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China’s abduction and arrest of publishers of scandalous books in Hong Kong is being seen as a brazen challenge to the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. By Hamish McDonald.

China cracks down on Hong Kong publishers

Books banned in mainland China on sale in a Hong Kong bookstore.
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

When four colleagues at his publishing and bookselling business disappeared last October, one from a holiday flat in Thailand and the others on separate trips into mainland China, Lee Bo was worried about them but not about himself.

“I am not worried. I have avoided going to the mainland for many years,” he told The South China Morning Post in November – although this line was not included in the story at the time. Lee, 65, even held a British passport as well as his local citizenship in case things ever got really bad in Hong Kong.

On January 30, Lee was at his Causeway Bay Books, one of several bookshops selling salacious Chinese-language accounts of the alleged plots and scandals of China’s communist elite, many published by his own company, Mighty Current Media, run in partnership with one of the missing men, Gui Minhai, a literature graduate from Beijing who now holds Swedish citizenship.

Among the books were Mistresses of the Chinese Communist Party, Secrets of Wives of Chinese Communist Party Officials and Women of the Shanghai Clique. Another, Xi Jinping and The House of Cards, suggests the current communist supremo will seek to extend his term beyond the usual 10 years. Tianjin Nuclear Explosion claims the disastrous industrial fire last August in the port city started when a gunfight set off a “micro-nuclear warhead” smuggled in by rivals to assassinate Xi.

However improbable or unsourced, the books are snapped up by the millions of Chinese tourists who stream through Causeway Bay and other shopping centres in the former British colony. And why not? In 1971, local newspaper Ming Pao reported Mao Zedong’s trusted defence minister and heir apparent had attempted a coup against the Great Helmsman and then died when his getaway aircraft crashed in Mongolia − and it was true.

So that afternoon, Lee thought nothing of it when he got a phone call ordering a dozen books, including several on the private life of Xi Jinping. Before heading home he went to his warehouse in Chai Wan, an industrial area.

Later, Ming Pao reported, police found security camera video showing a man in a cap getting into the building’s lift behind Lee as he went in and out. Then an eyewitness told police he saw several men jostle and push Lee into a van, as a bystander vainly tried to intervene. The van drove off and Lee dropped out of contact.

On January 5, Lee briefly phoned his wife, Sophie Choi Ka-ping, and sent a fax to his office, saying he was “OK” and “helping an investigation”. He said he had gone to Shenzhen, Hong Kong’s mirror city across the mainland border, “in his own way”. Choi confirmed that his travel documents remained at home. Police said there was no record of him exiting the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which has its own border controls.

In other words, people were supposed to believe Lee had not only gone into a danger zone of which he was well aware, but had done so illegally. On January 10, several thousand people gathered in the city centre calling on Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive – as the effectively Beijing-chosen successors to the British governors have been known since the 1997 handover – to demand an explanation from mainland authorities.

Adding to the public anger, one of the pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, only half elected by popular franchise, said he’d been told by “an old friend” that “the five bookstore guys were rumoured to have taken illegal boats to smuggle themselves into the mainland to frequent sex workers”.

Lee’s business partner, Gui Minhai, meanwhile was missing. Investigations by exiled Chinese dissident Bei Ling found that two weeks after disappearing from his Pattaya holiday apartment in Thailand, Gui had phoned the management to say four friends would be staying in it. The four collected his passport, downloaded all files on his computer, and had tried to take away the computer but were stopped by managers.

On January 17 Gui resurfaced − on mainland television, confessing that he had voluntarily returned to China to face justice over a drink-driving offence in 2003, in which he had killed a pedestrian. “I do not want any individual or organisation, including Sweden, to involve themselves in, or interfere with, my return to China,” Gui said. “Although I have Swedish citizenship, I truly feel that I am still Chinese – my roots are in China.”

The segment showed Gui wearing two different T-shirts, suggesting it had been patched together. Records of the 2003 case, meanwhile, show that it had been settled – Gui paid compensation to the victim’s family, and received a two-year suspended sentence. If there was any crime, it was leaving China during the two-year parole, hardly a cause of such remorse.

On February 4, Hong Kong police received a letter from the public security bureau in neighbouring Guangdong province saying the three other bookshop and publishing staffers − Lui Por, Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kee − were under arrest and investigation as they were “suspected to be involved in a case relating to a person named Gui, and were involved in illegal activities on the mainland”.

