How the Lee Bo case is hurting our reputation

January 11, 2016 16:07
A demonstrator wears a mask depicting Causeway Bay Books shareholder Lee Bo during a protest over the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers. Photo: Reuters

Much of the news about the bizarre disappearances of five Hong Kong book publishers has focused on the long arm of Chinese law.

And for the most part, these have been a matter for the authorities in Beijing -- at least to people looking for some certainty in the opaque communication from Lee Bo, one of the disappeared men, to his wife.

What is certain is that the publishing house is based in Hong Kong and the disappearances, although not all of which happened in Hong Kong, ultimately concern us.

So what is the Hong Kong government doing about the situation?

Leung Chun-ying has a responsibility to uphold "one country, two systems", and even if this case is a security issue for China, it is not for Hong Kong.

What it is, however, is a test of our judicial autonomy because it strikes at the heart of rule of law in Hong Kong.

Now it has reached the status of a global "cause celebre", with the United States, Britain and Sweden expressing grave concern.

None of the missing is a US citizen but Lee holds a British passport and his wife is Swedish.

However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insists Lee is “first and foremost a Chinese citizen". 

Last Monday, Leung finally had something to say about the matter in so many words.

First, Leung said his government was "extremely concerned".

Second, he acknowledged widespread speculation that Lee had been abducted by mainland security agents.

And in the same breath, he denied such was the case, saying Chinese law enforcers cannot carry out their duties in Hong Kong as "such acts would violate 'one country, two systems' and the Basic Law".

And there you have it.

Either Leung had no clue what just happened under his nose, or someone changed things around with or without his knowledge to allow the events to unfold.

The three points made by Leung last week triggered more questions from the international community, especially the US, on whether Hong Kong's political status under China and the "one country, two systems" governing principle had been trifled with. 

While the US has no direct interest in the case, it was no less resolute in expressing its concern in tandem with Britain, the other signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration that is the basis of the peaceful handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty nearly 20 years ago.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called the abductions an "egregious breach" of the agreement which Beijing has promised to keep for 50 years from 1997.

The European Union condemned the lack of official information about the men, two of whom are its citizens.

What does it take to have Leung take control of events and protect Hong Kong's reputation?

If he is only following Beijing's orders, which is not hard to imagine, he should say so and let the chips fall where they may. 

Urging people not to speculate only encourages more speculation but being transparent for once is obviously not in the plan for this government.

Meanwhile, the pro-establishment media is doing its best to muddle an already confused situation.

On Saturday, one newspaper released a video on its website in which Lee says he returned voluntarily to China to deal with "personal matters" and asks people "not to care too much about me".

He also asks them not to join a planned protest march.

The tone and manner of the message led many people to think that Lee is being used to play down the incidents.

One could argue that Lee had been free to film the video and send it to the media but its content is inconsistent with his profile as a publisher of books and materials critical of the Chinese elite.    

That did not stop more than 6,000 marchers from taking to the streets on Sunday to demand Beijing come clean.

Leung's government responded by saying it's investigating the cases and have sought assistance from mainland authorities for prompt action.

We shall see.

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EJ Insight writer