In the autumn of 1971, Ming Pao Daily published an exclusive that stunned the world – Lin Biao (林彪), No. 2 in China’s leadership, had died in a plane crash in Mongolia after a failed coup against chairman Mao Zedong.
Journalistically, the newspaper was taking a risk.
It had received details of this astonishing event from an informant but could not check it, given the intense secrecy that prevailed in China during the Cultural Revolution.
But the editor trusted his instincts and went with the story.
That established Hong Kong as the No. 1 place in the world to follow events in China — a city where more information about the mainland is available than anywhere else on Earth, through books, the media and informants who bring many kinds of intelligence from north of the border.
But this role is now at risk.
Commercial pressure, acts by Beijing and its agents in Hong Kong and self-censorship are reducing the freedom of speech and publication and people’s willingness to publish sensitive information.
The disappearance last week of Lee Bo (李波), following that of four of his associates, is only the latest development in this trend.
The evidence points to the fact that Lee was kidnapped from the Chai Wan warehouse of his publishing house and taken illegally to Shenzhen.
There is no official record of his having left the city. Three of the others disappeared while visiting the mainland; and the other disappeared while on holiday in Thailand.
Lee’s bookstore is in an office building in Causeway Bay, one of the most popular places in Hong Kong for mainlanders to shop.
It was convenient for them to go there and buy books that are banned in China about political figures and events in the mainland.
Most people buy one or two copies for their own use and to give to a friend; they do not buy many, for fear that they will attract the notice of customs and be confiscated.
These books are a tradition in Hong Kong stretching back decades.
Many use material provided by one or another faction in the Communist Party that is seeking to blacken the name of a rival.
They are on sale at the Hung Hom terminus of the railway to Guangzhou, at the airport and street stalls all over the city.
Much of this material comes from the government.
Shortly after the arrest of leading figures like Beijing mayor Chen Xitong or Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, books appeared in Hong Kong with detailed accounts of their “crimes” and their love lives.
The speed with which they came out indicated that they had been written well before the arrests were announced.
Others were the work of independent publishers who acquired exclusive and precious material – like The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang, and The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by his personal doctor, Li Zhisui.
Another rich source of material has been China-watching magazines that carry detailed analysis of historical and political events in the mainland. This is of limited interest to Hong Kong people, so their main market is mainland visitors to the city.
These magazines lived on the financial edge. Few companies are willing to advertise in them, so they survive on a readership of several thousands and donations from sympathizers.
In the past, Beijing tolerated these books and magazines because they did not circulate publicly in the mainland.
If they did enter, they remained in the hands of the buyers, who were too afraid to place them in the public domain.
Under the government of President Xi Jinping, this has changed.
Jin Zhong, editor of Open (開放) magazine, which was founded in 1987, said Beijing decided to challenge his and other long-established China-watching magazines by flooding the market with similar-looking titles published by its representatives in Hong Kong.
“They look the same and have similar names,” Jin said. “How can a mainland visitor tell the difference?
“By doing so, they reduced the sales of the long-established ones.”
He closed his print edition at the end of 2014 and now publishes only online.
Beijing has moved actively to intimidate the publishers of the political books.
In 2013, Yiu Man-tin (姚文田 also known as Yao Wentian), 73, chief editor of Morning Bell Press (晨鐘書局) and a Hong Kong resident, was lured to Shenzhen on the pretense of delivering paint to a friend and taken into custody.
Yiu was preparing a dissident’s book about Xi.
He was sentenced to 10 years in jail for smuggling.
The apparent kidnapping of Lee and his four associates is part of the same policy.
China’s secret police and its agents appear to be able to operate in Hong Kong with increasing freedom.
If challenged by the local authorities, they can evoke laws on national security – a central government perogative.
The editors and publishers of these books and magazines have always lived in a dangerous and unstable world.
Few of their books have made large sums of money.
They never knew if Beijing would act against their families, friends and sources in the mainland or send agents to work in their companies.
Several Hong Kong mainstream bookstores have stopped selling these kinds of books, for fear of trouble.
Will Hong Kong be able to survive as the best-informed city in China?
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