21 October 2016
Many Hong Kong-published books banned in China don't score very high on the credibility factor, yet there is something reassuring in their existence. Photo: internet
Many Hong Kong-published books banned in China don't score very high on the credibility factor, yet there is something reassuring in their existence. Photo: internet

Lee Bo, black ops and the golden goose

Brash, sassy and occasionally steamy pretty much sums up the popular press in Hong Kong, and it seems this also applies to a corner of its literary industry, as the disappearance of Lee Bo puts the spotlight on the salacious yet economically challenged world of banned books.

Presumably the content of these books – the political and sex lives of mainland cadres, politicians and tycoons – is an acquired taste, much like the racier tabloids. Take it with a pinch of salt, given the dubious veracity of their claims.

Still, there is something reassuring in their existence.

While the tabloids and books may push the boundaries between fact and fiction, the very fact that they are free to do so (bar the odd libel lawsuit) underscores a healthy attitude to freedom of expression.

That this attitude is not shared across the border with such enthusiasm is nothing new.

For years, advertising embargoes against certain elements of the press have underscored a “nibble-around-the edges” stealth approach to curbing opposing or undesirable viewpoints.

The disappearance of Lee and the other Mighty Current Media Co. publishers is, however, a potential game-changer.

The suspicion that black ops have spirited them across borders to an uncertain fate is the stuff of blockbuster novels. Nearly 20 years into “one country, two systems”, it leaps right off the page.

It is reminiscent of the “Big Spender’’ case of 1998, when gangster Cheung Tze-keung and his gang were tried and executed on the mainland for kidnappings and other offences that were primarily carried out in Hong Kong.

At the time, it was felt that the culprits should have been returned for trial here, where they would not face the death penalty.

Not much of a fight was put up, if any, to have them returned.

While the “chill effect” of the case eventually died down and indeed even lost its fervor given further instances of Hong Kong people being tried in China for crimes committed here, Lee’s disappearance hits a raw nerve.

For one thing, he is your classic underdog: the plucky publisher battling against the economic odds and political opposition to put out books that probably cater more to the appetite of mainlanders for forbidden literary fruit than a local mass audience.

The spiriting away aspect also plays on our primal fears of a dark and helpless Pinochet-esque style of crushing opposition that should feel alien in the 21st century and particularly in Hong Kong, long seen as the golden goose to our economic hinterland.

It is no coincidence that the media coverage of the publishers’ disappearance has gone stratospheric.

From New York to Canada, Australia, Britain, Spain and Portugal (“Lee Bo, El Librero hongkones desaparecido” has a particular ring to it), the story has grabbed the headlines.

These things surely do not happen in a modern developed society.

From an international perspective in particular, it is difficult to fathom why such a risky move would be taken in the name of protecting politicians’ or cadres’ sexual modesty, given the near-benign public response these days to the somewhat commonplace sexual indiscretions of politicians around the globe.

After China’s measured response to Occupy Central – the “let it fizzle out” strategy working in the long run — the publishers’ disappearance also comes across as an uncharacteristic and extreme move.

Given the importance China has thus far attached to its golden goose, it comes at a high price.

Every year, Hong Kong nudges further toward the structural uncertainty of 2047.

As each year goes by, the pluses and minuses of the politics and economics of Hong Kong are assessed and a risk premium is calculated. Trample on rights, and you assume a more negative view.

That’s the problem with living on borrowed time — every second counts.

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