The ‘Mystery’ of Hong Kong’s Disappearing Booksellers

The shareholders and employees of a Hong Kong bookstore dropped off the map. Who abducted them, and why?

HONG KONG — Three titles among thousands in the anti-Beijing bookstores located here will give you a taste of what’s available. There’s Mao Zedong and the Red Guard, there’s Xi Jinping’s Internal Dialog, and of course there’s Princelings: Killing the Nation.

Such books, anathema to the mainland government, are published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and churned out at breakneck speed. If a “tiger”—a high level public official—is snagged in President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, expect to see a slew of books about the unfortunate man’s private and personal lives within a week or two. A lot of it might be hearsay or gossip, but that doesn’t stop readers from snapping up the volumes.

For the booksellers and publishers, it’s a risky business. As some have learned recently, they can disappear suddenly and without explanation.

On Dec. 30, one of the shareholders of the Causeway Bay Book Bookstore, Lee Bo, lost contact with his wife. Earlier that day, Mr. Lee received a phone call for a large order, and went to his warehouse to pick up the books so he could deliver them to the client personally.

Lee’s wife finally received a phone call that evening. The caller ID showed a phone number registered in Shenzhen. Lee said to her—in Putonghua, instead of Cantonese, which they normally use—that he was in Shenzhen “assisting in an investigation,” and he wouldn’t be back soon. He also told her to be careful, to take care of their son, and not to publicize the incident.

RTHK, the public radio broadcaster in Hong Kong, reported that the Immigration Department had no records of Lee Bo leaving Hong Kong for Mainland China.

Two days later, Lee was still missing, so his wife went to the police in Hong Kong for help. They told her that Lee is a “normal person, so he is free to cross the border between Hong Kong and Mainland China as he pleases, and there is no reason to mount an investigation.”

Last October, another shareholder and three employees who work for Lee’s bookstore disappeared under the same murky circumstances. One of the men, a Swedish national named Gui Minhai, was in Thailand when he apparently fell off the face of the Earth.

At the time, Mr. Lee had told BBC News, “I suspect all of them were detained. Four people went missing at the same time.” Chinese officials still have not confirmed or denied that the four men are in custody in Mainland China.

These disappearances aren’t limited to booksellers or publishers in Hong Kong. The same kind of tactics have been used against Chinese activists, human-rights lawyers, government officials about to be purged, business tycoons, and high-finance types who were blamed for last year’s stock market crash.

Since Lee Bo is a British national, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office has expressed deep concern about his disappearance. During a visit in Beijing two weeks ago, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Beijing would be guilty of an “egregious breach” if it is ever confirmed that Chinese security forces were involved in the abduction of Lee. The evening before Hammond’s statement, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi ignored Lee Bo’s British citizenship and said the bookseller is “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.”

There are other serious legal ramifications. Under the “one country, two systems” formula that establishes the sovereign relationship between China and Hong Kong, the former British colony is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy in its judicial and political affairs. In particular, Mainland Chinese police officers are not allowed to operate in Hong Kong.

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Removing Hong Kong’s booksellers and publishers from public sight is part of a larger campaign waged by Beijing to plug the criticisms coming from the southeastern city.

Hong Kong enjoys a greater freedom of speech than Mainland China, and critics of the Chinese Communist Party’s actions have, in the past, been able to express their concerns without a huge fear of retaliation. But things have changed in recent years.

Kevin Lau, the mild-mannered former chief editor of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper with a reputation for engaging in aggressive investigative reporting, was attacked by two men in February 2014. He suffered stab wounds to his back and legs. Less than a year before Lau was attacked, Chen Ping, the publisher of a magazine that is banned in Mainland China, was beaten by two men wielding batons. In a separate incident, masked men threatened the workers of Next Media Group and burned 26,000 copies of Apple Daily, a popular anti-CCP tabloid in Hong Kong.

Eleven people, all with links to triad gangs, were arrested in connection with Lau’s attack, with the two main suspects detained in Guangdong province, which is next door to Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post cited a source close to Guangdong’s Public Security Bureau, and said each attacker was paid US$129,000 to carry out the assault on Lau. However, it was never made clear who paid the pair.

On Sunday night, state-run CCTV broadcast a statement by Gui Minhai, the man who had disappeared from Thailand in October. “For so many years, I was abroad, I was in constant fear and discomfort, and often had nightmares,” Gui said. “I also dreamed that I would return home, and see my relatives.”

In his confession, Gui said he was involved in a drunken hit-and-run in Ningbo, a city on the eastern coast of China, 12 years ago. The collision killed a university student. A report by Xinhua claims he used fake identification documents to leave China after the incident, and eventually obtained Swedish citizenship, which Gui addressed in his statement. “Even though I have Swedish citizenship, I truly feel I am Chinese, and my roots are still in China,” Gui said. “I hope the Swedish authorities can respect my personal choice, respect my rights and privacy, and let me solve my problems on my own.”

The report ends on an ominous note: Gui Minhai is suspected of other crimes, we are told. Other individuals involved in the case are assisting with the investigation.

After Gui's appearance on CCTV, the Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department acknowledged that they have Lee Bo in custody.

What is evident, by observing the series of attacks and disappearances targeting anti-CCP publishers, is that Beijing is touchy about the printed word.

But the CCP’s freakishly tight control of all forms of media, particularly in print and online, doesn’t simply limit the consumption of information. It hinders economic development. Chinese tech companies are unable to use the tools that are used by their counterparts in every other part of the world. Scholars need to navigate nagging obstacles to conduct research and generate research papers. Students do not have access to the same wealth of information available to anyone else, particularly the modern history of their own nation.

In major Mainland Chinese cities, propaganda banners, posters, and murals blanket downtown areas. Certain words are tossed around the most: prosperity, democracy, civilization, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, kindness. Yet dissent, or even mere disagreement with the CCP’s policy, is enough to land one in sticky, extra-legal situations involving threats issued by state-sanctioned agents or crippling physical assaults committed by hired hands.

It’s not a new idea that the gentle public face of Beijing hides an iron fist, but Hongkongers are seeing a gradual but incessant creep of the CCP’s thuggish tactics and influence in the city, with no ability to riposte.