Posted:  Jan. 28, 2016


By now the basic facts in the mysterious case of Hong Kong’s book dealers are well known. Local journalists have done the most they can to discover precisely how and when the five men vanished. Everything else remains unknown three months after they began disappearing in October last year.

All five were associated with Causeway Bay Books and its Mighty Current publishing house. First to go missing was Gui Minhai 【桂敏海】,  who is a co-owner of Mighty Current. He was last seen at his vacation home in Thailand. Three others disappeared about the same time as he did, last October, but they dropped out sight while traveling across the border in neighboring Guangdong province.

There were also a few articles in different media outlets about the strange phenomenon of titles that seemed to be disappearing from some Hong Kong bookstores. The New York Times picked up on the story (Oct. 20), but no one here paid must attention outside a small circle of book dealers with highly specialized inventories that are sought after mainly by mainland tourists.

The books in question are banned in China. Some tell gossipy tales about the political machinations and private lives of its communist party leaders. Nor are they all necessarily works of pure “fiction.” Mighty Current was established only recently but had developed a reputation for books critical of current paramount leader Xi Jinping.

Given the nature of Xi’s various party “house-cleaning” projects, there are no doubt many individuals with grievances and grudges to bear and tales to tell. Mighty Current was allegedly on the verge of bringing out a potboiler about his love life when the publisher’s own drama began. The final manuscript has reportedly been destroyed and will never see the light of day, but whether that goes for all earlier drafts is not known.

In any case, alarm bells began ringing loudly here only after a fifth man vanished in Hong Kong itself on December 30.  Lee Bo 【李波】disappeared while on a routine errand to collect books from the company warehouse in Chaiwan, last stop heading east along the well-travelled Hong Kong Island commuter line. Lee didn’t make it home for dinner that night as planned. His wife, Sophie Choi Ka-ping 【蔡嘉蘋 】, filed a missing person report with police the next day (Jan. 7 post).


Suddenly, two weeks later, one of the missing men reappeared … on Chinese state television of all places … where he gave an explanation of sorts. Gui Minhai claimed that he had returned from Thailand to China of his own volition … although Thai authorities have no record of his departure. Gui said he had suddenly become overwhelmed with remorse due to an old 2003 traffic accident. A young woman had been killed as a result and he was found guilty on a drunk-driving charge for which he received a two-year suspended jail sentence.  Soon afterward, he fled the country using a false identity, thus also violating the conditions of his sentence. Having done so, he would be liable to serve the two years in jail.   The January 17 CCTV interview was accompanied by a New China News Agency write-up the same day.*

After the accident but before going into the Hong Kong book business, Gui went to Europe where he acquired Swedish citizenship. His wife currently lives in Germany. Their daughter was born in Sweden and is now at school in Britain.

Meanwhile Ms. Choi had also been in contact with her husband. In phone calls, letters, and messages, he too claimed he had travelled to China of his own accord “in his own way.” Like Gui, Lee sought to explain how he had managed to cross the border without any of the relevant authorities having any record of his travels. Lee was not carrying his cross-border travel permit when he left home on December 30, nor presumably the British passport which he also holds.

Among the messages was a short video that showed him repeating the same story in person. He also said, implausibly, that he couldn’t understand why such a fuss was being made here about his case (Singtao Daily, Jan. 10). Of course, he would know full well why the protests and demonstrations and media stories had become regular occurrences since the day his disappearance became known. Both men seemed to be reading from the same script: they had gone to China on their own and told everyone else to forget about it.

Except that Lee had begun turning against his erstwhile colleague. Lee said in one message that he had learned some unsavory things he did not know before about Gui Minhai’s complicated past. He also wrote that he was working well with whoever was holding him and had been made to feel they were his “friends.”

Then on January 23 another surprise message arrived: this one sent to the Hong Kong police by Ms. Choi herself. The police and Hong Kong government and even Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office seem to be playing the role of passive bystanders in this drama with Ms. Choi serving as the sole conduit for information about her husband. She withdrew her missing person complaint soon after the first few messages began arriving and convinced her they were genuinely from him.

The January 23 message included a photo of the couple taken at some unidentified locale across the border where she had been allowed a brief visit last weekend (Singtao Daily, Jan. 24). They wanted everyone to know he was fine, no problems, safe and well, and was acting as a witness, helping the authorities with their inquiries. She nevertheless refused to disclose even to the police here the location of their meeting.

But according to the letter from him that she passed on to the police after returning to Hong Kong, he asked them to stop wasting their time investigating his case because he is not missing and is not being investigated for any crime. He also claimed that his wife had been duped. She had not intended to file the missing person report but had been encouraged by unnamed meddling others to do so (Ta Kung Pao, Jan. 25).


