsellers in Hong Kong cafe that specialises in banned books highlight the intriguing issues in mainland China

But ZX’s career change wasn’t the only move he had in mind. The mainland expatriate had just become a permanent resident of Hong Kong and could not wait to move back to Shenzhen with his wife and newborn child to save on housing expenses. His newly minted Hong Kong ID would allow him to commute between the two cities with relative ease. Always a sceptic, I reminded him of the risk of living in the mainland and writing so liberally about it. Still, he was willing to take his chances.

There was a palpable sense of ‘What were they thinking?’

If life is a gamble, then my friend had rolled the dice and lost. If he ever thought that writing for a magazine was less risky than running one, or that a Hong Kong citizen working on the mainland

enjoys the same relative immunity as do his Western counterparts, then he had been grossly mistaken.

In May 2014, less than two years after his move, ZX, along with the magazines’ publisher Wang, was taken away by Chinese authorities. Upon learning about their disappearances in the news, I tried contacting my friend by phone and by email but to no avail. I asked for assistance on social media and reached out to a number of pan-democratic lawmakers, but nothing came of that either. Pleading with the Hong Kong government to intervene diplomatically seemed out of the question.

My call for help had largely fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the capture of two mainland-born journalists – who have decidedly mainland-sounding names and who can barely speak a word of Cantonese, despite their permanent resident status – did not give the matter a sufficient “nexus” to Hong Kong for local politicians or journalists’ groups to act.

Or perhaps playing the dangerous game of tabloid journalism while living on the mainland was so patently unwise that they were considered “fair game” by mainland authorities. Among the people I talked to, there was a palpable sense of “What were they thinking?”

Bookseller saga is an affront to Hong Kong people’s sense of freedom and autonomy

It was not the only time that the domicile of an arrested person mattered in public opinion. The disappearance of Lui Por, a Shenzhen resident and the first of the five Hong Kong booksellers to go missing, was a virtual non-event in the local news cycle. The incident did not gain traction with the media until two months later, when his Hong Kong-based colleague Lee Po was believed to have been abducted in Hong Kong by Chinese authorities.

Apathy can also be easily rationalised. People I approached for help cautioned that making a lot of noise south of the border might hurt more than help, considering that the accused were already in Chinese custody and at the mercy of their captors. Besides, Communist operatives were not known to bow to public pressure in Hong Kong and it was advisable to let the legal process run its course.

With that, the case faded into oblivion. In the intervening months, so much had happened in Hong Kong and abroad that depressed and distracted us: the Occupy Central movement, the rise of localism, terrorist attacks in Europe, Brexit, Donald Trump. If it weren’t for the easy comparison to the missing booksellers saga, the journalists’ sentencing last week wouldn’t have even registered a pulse in the press.

ZX is due to be released as early as the end of this month – he gets credit for the 26 months he has already served while in detention. When he finally regains his freedom and somehow manages to make his way back to Hong Kong, I will tell him how immeasurably sorry I am about his ordeal. I will tell him how utterly absurd it was for a magazine editor to be convicted for running an illegal business. I will also tell him what happened to him may just as easily happen to any of us, and that our collective inaction was short-sighted, if not altogether shameful. And I hope he can find it within himself to forgive me and all those who have failed him.