City Beat

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

Top leaders at capital’s ‘two sessions’ will place most importance on stable economic growth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2016, 5:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 2:59pm

Timing usually sends a clear message for one to better understand complicated matters, such as the case of banned Causeway Bay bookseller Lee Po.

Last week, Lee appeared in a TV interview with three pre-selected mainland and Hong Kong media groups, reiterating that he had not been “abducted” when he vanished last December but “sneaked across the border of his own free will to assist in an investigation”.

Despite the media buzz, understandably, this politically sensitive case is not going to, or will not be allowed to, side track the nation’s most important annual political event: lianghui or “two sessions”, when China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, and its top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, meet in Beijing.

Lee has decided to give up his British nationality, which has stopped any future “concerns” from Western countries, the UK in particular, and prevented further questions from foreign reporters covering the two sessions.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong police have confirmed their long-filed request to mainland authorities for a meeting with Lee was finally arranged: when they met him on the mainland, he asked them to drop his case, insisting that he doesn’t need assistance.

So a highly politicised case turns out to be a non-issue?

It’s only natural for different people to come up with different conclusions in a free society like Hong Kong. But this is also a city ruled by law – without evidence, any guesses or assumptions cannot be taken as facts.

That’s why police chief Stephen Lo Wai-chung admitted the force would have to accept what Lee said. Those who don’t believe Lee’s televised account will remain sceptical and will not let it go easily, especially the pan-democrats. But without solid evidence, we may still end up with no answer to satisfy those convinced this is a “kidnap” case.

In Beijing, decision makers have much bigger and more important matters at hand. It’s the first year of the country’s 13th Five Year Plan, which outlines China’s development till 2020. Top leaders are placing priority on sustaining stable economic growth, with emphasis on supply-side reform as the nation is facing various volatilities at home and abroad.

This is also the focus of discussion for all delegates, including those from Hong Kong; any other issue that disrupts this main theme will not be welcome.

Arguably, delegates who gather in Beijing every year have the responsibility to voice people’s concerns on issues of public interest. That is why some Hong Kong delegates still see the need to follow up the bookseller’s case, even though Lee has asked to be left alone.

But the current scenario could mean a test for the political wisdom of those who plan to bring this up in the capital.

Without doubt, unlawful cross-border law enforcement by mainland agents, if there was any, is the biggest concern of Hongkongers. This has been addressed by the chief executive and the city’s top security officials repeatedly. But on the other hand, the mainland side would ask for evidence to prove that was the case, and would also raise concerns about the impact of banned books, published in Hong Kong legally, but smuggled over the border illegally under mainland law.

Putting oneself in the other’s shoes would help enhance mutual understanding for sensible judgment, though that could be easier said than done. But that’s the traditional wisdom both Hongkongers and mainland authorities need to bear in mind when they have different needs and views.

Regardless of the answered or unanswered questions in the Lee Po case, the reality is, under “one country, two systems, the banned book business in Hong Kong is not going to die as long as it does not cross the border.

It’s the authenticity that matters more if the trade wants to attract more readers. That’s what struck me when flipping through several books claiming to reveal the “power struggles” and “unknown private lives” of China’s top leaders at an airport bookstore before my flight to Beijing over the weekend.