25 October 2016
The mysterious disappearance of Lee Bo and his fellow booksellers has prompted worries whether "One Country Two Systems" is still fully functional. Photo: HKEJ
The mysterious disappearance of Lee Bo and his fellow booksellers has prompted worries whether "One Country Two Systems" is still fully functional. Photo: HKEJ

Lee case casts cloud over ‘One Country Two Systems’

It seems Hong Kong got off to a really poor start this year. Less than two weeks after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had paid a duty visit to Beijing last month, something bad happened.

The mysterious disappearance of bookseller Lee Bo has created a firestorm of public backlash and dealt yet another heavy blow to the already low public confidence in “One Country Two Systems”, apart from grabbing international headlines and arousing diplomatic concerns in UK, EU and the US.

In the wake of Lee’s disappearance, many people in Hong Kong have this thought: Does the One Country Two Systems, the guiding principle laid down in the Basic Law, exist only on paper?

Unfortunately, apart from repeating that cross-border law enforcement is unacceptable in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has not done anything tangible so far to secure Lee’s safe return.

Despite grave public concern over the alleged abduction of a Hong Kong citizen by mainland authorities, Leung has failed to take any concrete action.

In fact Lee wasn’t the first to disappear. Before him, four of his colleagues at his publishing firm had already gone missing. The reason why their disappearance didn’t draw much public and media attention is because they all went missing either in a third country or in the mainland.

However, Lee’s disappearance is different, because he simply vanished in broad daylight on Hong Kong soil, with the Immigration Department having no record of him leaving the territory.

Rumor has it that he is now being detained in the mainland after having been smuggled out of the city by some unidentified law enforcement agents. This has sparked widespread fear among locals that the freedom from political persecution enjoyed by Hong Kong citizens within our own border is in fact a lot more fragile than we think.

To make things worse, the Global Times, a tabloid under the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, said in a commentary article that all “powerful agencies” around the world have their own way of circumventing legal obstacles to get people to cooperate. The comment only added to speculation that mainland law enforcement agencies could have been involved in Lee’s disappearance.

Although the Global Times is said to have not received any authorization from the central authorities to speak on behalf of the state on this incident, so far no government official in Beijing has come forward to clarify Global Times’ remarks nor give us any reassurance.

The implications of Lee’s disappearance are profound and far-reaching because it has shaken international confidence in the “One Country Two Systems”, the main pillar on which Hong Kong relies to maintain its status as an international financial hub.

The reason why so many countries around the world are willing to grant us visa-free treatment and preferential trade arrangements is because they believe our city is a free port different from the rest of China under “One Country Two Systems”.

Once that difference is gone, so would the preferential treatment we are enjoying. And it wouldn’t surprise me if foreign investors started re-evaluating the business environment and risk factors in Hong Kong after what happened to Lee.

Lee’s sudden disappearance is also having another impact: it is triggering a rush among Hong Kong people to renew their long-forgotten British Nationals Overseas (BNO) passports.

While the saga continues to unfold, I believe the bookseller case will weigh on the minds of Hong Kong people for years to come. Meanwhile, it will certainly intensify public distrust in the Leung administration, making it even more difficult for him to govern.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 13.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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