17 November 2018
Lee Po's case might be over for now, but its diplomatic repercussions are continuing to unfold. Photo: HKEJ
Lee Po's case might be over for now, but its diplomatic repercussions are continuing to unfold. Photo: HKEJ

Lee Po case: It’s not over yet

The firestorm of controversy and speculation surrounding bookseller Lee Po’s mysterious disappearance that has engulfed our city for over two months seems to have drawn to a close after he suddenly returned to Hong Kong intact last week.

The next day after his reappearance he told the police to drop the missing-person investigation about him and urged the media to leave him alone and let him return to his normal life.

Shortly after Lee’s return, several pro-establishment heavyweights such as lawmaker Ip Kwok-him and National People’s Congress Standing Committee member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai weighed in one after the other, saying the matter is over and urging the people of Hong Kong to stop speculating about the whole thing and move on.

On the surface, Lee Po’s saga might seem over, at least from the point of view of the people of Hong Kong.

The truth is, however, the matter is far from over, as the repercussions of Lee Po’s and his colleagues’ disappearance are continuing to unfold on diplomatic levels, and these incidents have already taken their toll on China’s foreign relations.

First, the disappearance and alleged abduction of Lee Po, a naturalized British citizen, has raised diplomatic concerns in London.

In fact, the repeated and point-blank refusals by Chinese authorities to allow British consular officials to meet with Lee during his detention in the mainland have already left London pretty red-faced.

Worse still, the earlier disappearance of Gui Minhai, the co-owner of the Causeway Bay Bookstore and a naturalized Swedish citizen, and his reappearance on Chinese national TV confessing to having committed a criminal offense in the mainland, have set off a diplomatic dispute between Sweden and China.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry has already expressed strong disapproval of the way Beijing handled Gui’s case.

On the other hand, the Swedish Embassy in China also expressed deep regrets after its request to meet with Gui had been rejected by Beijing, and demanded further explanation from the Chinese authorities.

The fact that Sino-British and Sino-Swedish relations were dented by Lee’s and Gui’s cases might turn out to be a diplomatic crisis that may cost Beijing a great deal.

It is because these two European countries are among the strongest advocates of lifting the European Union’s arms embargo on China which has remained in effect since the June 4th crackdown in 1989.

As the EU is set to review its arms embargo on China later this year, it is possible that both London and Stockholm may bring down their lobbying efforts for lifting that embargo in retaliation for the cold shoulder Beijing gave them.

On the other hand, Gui’s case may also have dealt a blow to the relations between Thailand and China, because there has been widespread speculation in Hong Kong that Gui was abducted by Chinese secret agents in Thailand and smuggled across the border into China. If that was true then that would have been an outright violation of Thailand’s sovereignty.

That Gui was able to leave Thailand without the Thai authorities knowing has already deeply embarrassed Bangkok.

To make things worse, Gui’s disappearance on Thai soil and his sudden reappearance in China have angered Sweden, which happens to be Thailand’s major supplier of weapons including fighter jets and armored personnel vehicles.

After all, Gui is a Swedish citizen and there is no way Stockholm can turn a blind eye to his dissappearance.

According to news reports, the Swedish government is taking the matter very seriously and has already sent a special task force to Thailand to work with the local authorities to find out how exactly Gui left Thailand without leaving behind any departure records.

Obviously there is a lot of work cut out for the Thai foreign ministry to mend fences with Stockholm.

That Thailand has become an unsuspecting and innocent victim of Beijing’s kidnapping of a Chinese-Swedish dissident on its soil in broad daylight may soon evolve into a triangular diplomatic crisis among the three countries.

If there was conclusive evidence proving that Gui Min-hai and Lee Po were really kidnapped by Chinese secret agents, then China would become the next country after North Korea that is known to have carried out state-sponsored abduction of political dissidents on foreign soil.

The abduction of Gui Minhai, Lee Po and their colleagues in fact remind people of the assassination of the Taiwanese American biographer Henry Liu (劉宜良), better known by his pen name Chiang Nan (江南), in Daly City, California, by Taiwanese intelligence in October 1984 on the orders of the ruling Kuomintang.

The KMT wanted Henry Liu dead because he was about to publish a biography on the then Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo(蔣經國), which would touch on some previously unknown secrets about his early private life.

Liu’s assassination grabbed international headlines and outraged then US President Ronald Reagan.

Relations between Washington and Taipei hit a record low because of the state-sponsored murder, and as a result, President Chiang fell out of favor with the US government.

Chiang died a couple of years later, giving rise to his indigenous successor Lee Teng-hui(李登輝), who would later change the political landscape of Taiwan forever.

To a certain extent, Lee Po’s case does bear some resemblance to Chiang Nan’s case, because even though Li is still alive and well, rumors have it that the Chinese authorities were after him because he had published a book on President Xi Jinping’s secret romantic affairs.

Throughout Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping’s reign, not a single Chinese dissident living overseas was kidnapped or murdered by the Communist Party.

However, it seems President Xi is determined to surpass his predecessors in cracking down on dissent.

That said, it is very likely that Gui Minhai and Lee Po won’t be the last Chinese dissidents to vanish on foreign soil.

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