23 October 2016
A file photo shows protesters waving photos of Lee Bo outside Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong. Despite his denials, many suspect that the bookseller was abducted by mainland secret agents. Photo: AFP
A file photo shows protesters waving photos of Lee Bo outside Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong. Despite his denials, many suspect that the bookseller was abducted by mainland secret agents. Photo: AFP

Lee Bo saga: Why the suspicions will remain

Bookseller Lee Bo (also known as Lee Po) has been allowed by mainland authorities to travel back to Hong Kong.

During his first trip to the city last week following his three-month-long disappearance, Lee requested the local police to withdraw a missing-person investigation on him.

Before that, he claimed in pre-arranged interviews with Beijing-friendly newspapers that he went to mainland China “on his own accord”, and that, as a Chinese national, he feels “obliged to assist in an investigation”.

Now Lee has even decided to wind up his publishing business for good, purportedly saying that all the books he sold were “tabloid and full of fabricated slanders” and that Hong Kong’s freedom of speech “can never be the shelter for rumors and slanders”.

Lee told the police that he went to the mainland on his own “with the help of some friends” and that his disappearance “had nothing to do with abduction or hijacking”.

Yet his lips remained tight as to the details of how exactly he crossed the border.

Senior Counsel Winnie Tam Wan-chi, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, told Cable TV on the same day of Lee’s return that the unaddressed mystery shrouding Lee’s disappearance has made the incident “the most disturbing one since Hong Kong’s handover”.

“Anyone with an average level of intelligence will find the recent developments have led to more questions than answers,” she said.

In a separate TVB interview, Tam said Lee may have been intimidated and that he is afraid to speak the truth.

And, the incident, with all the dubious theories to explain it away, have “impaired Hong Kong’s core values, in particular freedom of speech and freedom of the person, head-on”, she said.

Despite the doubts and concerns among many observers, we have heard calls from the pro-Beijing camp that we should lay the matter to rest, given Lee’s return.

Legislator cum Executive Councilor Ip Kwok-him said: “Since Lee has stressed he was in no way forced to the mainland, people who are willing to believe will believe Lee’s words.”

Former Legco president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, now a member of the Chinese legislature’s standing committee, also said she buys Lee’s words and that there is no evidence of law enforcement by mainland agents in Hong Kong.

Theories like abduction are “sheer speculation”, Fan said. “If you still do not believe what Lee has said, then I cannot convince you either.”

The reality on the ground is that most Hongkongers feel jittery and skeptical but “smart people” like Ip and Fan still choose to believe whatever Lee says in front of the camera.

More than once did Lee hint that some friends “helped” him in the cross-border travel. This is why we doubt if he really volunteered to go there.

Suspicions will remain unless we know who “helped” Lee and exactly how they helped him.

Beijing, in a bid to assuage the ruffled feelings of Hongkongers, has again said that there is no change in its policies with regard to Hong Kong.

Wang Guangya (王光亞), the head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, took the initiative to convey the same message to Hong Kong journalists at this year’s NPC session.

However, when questioned by foreign reporters, Beijing’s response is always like this: “Mind your own business”.

Is Beijing aware that honesty is the best policy?

As for Lee, having fulfilled his obligation as a Chinese national to assist in an investigation, is he aware that he has another obligation, as a Hongkonger, to give a full account of the incident to all of us?

I have a sinking feeling as to whether the truth will ever come out: while Lee is tight-lipped, there will be more Beijing yes-men who will join Ip and Fan and urge Hongkongers to stop demanding answers.

Before long the police will also end its investigation with the excuse that it cannot find any proof that any law has been violated or circumvented.

The chief executive may then wrap up the entire issue with some hollow reiteration that only local law-enforcement agencies have the legal authority to enforce laws in Hong Kong.

In all this, the only thing that could become apparent is that Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and autonomy and individual liberties will remain only on paper.

There will be no more books of “fabricated slanders”, and people will become wiser and more obedient in order to play it safe.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 30.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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After going missing for weeks, Lee returned to Hong Kong suddenly and insisted that he went to the mainland on his own volition. Photo: Internet

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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