Vanishing freedoms? Disappearance of bookseller Lee Bo raises questions about jurisdiction and rights in Hong Kong
One humid summer evening in 2004, seven mainland men arrived at Mount Davies Road in two private cars and parked outside a seaside mansion overlooking the Sulphur Channel, west of the Victoria Harbour.
But they were no ordinary tourists trying to find a scenic spot - one was carrying a pair of handcuffs. He and another of the men turned out to be officers from the Guangdong Public Security Bureau.
Their apparent target: Wu Yonghong, who was then embroiled in a corruption probe across the border. After a phone call reportedly made by Wu, the seven mainlanders were taken away to the Western Police Station, although police did not have enough evidence to lay any charges.
The incident saw Hongkongers react with anger and alarm at what they saw as an unprecedented covert surveillance mission. Then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was swift to express grave concern, saying that, if true, the incident was “absolutely unacceptable”.
The spectre of that troubling incident more than a decade ago loomed again last week when Lee Bo, a co-owner of publishing company Mighty Current and bookstore Causeway Bay Books vanished without a trace.
The 65-year-old was last seen in the Chai Wan warehouse of Mighty Current, which specialises in publishing titles banned on the mainland touting to reveal secrets about China’s top leadership.
In a note believed to have been written by Lee, he said he was on the mainland assisting investigations. But according to his wife, Lee’s travel documents remained at home. She initially went to police but then withdrew her request for help.
Lee’s disappearance followed that of four of his colleagues - Gui Minhai, Cheung Ji-ping, Lui Bo and Lam Wing-kee – who had gone missing separately in October.
While the facts surrounding Lee’s case are still unclear, there is significant public disquiet over the circumstances of his disappearance with speculation that he was abducted to the mainland by security officials or triads.
Much more than just the ‘whodunnit’ questions, it is the implications of Lee’s disappearance with regard to the “One Country, Two Systems” model that is supposed to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms that present the most worrying aspects.
China and Britain agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 that a policy of “One Country, Two Systems” would apply to Hong Kong for 50 years after the 1997 handover, and this was enshrined in Hong Kong Basic Law in 1990.
It means the city is constitutionally guaranteed to have a high level of autonomy and enjoy freedom of speech, rule of law and judicial independence.
The mystery surrounding Lee’s disappearance prompted a response from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying this week which had echoes of Tung’s comment a decade earlier when he said: “It is unacceptable for mainland law enforcement officers to carry out duties in Hong Kong, because it does not comply with the Basic Law.”
Given Lee’s status as a British passport-holder, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond weighed in on the issue this week, suggesting Beijing would be guilty of an “egregious breach of the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration” if speculation that Chinese security forces had abducted Lee in the former colony was confirmed.
“It would not be acceptable for somebody to be spirited out of Hong Kong in order to face charges in a different jurisdiction,” Hammond said after meeting his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Tuesday. “It is an essential part of the settlement in Hong Kong that it has its own judicial system and it is solely responsible for trying offences that occur in Hong Kong.”
What makes Lee’s case exceptionally high-profile is that it brings into sharp focus the issue of the freedom of speech that is cherished by Hongkongers who consider this as one of the core values that sets the city apart from the rest of the country.
The courtrooms in post-handover Hong Kong, which has no fugitive transfer agreement with the mainland and is protected under the Basic Law provision of freedom of expression, have never tried anyone for publishing books that are banned in the mainland, no matter how lurid their content.
But how far this freedom is and will continue to be tolerated by officials across the border has been thrown into question — especially for someone like Lee, who publishes as many as 80 per cent of the books on Xi, according to an insider in the trade.
“This problem is not new. China is very worried that the freedom of expression and of publication in Hong Kong would affect mainland politics,” said Teng Biao, a fellow at Harvard Law School and formerly an academic at the Chinese University.
He said Lee’s disappearance was meant to intimidate those who are in Hong Kong spreading messages unfavourable to China’s ruling regime.
The possibility the mainland is prepared to curb opinions made outside of its jurisdiction was apparently affirmed in the Global Times, a subsidiary of the party mouthpiece People’s Daily.
In an editorial on Wednesday, it suggested it was not problematic for mainland authorities to probe Causeway Bay Books because it “publishes and sells political books targeting mainland readers” and creates “special interference to the maintenance of order in the mainland”.
