The bottom line? Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee’s case has nothing to do with ‘one country, two systems’
John Chan says Hongkongers who are outraged by the treatment of the bookseller are free to criticise China’s legal system but they shouldn’t be campaigning under the banner of ‘one country, two systems’
During his press conference, when defiant Causeway Bay bookseller Lam Wing-kee recounted what had happened to him after being detained at the Shenzhen immigration checkpoint, he urged Hongkongers to speak up against what he sees as an encroachment of their rights under “one country, two systems”.
He said that if we do not speak up, there is no hope for Hong Kong. “I also want to tell the whole world,” he said, “this isn’t about me, this isn’t about a bookstore, this is about everyone. This is the bottom line of the Hong Kong people ... Hongkongers will not bow down before brute force.”
Of course, we can never agree to having mainland law enforcement personnel enforcing mainland laws in Hong Kong; that touches our bottom line. Under “one country, two systems”, the bottom line is that law enforcement in Hong Kong can only be carried out by Hong Kong agencies.
In the Causeway Bay booksellers drama, Lam was arrested in Shenzhen. And whether bookstore boss Lee Po was abducted in Hong Kong remains open to contradictory interpretations by different people; a kind of Rashomon effect. So, in Lam’s case, what bottom line of “one country, two systems” has been breached or ignored?
The phrase “Hongkongers’ bottom line” has become frequently used in political rhetoric. Some people here have grown used to using the phrase whenever others do things that don’t meet their expectations, dragging in all Hongkongers to fortify their rebuttal. Other people often have their own justification for acting the way they did, though we might not agree with it.
Is Lam’s case a legal issue involving a crime punishable by law? Yes and no. Yes on the mainland, no in Hong Kong. Yes, because it is about someone breaking the law by selling, mailing and smuggling banned books. No, because the books are banned on the mainland, not in Hong Kong, and Lam was arrested on the mainland, not in Hong Kong.
We can freely comment on whether the mainland authorities’ handling of Lam’s case was legal, from our own political perspective. This is exactly what people have often done in cases where mainland authorities have abused their power in dealing with mainlanders arrested (sometimes illegally by our standards) and detained for an exceptionally long period of time (which is unacceptable to us). The fact that the latest arrest and detention involves a Hongkonger would not make right what is wrong, or vice versa.
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It is common sense that if we are on the mainland, we need to abide by mainland law. We elevate ourselves too high if we think we have a right to be treated by a different set of standards. This kind of mentality stems from colonial times, when, if Hongkongers got into trouble on the mainland, the British government was obliged to ensure they received fair treatment.
Sorry to say that this has changed since Hong Kong became part of China. Upholding the “one country, two systems” principle means mainland authorities should not question how Hong Kong law enforcement agencies deal with mainlanders who break our laws here. So, on what basis could we say that upholding “one country, two systems” means that when a Hongkonger breaks the laws on the mainland, we can do otherwise?
It ceases to be a legal issue when we question the mainland authorities’ handling of a particular case in which a citizen is arrested and detained. It’s the same in so many other cases we have questioned: those of Liu Xiaobo ( 劉曉波 ) and Li Wangyang (李旺陽), to name but two. Added to that list now is Lam. These become political issues. We can criticise each and every one of these cases in the most severe terms, but they have nothing to do with “one country, two systems”. Quite the contrary; “one country, two systems” provides critics with the necessary shield to continue to blast mainland authorities when they please.
Lam said during his press conference that he wished Hongkongers could say “no” to brute force. When asked by a reporter, “Can we?”, he said, “I can, why can’t you?”
That brings to mind the case in June 1989, when Lee Cheuk-yan was arrested by Chinese authorities after taking millions of Hong Kong dollars in donations to support the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. Lee didn’t say “no” to the Chinese authorities; he quickly signed a written confession to secure his own speedy release. No one blamed him. Instead, the Labour Party chief received a hero’s welcome on his return to Hong Kong. Like Lee, no matter how brutal the force may be, most people in Hong Kong do not want to be dragged into the fight against that force through some politician’s rhetoric.
Pro-democrat writer Lee Yee commented on the lingering question of “Can we really say No”. In many Hongkongers’ hearts, that is the reason we stay silent. Like it or not, for many people, that is the safest way to protect themselves. This is their bottom line.
Lam was asked during an interview earlier this week what he saw as the best way forward for Hong Kong, given that many young people don’t believe “one country, two systems” is working. He said he supports independence. We appreciate Lam’s courage to speak his mind, but we have no right to ask others to be martyrs and, certainly, no one – whether an arrested seller of banned books, the politicians who supported him, or anyone else for that matter – has the right to arbitrarily draw for Hongkongers a “bottom line” for action.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party