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Don’t wail ‘abduction’ next time someone appears to leave Hong Kong against their will

Terminology is important – let’s reserve such words for serious cases, not just trot them out casually

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 4:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 February, 2017, 8:02pm

I think we are going to have to call all the media together and agree which words to use when incidents arise of people moving from Hong Kong to the mainland in circumstances that suggest it may not have been entirely their own idea in the first instance.

You see, when I read the word “abduction” it conjures up several exotic possibilities, for example alien abduction, as portrayed in some films and TV series, whereby creatures from another planet take the victim into custody on a space ship for examination; or kidnap of a potential bride as apparently practised at various times in the past when the law and order situation was less satisfactory and courting techniques less sophisticated.

Even when the circumstances are more mundane, the implication I get from the word is of a forceful laying on of hands so that a person is removed entirely against his own will from one place where he was peacefully going about his own business and taken to another place. The victim may be unconscious, or rendered helpless in some way through handcuffs or other bindings. He may well be gagged so as to prevent him calling out for help.

All of which is by way of introduction to the recent spate of cases featured prominently in the local and international media. Let us start with the most recent episode, the strange case of prominent mainland businessman Xiao Jianhua.

According to all accounts, Mr Xiao was sitting peacefully in his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in the company of a number of female bodyguards when he was visited by a group of men. From their appearance, manner and bearing witnesses deduced that the group was from the mainland. Members apparently pushed their way past the bodyguards and had a spirited discussion with Xiao.

Subsequently, Xiao got into a private car, accompanied by two of his bodyguards, and was driven to one of the border crossing points where he passed peacefully through immigration and returned to the mainland.

What kidnapper allows the target to bring his own bodyguards with him?

My question is this: is it fair to say that Xiao was “abducted”? At the risk of being mocked as naive or a stooge of Beijing, I am going to stick my neck out and say I am not so sure. Clearly the conversation in the hotel must have been very persuasive, and may well have included threats and inducements (“bad things will happen to your family, or assets, or both”, “friends only want to talk to you for a few days, then you can come back” etc).

So, under pressure certainly, but by force? What kidnapper allows the target to bring his own bodyguards with him? If he was really there under criminal duress, would Xiao not have mentioned it to the immigration officer on the Hong Kong side?

Inevitably, the Xiao stories also brought to mind the case of the five Causeway Bay booksellers. Three of them were clearly not abducted as they were already in the mainland of their own free will when they were arrested.

Hong Kong bookseller in the confessional during eight months of detention in mainland China

The case of Mr Lee Po is more suspicious because he apparently did not pass through immigration channels on either side of the border. Notwithstanding Lee’s own claim later that he had gone voluntarily, I think it is fair to put this one closer to the abduction end of the spectrum. The case of the fifth bookseller, a Swedish national who disappeared from Thailand, seems even more serious.

Why am I making an issue of terminology, perhaps even being a bit pernickety? Simple: I have it on good authority from a reliable source that there have been number of bona fide abductions from Hong Kong, usually in connection with commercial disputes, and often involving corrupt officials on the mainland side.

If we want our police to clamp down on these and protect local citizens, then we need to reserve words like “abduction” for the more serious cases, not just trot it out casually to spice up a more questionable story.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk