26 October 2016
Guangdong Governor Zhu Xiaodan (inset) said the case involving Lee Bo is being handled by the "relevant department". Photos: Reuters, i-Cable News
Guangdong Governor Zhu Xiaodan (inset) said the case involving Lee Bo is being handled by the "relevant department". Photos: Reuters, i-Cable News

Will Beijing settle Lee Bo case soon amid global pressure?

The case of the five missing booksellers has now become an international issue.

It’s not just because two of the personalities involved are foreign nationals, or because it could be a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle under the Basic Law.

It has become a global issue because it touches on China’s behavior as a member of the world community.

The case raises concerns about the existence of a “powerful agency” in China that could operate outside the country’s borders and, if necessary, interfere in the internal affairs of other jurisdictions to achieve its own ends.

The Global Times, a hard-hitting tabloid under the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, hinted at its existence in an opinion piece about the Lee Bo case.

Commenting on how Lee was able to return to China without leaving any trace of his having gone through the immigration checkpoint at the border, the newspaper said all “powerful agencies” around the world have their own way of circumventing legal obstacles to get people to cooperate.

And because China, along with its legal, justice and law enforcement systems, is now on the spotlight, there is a chance that Beijing will try to settle this case as soon as possible to avoid any negative impact on the nation’s international image.

On Monday morning, officials from Guangdong province made their first comments on the case.

Governor Zhu Xiaodan said: “The case is being handled by the relevant department. These individual matters will have to be evaluated by their practical facts. I believe there will be a fair and practical judgment.”

He also said he did not think the case will affect the overall relationship of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau. “It definitely won’t.”

Another Guangdong official, Public Security Department deputy party secretary Li Xingxiong, said he had nothing to say about Lee Bo’s case.

The statements of the Guangdong officials are significant not only for their ambiguity and elusiveness but also for hinting at a “relevant department” that is behind the disappearances.

It will be recalled that no less than Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has pledged to get to the bottom of the disappearances.

However, local authorities remain in the dark about the particulars of the case.

In fact, it’s bizarre that Hong Kong police had to rely on Lee’s wife and reports from the Hong Kong-based publications of the pro-Beijing Sing Tao News Corp. for the latest developments about the case.

Sing Tao reported that Lee met his wife on Saturday afternoon in a hotel at an undisclosed location in China and that he is helping with an investigation related to his company.

After the news report came out, Hong Kong police said they received a letter from Lee, brought by his wife, saying that they shouldn’t bother investigating the case.

In the letter, Lee assured the police that he was free to do as he liked, and that he was physically and mentally well.

Now why would the Hong Kong police, who claim to have direct and official communication channels with their mainland counterparts, have to rely on Lee’s wife and Sing Tao for the latest updates on the case? Hong Kong people simply can’t understand this. 

In social forums, some internet users raised a number of questions regarding the case:

1) How was Lee able to return to China without an entry permit?

2) How was Lee’s wife able to meet him in China, without alerting Hong Kong authorities, and later deliver his letter to the police?

3) Where did the lawmaker get information that Lee and company could have been arrested for consorting with mainland prostitutes, although he later apologized for spreading the rumor?

4) Why did Lee blame his business partner Gui Minhai for dragging him into the case, although what it is about remains unclear?  

5) Why did Lee and his wife pose for a snapshot which was later used for newspaper publication?

All these questions hint at a “powerful agency” that is stage-managing the case.

However, the story, as it is developing, is riddled with holes.

For example, in the snapshot of Lee and his wife, why is the background showing a grassland with no building or any other landmark? Has the picture been photoshopped to avoid identification of their meeting place?

If Lee has freedom of movement, why did he choose to meet his wife in a mainland hotel? Why not in Hong Kong?

Did Lee’s wife go to China under a special arrangement or through the immigration checkpoint at the border?

This case has raised so many questions that any average Hong Kong individual can’t simply believe what has been said about the case so far.

Hong Kong people can’t take everything at face value. And that’s their answer to Beijing loyalist Maria Tam, who said: “Why don’t you [Hong Kong people] believe them [Lee and Gui] when they say they returned to China out of their own will?”

Lawmaker Tam Yiu-Chung also urged Hong Kong people to respect Lee’s decision to return to China and help in the investigation of a case related to his company.

But if there is anything that we can learn from this case, it is that our government officials have been shunted aside and therefore are in no position to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle.

In fact, the case is not only about Beijing’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” policy but could have implications on the sovereignty of other independent nations. Gui Minhai, a Swedish national, was in Thailand before he disappeared and later resurfaced in China.

Yu Ying-Shih, a Chinese-American historian and Sinologist, said Hong Kong may lose its free port status once the “one country, two systems” is seen to have failed in this case.

Citing Jerome Alan Cohen, a professor of law at New York University School of Law and an expert in Chinese law, Yu said the case could put China’s leaders in a bad light as it could show that China is having problems in dealing with the international community, particularly in its attempt to enforce its laws in other jurisdictions.

Indeed, the Lee Bo case has become a serious international issue. Beijing should settle it as soon as possible.

Otherwise, China’s leaders may face tough questions from international media about the case during the annual session of the National People’s Congress in March.

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EJ Insight writer

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