Lee Bo case and what it tells us about Beijing's fears

January 18, 2016 17:39
A group of lawmakers stage a protest over suspected detention of Hong Kong booksellers by China and the erosion of “One Country Two Systems". Photo: HKEJ

The consternation in Hong Kong over the case of five missing booksellers – especially the most recent incident involving Lee Bo, who is feared to have been kidnapped and smuggled into the Chinese mainland – shows that the chief concern of the local population has not changed since before the handover in 1997: Ensuring that their personal security, guaranteed under British colonial rule, will continue after China retook sovereignty.

The fear of the loss of rights and freedoms – not a consuming desire for democracy – was what drove 10 percent of the Hong Kong populace to seek refuge abroad before 1997. The apparent continuation of such freedoms lured many of them to return, albeit with a foreign passport as an insurance policy so that, if need be, they can again go abroad.

However, the Lee Bo case suggests that now, 18 years after China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong under the "one country, two systems" formula, Hongkongers' rights and freedoms, while still guaranteed by the Basic Law, may be subject to violation.

It is unclear if the violations have the approval of the central authorities. Lower level Chinese officials may not fully understand central government policy on Hong Kong, given the twists and turns of recent years.

After all, 20 years ago, the emphasis clearly was on "two systems". Now, the emphasis is on "one country" which, we are told, is the precondition for "two systems". Given this drastic change, it is entirely possible that security officials in Guangdong province, which adjoins Hong Kong, may think that they have a green light to take actions in the special administrative region which, after all, is an integral part of the "one country".

Since the highest priority of the Chinese government is to ensure that the Communist Party remains in power, any perceived threat to the party, such as mainlanders buying banned books in Hong Kong or taking part in anti-Communist demonstrations, may well be seen as justifying action within Hong Kong to protect the party's monopoly on power.

The dispute over cross-system interference goes back to the late 1980s, even before the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, when then leader Jiang Zemin proposed that "well water does not intrude into river water".

Jiang explained that China would not impose socialism on Hong Kong, and the latter should not try to instill capitalist ways into the mainland. This was said after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, when many in Hong Kong called for the overthrow of the Communist party.

It is likely that as long as the impact of Hong Kong's rights, such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, are confined to the former British colony, Beijing will not feel too threatened. But when they spill over into the mainland, it is a different story.

Thus, Beijing has tolerated massive annual July 4 commemorative rallies after 1997 but, in recent years, some mainlanders have taken part in such activities as well. It is known that a number of such people were arrested after their return home.

Similarly, Chinese customs officials try to keep books and newspapers published in Hong Kong out of the mainland.

It is notable that Global Times, the Beijing newspaper affiliated with the official People’s Daily, pointed out that Causeway Bay Books, the bookstore involved, had "to a large extent, targeted at the mainland" and "undercut the foundation of the mainland’s rule of law system". Thus, Global Times argued, it is "reasonable and legal" for mainland authorities to launch an investigation into the bookstore.

This suggests that the influence of Hong Kong books in the mainland is considerable and has caused the authorities there much concern. In Jiang Zemin's words, the well water of Hong Kong has intruded into the mainland's river water.

The popularity of Hong Kong books with mainland visitors is seen as a problem in Beijing. But it is a problem that must be resolved in the mainland, possibly with the Communist party opening up and making more information available so that its people won’t feel a need to seek uncensored information in Hong Kong. Alternatively, Beijing may seek to tighten controls further on the mainland.

Whatever means Beijing adopts to control its own people, it must not entail mainland officials operating in Hong Kong and violating the stated policy of "one country, two systems", which China had solemnly pledged to uphold in the United Nations more than three decades ago. The world is watching to see whether Beijing keeps its promises.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.