Whatever the eventual fate of Lee Bo, his case has already had a major impact here … two consequences already. It has revealed a common denominator of understanding about just what “one-country, two-systems” actually means. Until now, that basic public consensus seemed evident but there was no proof. Now there is. Secondly, the Lee Bo case has revealed a gaping hole in Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law protections. Until now, this particular gap had caused little concern.

First, the consensus. From the start, even while Hong Kong’s Basic Law was being drafted in the late 1980s, disagreements abounded as to the nature of Beijing’s one-country, two systems formula and what its promised autonomy meant for Hong Kong. During the recent universal suffrage controversy, for example, disagreements over the definition of universal suffrage continued without any resolution.  Universal suffrage is an important feature of the formula and the disagreements were between and among pro-democracy partisans, pro-establishment conservatives, and dyed-in-the-wool pro-Beijing loyalists.

In contrast, the Lee Bo case has revealed a common denominator of understanding about what people think Hong Kong autonomy is supposed to mean and the agreement extends right across the political spectrum.  Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying led the way with his unqualified January 4 declaration that “under the Basic Law … only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority to enforce laws in Hong Kong”  (Jan. 7 post).

One of his most loyal Executive Councilors, Fanny Law, had already said during a January 3 radio talk show that if mainland public security agents were kidnapping people in Hong Kong, that would be a “clear breach” of one-country, two-systems’ guarantees. Ms. Law is also one of Hong Kong’s delegates to the National People’s Congress.

The controversial Professor Arthur Li, recently appointed by Chief Executive Leung to serve as whip on the University of Hong Kong’s governing council, said it’s a very worrying thing for mainland security agents to abduct people here. He said it’s just like the Americans renditioning people to Poland and Guantanamo Bay. China should set a higher standard and discipline whoever kidnaps our citizens. Li said Chief Executive Leung should tell Beijing that this kind of behavior is unacceptable (Standard, Jan.13).

Laura Cha, Executive Councilor and leading business woman, demonstrated scant regard for universal suffrage demonstrators (Nov. 17, 2014 post).   But she said the Li Bo case had raised fears about Beijing law enforcement officers operating here.  If they were doing so, that would be a violation of one-country, two-systems (TVB evening news, Jan. 23).

James Tien, honorary chair of the pro-business Liberal Party, Legislative Councilor, and much else was equally forthright. If Lee Bo needs to cross the border to serve as a witness in some case, then it should be done legally and openly, said Tien. Mainland public security personnel should not just come here and snatch people away and he hoped they had not done so. But the Lee Bo case has knocked a big hole in one country, two-systems, he continued. Chief Executive Leung’s initial statement was not enough. He should go to Beijing himself and ask directly. Hold a press conference at the airport and demand answers from Beijing (TVB Straight Talk, Jan. 19).


The Lee Bo case has not only knocked a big hole in everyone’s assumptions about one-country, two systems guarantees. His bizarre experience has also revealed a rather large omission among all the many specific protections written into the Basic Law. The result seems to be a rather large gray area that no one had worried much about before.

Chief Executive Leung declared on January 4 that in accordance with the Basic Law, only Hong Kong law enforcement officers can enforce the law here. But Leung misspoke. The Basic Law contains no such specific provision. Those that seem relevant are hedged about with this and that condition thereby opening several doors, legalistically speaking, to just such Lee Bo-type interventions.

During the 1980s when the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Basic Law were being drafted, the British prided themselves on having successfully insisted that all possible rights and freedoms be clearly recognized. They were being written into the documents, spelled out in black and white, thereby putting pressure on Beijing to honor its word and solemn promises with all the world bearing witness. But somewhere along the line, everyone seems to have overlooked the people who would be enforcing the rules and implementing the promises.

For example, the Basic Law, Article 14, says the Hong Kong government is responsible for maintaining public order. The Sino-British Declaration said the same thing. But the very next sentence in both documents addresses the role of the Chinese military garrison stationed in Hong Kong, implying that the provisions are about major upheavals, emergencies, and disasters … not ordinary law enforcement work.

Article 22 is similarly vague. It says no mainland government authority “may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administration Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law” … unless they seek proper permission. That leaves open all kinds of doors such as those that Beijing’s Liaison Office personnel seem to be gliding through here … especially at election time, or during major political controversies like the one just past, finessing community connections, giving pep talks in local restaurants, and so on.

Article 28 says no Hong Kong resident shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention, or imprisonment. But this provision doesn’t seem to be helping Lee Bo out of his predicament. Instead he is being obliged to say that he voluntarily crossed the border without his travel documents, to serve as a witness in some case, the specifics of which he cannot divulge. Presumably, if he is not being detained, he should be able to return here to see his wife instead of arranging for her to visit him at a secret location there.

