19 November 2019
Maria Tam says there is no evidence Lee Bo (inset) and his four colleagues acted against their will. Photos: RTHK, internet
Maria Tam says there is no evidence Lee Bo (inset) and his four colleagues acted against their will. Photos: RTHK, internet

With an incomplete Lee Bo script, Beijing fills in the blanks

Chinese authorities want us to believe that the five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared last month voluntarily returned to China.

But few of us are convinced, even though two of the men have emerged to reassure us that nothing is the matter.

Lee Bo was confirmed by Guangdong police on Monday to be in the country and Gui Minhai was paraded on state television the previous day but quickly shuffled out of sight.

Gui said he had surrendered to the police for a 2003 drunk-driving homicide conviction.

Precious little is known about the circumstances of their reappearance, let alone disappearance. 

We know from reports that Lee had written to his wife that he had gone to China to help in an unspecified investigation and that Guangdong police confirmed his whereabouts days later.

It took a request from Interpol and the Hong Kong government for a meeting with Lee before the Chinese authorities finally let the first official word out on him.

(Interpol is involved because Lee is a British passport holder and Gui is a Swedish national, making the case an international police matter).

Now comes Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying he has “nothing to add” to the official accounts on the two men.

It’s this black hole in the story that makes the official version of events suspicious.

There’s more than a hint of coincidence that all five men are from the same Hong Kong publisher that puts out books critical of Beijing.

Which is why conspiracy theories — from the men being kidnapped by Chinese security agents to being smuggled across the border to the mainland — are not going away.

The problem with the official script is that it has a beginning and an end but the middle is left to the Chinese propaganda authorities to write the missing chapters, something like filling the blanks.

You get a sense of how desperately China’s censors are trying to play down every little detail. State organ Global Times said the incident should not have been allowed to play out in public in the first place.

Now that it is, this meandering saga is beginning to run away from them.

The Hong Kong government and its pro-Beijing allies are doing their part by reminding people not to speculate. 

Maria Tam, a Hong Kong deputy to the National People’s Congress, said there is no evidence the men acted against their will.

Some in the pro-establishment camp know Beijing is pulling the wool over our eyes and stalling for time in order to come up with the best possible narrative.

But not all are impressed with the story so far.

New People Party lawmaker Michael Tien said he hopes China can “make the whole story reasonable and acceptable” to the public.

And in the same breath, he expressed doubt Lee ended up in the mainland on his own free will.

China affairs commentator Johnny Lau accused China of trying to make up a story to divert attention from the underlying issue — suppression of free speech and dissent in the name of national security.

Hong Kong people understand that the matter is completely out of the hand of Leung Chun-ying but they hold him responsible nonetheless in this instance for not doing enough to uphold “one country, two systems”, which is supposed to protect their rights and freedoms.

In fact, this whole episode is another test of the mainland’s obligations under that governing principle which is coming under increased efforts by Beijing to weaken it.   

But in this specific case, the Hong Kong government does have some leverage. 

It can go directly to Zhang Dejiang, the top Beijing official responsible for Hong Kong and deputy head of national security, and ask him to intervene.

Whether that is helpful is an entirely different matter.

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EJ Insight writer