The piece went on to claim it would be “in accordance with Chinese laws” for the mainland to initiate an investigation. Controversially, the editorial said it was constitutional for mainland authorities to adopt means that would “get around” local laws and make one comply with their investigations “without breaching systemic bottomlines”.
The claims drew the ire of Hong Kong lawmakers. Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit, also a former Bar Association chairman, pointed out the Basic Law makes it clear only Hong Kong officers can exercise the law in the city.
“It is impossible for anybody to get around the law and do whatever they want under the rule of law,” Leong said. “Anyone who gets around the law and does something is in fact committing an offence.”
New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a former secretary for security, said Global Times’ remarks were potentially worrying and pressed the local government to clarify with the mainland authorities on what laws they could “get around”.
Fellow party member Michael Tien Puk-sun, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, has written two faxed messages to the public security bureau in Shenzhen and demanded further information on Lee’s whereabouts. At press time, he was still awaiting their response.
Professor Chan Yuen-ying, director of the University of Hong Kong’s journalism and media studies centre, said: “The matter is beyond freedom of speech or ‘one country, two systems’. It is about personal safety — can Hong Kong people feel safe in Hong Kong with no fear of ‘being disappeared’ or being abducted?”
Lee’s case and the possible implications for Hong Kong’s freedoms have drawn international attention.
“The city that was once the freest and most vibrant in the Chinese-speaking world is undergoing drastic changes,” said Taiwanese writer Professor Wu Ming-yi, who teaches Sinophone literatures at National Dong Hwa University.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, an NGO, said: “This trend of targeting critical voices can only fuel greater fears about the ongoing erosion of the fundamental freedoms that make Hong Kong special”.
China-watchers see Lee’s disappearance as merely the latest step of a long campaign to crack down on sensitive publications from the free outpost, especially after Xi came to power.
Bruce Lui, a senior journalism lecturer at Baptist University and formerly a China correspondent, noted that regional governments in the mainland had stepped up efforts to curb the illegal circulation of “banned books” imported from Hong Kong in the wake of the Occupy protests in 2014.
While the mainland tended to exercise control through infiltration, Teng noted an increasing reliance on “overseas kidnapping”. One example he cited was the case of publisher Yiu Man-tin in 2014.
The septuagenarian Hong Kong chief editor of Morning Bell publishing was preparing a book titled Chinese Godfather Xi Jinping when he was, according to a source who knew the family, “lured” to Shenzhen on the pretext of delivering paint to a long-time friend.
Convicted of “smuggling ordinary goods” - the paint - he was sentenced to 10 years in jail by the Shenzhen Intermediate Court in May 2014.
Yiu’s son, Edmond Yiu Yung-chin, told RTHK that he believed Lee’s disappearance was related to the kind of books he published, aiming to deter others from similar publications.
While it remained unclear how Lee had disappeared, Ching Cheong, a former China correspondent for The Straits Times who was jailed on the mainland for three years on charges of espionage, said it was “not novel” at all for mainland officers to take away targets in the city and abroad.
Ching was accused of using money provided by Taiwan to purchase political and military information. He was arrested in Shenzhen just as he was about to return to Hong Kong.
“There were a lot of ways for the Chinese Communist Party to abduct people from Hong Kong to mainland, the most common of them is through the China Merchants Group pier [near Sheung Wan],” he wrote on Initium Media, quoting his late ex-boss Tsang Man-chi, a former editor at leftist paper Wen Wei Po.
An example of this is said to have occurred in 2013, when husband and wife Hong Kong residents Poon Wai-hei and Luk Ka were believed to have been kidnapped in Hong Kong and taken to the mainland by boat, before Poon was convicted last year of illegally absorbing public funds.
Such actions, if true, reflect the disregard towards “One Country, Two Systems” of the mainland police officers involved. Information is scarce and equivocal on prior breaches, apparently due to the sensitivity of such events.
According to a 2005 article in mainland journal Criminal Research, written by the Guangdong Police College, it was not uncommon for mainland officers to hold the mistaken belief that the Hong Kong police should cooperate with them, or at least they could conduct investigations across the border on their own.
After all, there is little that the local government can do if the mainlander officers decide it is in their interest to conduct cross-border investigations by themselves and get the suspects back to the mainland through their own means.
With this in mind, Teng feared that the situation would only get worse for Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong’s freedom of expression has reached a very critical and dangerous moment.”