Book publishing in Hong Kong was not without risk before. In 2013, Yiu Man-tin of Morning Bell Press got a request from a friend in Shenzhen to bring across some tins of a paint not available locally. He was arrested on arrival and given 10 years’ jail for “smuggling” an “industrial chemical”. Wang Hanfei, editor of the China Special Report newsletter, recently finished three years’ jail, preceded by what he says were beatings and torture.

In both cases, they had stepped outside Hong Kong, into areas where authorities not only don’t recognise dual nationality but effectively assert jurisdiction over Hong Kong in “state security” matters.

Gui Minhai’s case, and that of asylum-seeking journalist Li Xin, who disappeared from Thailand last month, are different. They show that Chinese agents are abducting dissidents and political refugees from neighbouring “soft” states such as Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, where compliant governments sometimes hand them over anyway.

Lee Bo’s case now suggests Chinese security agencies are increasingly contemptuous of harder jurisdictions such as Hong Kong, too, and are chasing more than the usual corruption suspects. A document titled the “Guangdong Action Plan” has been floating around for a year, with its stated goal to “wipe out at the source” illegal and pornographic publications.

At the end of January, the Ministry of Public Security announced it was setting up a new Department of Overseas Fugitives Affairs to bring back offenders and recover stolen funds. This takes over the existing police “Operation Fox Hunt” set up last April, which claims to have nabbed 857 fugitive suspects from 66 countries, of whom 366 were surrenders, 477 were handed over to China by foreign police, and 14 were prosecuted in foreign courts.

At home, Chinese have been cracking down. About 14 prominent defence lawyers are under arrest. A respected women’s legal aid group in Beijing was shut down last month. A Swedish activist training others in public interest litigation, Peter Dahlin, was detained for 23 days, brought on TV to confess he indirectly helped two Chinese activists threaten state security by their campaigns, and then expelled. A Christian activist from Canada who has worked on the North Korean border for 30 years, Kevin Garrett, has been charged with espionage.

In Hong Kong, Lee’s abduction is probably having its intended effect. After Yiu Man-tin’s arrest, another publisher, Jin Zhong of the Open media group, took over the book titled Xi Jinping, China’s Godfather by exiled writer Yu Jie – the one that had probably got Yiu in such trouble. But now, after Lee’s snatching, Jin has cancelled publication of a sequel and announced his plan to move to the United States. Another book predicting upheaval in China next year has been withdrawn by its author, and printers have pulped the pages. Even humble bookstalls are taking sensitive books off display.

Previous communist leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao put up with salacious or derisive books coming out in Hong Kong. The new repression goes back to Xi Jinping who, after quashing an attempt to derail his ascension in 2012 by Bo Xilai – another of the “Red Second Generation”, as children of founding revolutionaries are known – has gone on to build a personality cult around himself and his second wife, Peng Liyuan, a People’s Liberation Army songstress. It is hardly a coincidence that one of Mighty Current’s rumoured new titles was The Six Women of Xi Jinping. Xi’s agents don’t just want to shut down such publications, they also want to find out who is leaking against him.

Lee Bo’s abduction has left Hong Kong leader “CY” Leung and his officials looking weak and shifty. “It’s an unbelievable attack on the one country, two systems promise,” says Claudia Mo Man-ching, an elected member of the Legislative Council with the pro-democracy Civic Party. “But they are tight-lipped: they know it was nothing to do with public security, but with politics.”

Mainland interests meanwhile are moving into Hong Kong companies and institutions, with tycoon Jack Ma’s Alibaba group buying the biggest English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post, and vowing to use it to project China in a better light. “This is the mainlandisation of Hong Kong,” said Mo. “They are trying to turn it into another Chinese city, to rein in and control this very unruly city.”

Awkwardly, Hong Kong’s young seem to be drifting away from China and its communism. “I get the impression the Hong Kong people are going through what Taiwan experienced a decade ago, developing a strong local identity,” Mo said. “We used to call ourselves ‘Hong Kong Chinese’ and now it’s ‘HongKongers’ − the word has got into the dictionaries.” Surveys show the trend most pronounced in the under 30s.

Late last year, young directors released a collection of short films under the title Ten Years, showing dark visions of Hong Kong in 2025: young vigilantes in Mao-era uniforms throw eggs at bookstalls selling banned works; Cantonese-speaking taxi drivers get pushed out of work; hired gangsters stage a terrorist incident to help get a security law passed; a young woman immolates herself outside the British consulate.

The films – made for about $HK500,000 – have already grossed more than $HK5 million. For a while, they were more popular than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Beijing’s state-owned tabloid newspaper Global Times summed them up as a “thought virus”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Little dread books". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.  

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