How safe are Hong Kong citizens from Beijing's reach?

January 04, 2016 16:12
Causeway Bay Books focuses on publications about internal conflicts and power struggles in the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Photo: HKEJ

At least five people connected with a book publisher in Causeway Bay that is critical of the Beijing leadership have been reported missing over the past few months.

There are growing fears that they have been abducted in Hong Kong by Chinese agents and are being held on the mainland.

These developments, if true, open up a new dimension in the territory's relations with the central government.

Under the "one country, two systems" principle that governs our relationship with Beijing, Hong Kong people had been given the assurance that our freedom of expression will be respected and the rule of our own laws will prevail.

But if agents of the central government can come here, arrest Hong Kong citizens, and take them to the mainland for investigation or prosecution, apparently without the knowledge and approval of our local authorities, how long can we feel assured that our rights and freedoms under the Basic Law will remain protected and inviolate?

Lee Bo is the fifth man with links to the publishing house Mighty Currents, which also owns the bookstore Causeway Bay Books, to disappear.

According to Lee's wife, she received a call from her husband on Wednesday, the night he disappeared, saying he was being investigated.

She said the caller display showed a Shenzhen number. Then, she found that Lee's permit to return to China was still at home.

She was understandably troubled: how could her husband go to the mainland without his travel papers?

She became even more worried when the government said there is no immigration record of Lee crossing the border.

Mrs. Lee said her husband also told her not to publicize the incident, but she decided to seek the help of the police on Friday, believing that her husband was not involved in any wrongdoing.

It's quite troubling that this case has been unfolding since several months ago with only a few people knowing about it.

Only Apple Daily and Ming Pao Daily News played up the story on the front page, while other local newspapers just published small items about the case of "a missing man".

Some viewers said Television Broadcasts did not even run the story during its prime time news programs over the past few days.

It's understandable if local media did not immediately realize the significance of the story as a challenge to the "one country, two systems" principle and viewed it as simple case of a missing person, but it is truly worrying if some editors in some news outlets decided to play down the story out of political concern rather than the result of their professional judgment.

So thanks to Mrs. Lee, who came out in the open to tell the police about her missing husband, and student activist Agnes Chow, who posted a video on YouTube, telling the world about the disappearances, the case has now been thrown wide open.

It is amazing, though, how some government officials and politicians have tried to play down the case.

When asked about the disappearances, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam responded, "Happy New Year, reporters."

On the other hand, Executive Council member Fanny Law, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam and acting Secretary for Security John Lee urged the people not to speculate at this stage.

They didn't want to be drawn into a discussion of the possibility that Chinese officials were exercising their powers in the territory, arresting Hong Kong people and taking them to China without notifying local authorities.

It is quite clear that they don't want to put their bosses in Beijing in a bad light. No matter if the case involves a possible violation of the territory's autonomy, even if it could be a transgression of the "one country, two systems" principle, what is foremost in the minds of our officials that they not be perceived as criticizing the powers that be in Beijing. 

The case also lends substance to public concerns over the co-location arrangement for the high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and the mainland.

The scheme is not simply about facilitating immigration checks by allowing mainland officials to perform their duties at the West Kowlook terminus. It's about mainland officials exercising their authority in Hong Kong, which will be a violation of the Basic Law.

Surely, the case of the missing men will provide the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council with a new argument to oppose the government's request for additional funding request to complete the project.

How our government will handle the case will show us how it regards the personal safety of every Hong Kong citizen and protect their rights and freedoms.

Lee's company publishes books that reveal the hidden stories about the Communist Party, particularly about the internal conflicts and struggle for power among its top leaders.

Some political commentators believe that four of the missing staff of the bookshop have been held to prevent them from publishing books that are highly embarrassing to some very senior officials in Beijing. The books that it publishes and sells are quite popular among Chinese intellectuals.

In Hong Kong, Mighty Currents and its bookshop have no problems as there are laws here that protect their rights. But how can our officials protect those rights if they are not willing to take up the case of the missing staff members with their bosses in Beijing?

On Monday, the state-owned Global Times (Chinese edition) published an article assailing Causeway Bay Books for meddling in the mainland's internal affairs and disrupting social harmony.

The newspaper accused the bookstore of "fabricating stories" about mainland authorities and using "untrue sources", making the books as "sources of rumors".

The article clearly indicates that the disappearance of the five men linked to the publishing house concerns freedom of the press in Hong Kong and the interest of Beijing authorities.

If Hong Kong authorities will just allow this case to pass without raising the matter with central authorities, we might as well forget that we have our own laws here that guarantee our right to freely express our views and sentiments.

And in this digital age, when every one can voice out their opinion and thoughts, are we all in danger of getting arrested or disappearing one of these days?

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EJ Insight writer