Article 80 says Hong Kong courts shall exercise judicial power in the region. But that’s about judicial power, not investigative or policing powers.

Perhaps Article 5 is relevant.  It states that “the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced” in Hong Kong for 50 years.  China’s public security apparatus is part of its “socialist system.”  But Article 5 is so vaguely written that application to Lee Bo’s case would need some (long overdue) official explanations as to just what that article actually means.

Lee Bo’s British passport can’t help him either. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, visited Beijing a few days after Lee Bo’s disappearance and expressed concern as to his whereabouts. At a joint press conference in Beijing, Hammond received an abrupt rebuke from his host. China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, noted pointedly that Lee Bo is “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.”


Everyone is calling for an explanation while Chinese authorities all up and down the line are stone-walling.  Even prominent pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has called on Beijing to come forward. He is also among those saying that if Beijing doesn’t clarify the matter soon, then Chief Executive Leung should appeal directly to Beijing instead of addressing inquiries only to the neighboring Guangdong provincial authorities (SCMP, Jan. 13, 27). The provincial public security bureau waited almost three weeks before relaying a cryptic message that Lee Bo was thought to be in Guangdong.

It follows that a favorite pastime has developed around the case with everyone trying to anticipate what arguments Beijing can possibly use to explain Lee Bo’s situation within the context of Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems autonomy.

The recent political reform exercise was easy by comparison. Throughout all the long years of debate, Beijing rhetoricians were able to exploit the dual meaning of the words “universal suffrage” … without ever actually admitting that it means one thing in mainland parlance and practice, and something rather different among those schooled in a different political tradition.

But this case is going to be more difficult, violating as it does if not the letter of the Basic Law, then at least the basic assumptions that most everyone has about the fundamental rights and freedoms it guarantees.

One idea, at first, was that it was all a mistake, the work of rogue provincial cops in Guangdong. But now that so much time has passed, and considering that Gui Minhai disappeared from Thailand … far from Guangdong’s immediate reach … that line of thinking has receded. Gui disappeared in October giving Beijing ample time to learn about what had happened and sort out those responsible.

Instead, the Thai maneuver must have been deemed successful because it was repeated here three months later.   Both men then resurfaced at the same time and with the same implausible talking points:  they traveled to China of their own accord, legal proceedings are involved, and it’s nobody else’s concern.

But since the book business they were running had developed a reputation for dealing in works critical of the current Chinese president and party leader, Xi Jinping, it’s pretty safe to conclude that this is a political security matter … something to do with subverting state power by undermining the authority of the central leadership.

Still, that leaves Beijing’s legal script writers with the difficult job of explaining to the world why Lee Bo had to be spirited away by persons unknown, without due process here in Hong Kong where such a means of law enforcement is itself illegal.

It will be interesting to see if they try to justify it in terms of China’s new National Security Law passed last summer.  There was much bemused comment at the time about global overreach and the sweeping list of concerns that Beijing included within the scope of its security. People joked that Beijing might be taking a little too seriously its dream of restoring, for 21st century use, China’s ancient power and glory since that was a time when the Dragon Throne had pretentions of ruling all under heaven.

That new law does nevertheless come down to earth at several points, one of them being that Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau have parts to play in Beijing’s national security calculus. And China’s new law aside, there is always someone reminding Hong Kong that it has yet to fulfil its responsibilities in this regard by passing the Basic Law’s Article 23 mandate.

Article 23 calls for legislation to criminalize treason, subversion, sedition, secession, theft of state secrets, and political interference by foreign entities. But in 2003, the public rebelled, James Tien withdrew his Liberal Party legislators’ support for the government’s bill, and the legislation remains shelved to this day.

Perhaps the Lee Bo case marks the opening round in another campaign … this one aimed at pressuring Hong Kong into doing its constitutional duty by reason of Article 23 now reinforced by China’s new national security law.  If Hong Kong had its own legislation, Beijing would not need to go to such lengths to enforce its will here.

But that line of reasoning assumes Hong Kong legislators would be willing to pass such legislation, an unlikely prospect if reactions to the Lee Bo case are any indication.  And there may soon be fewer faces on the loyalist-conservative side of the Legislative Council aisle since this is an election year here, too.  Lee Bo’s fate might well become Beijing’s gift to pan-democrats if the public concludes that his case is what it seems to be:  a threat to the rights and freedoms everyone thought would be guaranteed at least until 2047.




Posted by Suzanne Pepper on January 28, 2016.

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