Lee Bo case poses challenge to Sino-British Joint Declaration

January 06, 2016 15:40
Causeway Bay Books (inset) has been distributing  titles that are highly embarrassing to the Chinese leadership. Photos: HKEJ

The disappearance of Lee Bo, co-owner of a Causeway Bay publishing house and bookstore that sells titles critical of China's top leadership, offers the best opportunity to test the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that provides for the implementation of the "one country, two systems" policy in Hong Kong.

Britain has confirmed that Lee is a British citizen, and that it is deeply concerned over his disappearance and that of four of his associates in the publishing house.

If it is true that he had been abducted in Hong Kong and taken across the border by mainland authorities, it would be a violation of the joint declaration signed by China and Britain.

How will London handle the situation?

For sure, this poses a challenge to the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron, especially in the light of criticisms that his administration is taking a pro-Beijing approach in exchange for massive capital investment from the world's second-largest economy.

On a visit to Beijing, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that London had made urgent inquiries with both Hong Kong and mainland authorities about Lee's disappearance.

Hammond also stressed that if Lee were charged with any offenses, he should be tried in Hong Kong.

However, his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, insisted that "this person in question is first and foremost a Chinese citizen".

In effect, Wang is saying that London should not intervene in China's internal affairs.

As things are going, there is no doubt that the Lee Bo affair is turning into a diplomatic issue, rather than just a topic of local gossip as some pro-Beijing loyalists would like to think.

The British government is also under pressure from its own constituents as British media harp on the accusation that it is turning a blind eye on China's disregard of human rights and trangressions into Hong Kong's autonomy.

In a statement, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office urged the Hong Kong government to "honor its commitment" to press freedom, adding that Chinese authorities should ensure the environment for media and publishers in Hong Kong supported "full and frank reporting".

The Lee Bo case is now under the global spotlight as it offers a stage for both Britain and China to show their commitment to Hong Kong, based on the Joint Declaration that promises autonomy for the special administrative region for 50 years until 2047.

What the world is concerned about is whether Hong Kong people's individual freedoms are under threat as there are fears that he was abducted because his company publishes and sells books that are embarrassing to officials of the Chinese Communist Party.

That Lee was able to return to China without apparently passing through immigration checkpoints supports suspicions that mainland authorities were behind his disappearance.

Given the huge cultural gap between China and Britain, it is no surprise that both nations cannot look eye to eye on the issue.

On Monday, The Independent, a British newspaper, published an opinion piece by Noah Sin asking whether London is truly committed to pursuing the issue.

"Embracing the Chinese President with a state visit in October, David Cameron expressed the human rights concerns about Hong Kong with Mr. Xi in private, only to be slammed down by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in public," Sin wrote.

In fact, Beijing has maintained a tough stance on any issue related to Hong Kong and Britain.

China's foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying insisted that matters concerning Hong Kong is a domestic affair and no foreign nation should intervene.

This means that China has already slammed the door on Britain as far as the Lee Bo case is concerned, even though Lee is a British citizen.

While London is struggling to get to the bottom of the case, Beijing is bent on playing down the issue and putting the lid on the case.

On the other hand, Hong Kong officials as well as pro-Beijing politicians performed poorly, giving the public the impression that Beijing is working behind the scene.

For example, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told a press conference on Tuesday morning: "I hope Mr. Lee Bo can provide us sufficient information to assist investigation."

His statement was assailed by netizens, who said the chief executive displayed his lack of common sense by asking a person who is missing to contact the government and help in the investigation.

Then on Tuesday afternoon, pro-Beijing lawmaker Ng Leung-sing told a Legislative Council meeting that sources had told him that Lee and four other people had been arrested by mainland law enforcers for consorting with prostitutes.

He said according to the rumor, Lee's wife got hold of "photo evidence" about her husband's dealings and subsequently withdrew her report to the Hong Kong police that her husband had been missing. Ng later apologized after his remarks drew the public's ire.

It seems that Beijing is conditioning the public mind that the five missing men were involved with mainland prostitutes in violation of mainland laws.

It is likely that the Lee Bo case will gradually fade out of the public attention, especially if the issue about the mysterious circumstances behind his disappearance is not sustained.

As such, it is important for the British government to show that they still have a responsibility to ensure Hong Kong's autonomy under the Joint Declaration.

Article 5 of the Basic Law clearly states that "the way of life [in Hong Kong] shall remain unchanged for 50 years".

But this early, the city's most cherished values such as freedom of expression and the rule of law are under threat, so much so that the bookstore chain Page One decided to remove popular but sensitive titles from its shelves.

Fear is upon us, but we cannot expect Britain, who is now bent on wooing China's investments, to take up the cudgels for us. 

We can only depend on ourselves.

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EJ Insight writer