Tammy Tam
SCMP Columnist
City Beat
by Tammy Tam
City Beat
by Tammy Tam

Clear explanation needed on missing Hong Kong booksellers before case causes political damage

Mainland officials could face questions at annual sessions in Beijing, political allies could lose out in Legislative Council elections

It’s common sense that missing a good opportunity to provide an explanation, instead of delaying it and offering one that’s not very convincing and raises more questions than answers, can be fatal in any crisis management.

So have the mainland authorities missed the best timing to provide Hongkongers and the international community a logical answer to the mysterious disappearance of the five booksellers, two of whom are foreign passport holders?

To many in Hong Kong, the answer at this stage seems to be an obvious “yes”.

Though more details of the case are yet to be revealed, what has been reported so far by the official mainland media has not only failed to clear public doubts but created quite an embarrassment for both governments.

The latest official clue as to what could have happened was a video released last week by state broadcaster CCTV of Gui Minhai, who disappeared without trace in Thailand about three months ago.

But the story Gui told, of being tortured by his conscience for killing a girl in a drink-driving accident 12 years ago and thus deciding to turn himself in, didn’t change the negative perception among quite a few people.

Neither did a letter from another missing bookseller, Lee Po, accusing Gui of dragging him into trouble, help much to clear the air.

What’s awkward was the helplessness of the Hong Kong government, which was well illustrated by the fact that, for more than two weeks, it was clueless on the matter, even though Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying kept saying he and the Security Bureau had tried to contact mainland authorities “at all levels”, with no progress so far on the government request to see Lee Bo. In the latest, unexpected development, Lee’s wife was allowed to meet him at a secret mainland location where he was said to be “assisting investigations”.

Such helplessness can easily be translated into evidence of the weakness of the Hong Kong government. In a situation without a convincing official account, only piecemeal reports by mainland media and provocative commentaries from the hardline Global Times, which used the term “powerful agencies” to describe mainland law enforcement authorities, the perception among the public naturally tends to be negative rather than receptive to the mainland’s official version.

Thus, another group likely to be affected by this incident is the pro-establishment camp as a whole. It is an election year in the city, which means the longer the matter drags on without a clearer picture being presented, the more embarrassing it is for the government’s political allies. They, too, can do no more than urge both governments to do more.

People can see that there has been no substantial progress yet, but they’re being urged not to jump to any hasty conclusion when the perceived conclusion is already almost there. No wonder some have expressed deep concern that the snowballing effect would have an unfavourable effect on the camp’s efforts to win as many Legislative Council seats as possible later this year.

With the approach of the Lunar New Year, the most important festival for family reunions for Chinese people, will Lee Po still be “assisting investigations” or be able to come home? And will a clearer clarification of the whole case be made?

Also, following the Lunar New Year, the big annual political event takes place in Beijing – meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The fate of the five booksellers, if it is still not fully revealed to the public by then, will surely become the must-ask question for Hong Kong and overseas reporters during the meetings.

To many, the simple logic is that if the full story is not told, there must be something to hide.

While the mainland authorities keep trying to tell Hongkongers that they should understand that “one country, two systems” also means Hong Kong should not interfere in mainland affairs, including publishing certain books which are lawful here but have a negative impact on the mainland, the way they handle the consequences of this case doesn’t seem to encourage sensible debate.

It is not only a lesson in crisis management but also one to reflect on what the comprehensive and accurate implementation of “one country, two systems” means.