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Hong Kong bookseller disappearances

If it cares about its global standing, China should allay concerns about Hong Kong’s missing booksellers

Tom Plate says Beijing should be guided by common sense, rather than principles, in its response to international criticism of its handling of the case

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 4:54pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2016, 4:54pm

There is a way one can be wrong even when technically one is right. This happens upon approaching (what I call) the famous “twilight zone” of common sense. When you find yourself entering this zone of cosmic uncertainty, the recommendation here is to, as quickly as possible, “rise above principle” (see John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage) and notch down to a less elevated posture. This is the best way to avoid severe political turbulence.

READ MORE: United Nations showdown over missing booksellers escalates into slanging match

Consider the “twilight zone” experience of a senior diplomat from China at a UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva who flipped out when Security Council members, ginned by the US, tried to make political hay out of the unresolved case of the “Five Missing Booksellers”.

Taking the view that this matter is under the authority of the People’s Republic of China – and, thus, no one else’s darn business – Fu Cong (傅聪), the Chinese deputy permanent representative in Geneva, pulled few punches in countering the American diplomat who raised the issue. That was US ambassador Keith Harper, for whom the “unexplained recent disappearances and apparent coerced returns of Chinese and foreign citizens from outside mainland China” raised doubts about the commitment to its “one country, two systems” principle for Hong Kong.

READ MORE: Rampant hypocrisy from China and US on human rights

Fu went ballistic: “The US is notorious for prison abuse at Guantanamo prison, its gun violence is rampant, racism is its deep-rooted malaise,” he declaimed. “The US conducts large-scale extraterritorial eavesdropping, uses drones to attack other countries’ innocent civilians, its troops on foreign soil commit rape and murder of local people. It conducts kidnapping overseas and uses black prisons.”

The reality of Hong Kong is that it hovers in a global ‘twilight zone’ – not in a normal political realm

Fu’s bombast has some basis in fact, of course. Truth be told, many Americans also wish we’d invest more energy and enthusiasm cleaning up our own backyard instead of complaining about others’ maintenance of theirs. But little ever seems to cause us a moment’s lecturing pause.

Fu’s fulmination was also completely consistent with his government’s proclaimed policy of official non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. However, the reality of Hong Kong is that it hovers in a global “twilight zone” – not in a normal political realm. Since the 1997 handover, its astonishing high profile has not gone away; even two decades later, it remains a premier global city. Normal sovereignty standards do not apply; but the reality of “one country, two systems” does. Hong Kong is not, after all, Wuhan (武漢), much less Macau. Fu, it seems, was splashing around in the bumpy international political twilight zone and didn’t realise it.

READ MORE: Debate about Hong Kong’s missing booksellers will not be welcomed during Beijing meetings

A grounded position on the Missing Booksellers Case came recently from the Press Freedom Committee of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong. It urged the Chinese government “to engage in good-faith dialogue when legitimate concerns are raised over possible breaches of international legal norms and human rights, such as in the case of the five Hong Kong residents”. Its statement called for the immediate release of the five detained to “prevent further weakening of damaged confidence among the local, international and business communities in the robustness of Hong Kong’s rule of law and protection of free speech guaranteed by the Basic Law”.

Hong Kong is now an integral part of China. There is no quarrel with that. But the issue here isn’t the sovereignty principle; it’s common sense

In principle, Hong Kong is now an integral part of China. There is no quarrel with that. But the issue here isn’t the sovereignty principle; it’s common sense, especially when you’re in the political twilight zone. Yes, we offer Fu the courtesy of acknowledging that he was speaking from principle, as he saw it. And I cannot say that his outburst seemed insincere or out of line; the US provoked him. But what to think? Principle or common sense?

In this context, the rumination of hard-charging Chinese author Yang Jisheng (楊繼繩), in acknowledging an award from the Neiman Foundation of Harvard University recently, acceded to the need for modesty when entering the twilight zone of issues impossible: “[Ours] is an unfathomable profession; while journalists are not scholars, they’re required to study and gain a comprehensive grasp of society. Any journalist, no matter how erudite and insightful, will feel unequal to the task of decoding this complex and ever-changing society.”

READ MORE: Hong Kong is no longer important: Missing booksellers case proves we have become insignificant in Beijing’s eyes

READ MORE: Banned books: Hong Kong publication industry collapsing, says chief editor of New York-based publishing house

But Yang would also be the first to reject a journalism of hedging that reflects intimidation by hard issues of significance. The constant worry that history may reverse the view we have today for a deeper, more rounded one in the future cannot handcuff us from trying to decode the present.

So, to me, there remains a special brilliance and deep cosmopolitan validity to the policy of “one country, two systems” originally recommended by Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) that is vital to maintain – not just for Hong Kong but perhaps as much for Beijing. Thus, the Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) government might well consider offering a full and unredacted report on how this bizarre bookseller case came about; why it is not good for Mother China; and what measures will be implemented to insure against its like happening again. Only due diligence of this high level can bring this unnerving affair to a proper end.

The political wisdom and maturation thus displayed would increase China’s soft power around the world more than any number of Olympic-size edifices. As for diplomat Fu, he was not wrong; he was just caught in the twilight zone. It’s a tricky place for anyone.

Columnist Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author of the “Giants of Asia” book series