FPI Bulletin: Beijing’s Critics Disappear

January 14, 2016

The case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers sounds like the plot of a detective novel.  Unfortunately, it is a true story that illustrates China’s violation of its promises to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.  In response, the United States should carry out its obligations to defend the rights of Hong Kong’s 7 million people. Doing so, however, will require a revision of U.S. law in order to impose consequences for Beijing’s interference on China’s leaders, rather than the people of Hong Kong.

Five men connected to the Mighty Current publishing house that prints and sells books critical of Chinese leaders and the Communist Party have gone missing since October.  The most recent is Lee Bo, gone since late December.   Four others disappeared in separate incidents late last year.  Gui Minhai, a co-owner of the publishing house, was taken from his Thailand vacation home and sent to China along with two Chinese dissidents also seized with the cooperation of Thai authorities.  Lu Bo, another co-owner, and Lam Wing-kei disappeared just across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen.  Cheung Jiping, a manager of the publishing house’s Causeway Bay bookstore, was abducted by armed men in Dongguan.

Some of Mighty Current’s titles are gossipy and far-fetched, including a planned volume about Chinese president and Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping which has reportedly been canceled, but its Causeway Bay bookstore also sells more serious volumes.  Mainland tourists frequent the bookstore to get information that they cannot get at home.

Independent observers see “very little doubt” that the disappearances were orchestrated by mainland security agents. PRC officials have neither confirmed nor denied a role in the disappearances. They have, however, dropped ominous hints. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi observed that the editor, Mr. Lee, is “first and foremost a Chinese citizen,” brushing off concerns that British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond expressed about him on his visit to Beijing last week. In addition, an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party organ, said that “Lee is indeed ‘assisting an investigation’ in the Chinese mainland,” a familiar euphemism for being interrogated by Chinese authorities.

On January 6, while visiting Beijing, Hammond, stated that the abduction of Lee Bo by Chinese agents would represent an “egregious breach” of China’s obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty governing Hong Kong’s return to mainland rule and guaranteeing it autonomy as well as an independent judiciary and civil liberties.

Until now, Britain has been unwilling to confront Beijing over its repeated interference in Hong Kong’s affairs since 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to mainland rule.  Its Conservative government aspires to become “China’s best partner in the West,” which it appears to mean acquiescing to China’s thwarting of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and the mainland.  Sweden has weighed in by saying it takes “a very serious view” of the disappearance of its citizen, Gui Minhai.

Realistically, only the United States, “the most powerful country in the world. Period,” as President Obama said in the State of the Union address, has the ability to stand up to Beijing over its behavior in Hong Kong. So far, the administration has said it is “disturbed” by the disappearances. There has been no suggestion that China will face any consequences for its actions.

Under the 1992  U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, the U.S. is committed to support Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy. If China does not keep its promises, the President can suspend the trade and economic privileges that Hong Kong enjoys because of its special status. Unfortunately, that would hurt the people of Hong Kong rather than the Beijing authorities. To put pressure on China, Congress should revise the law in order to permit sanctions against Chinese entities or officials. Curbing China’s behavior also requires criticism of those countries that have facilitated Beijing’s illegal repatriation of dissidents and refugees, including Thailand and Burma. 

The disappearances have rattled Hong Kong.  Other bookstores have removed politically sensitive Chinese language books from their shelves. Earlier this week, thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to demand the return of the missing men.  “Nobody would feel safe,” if China is proved to be involved in the disappearances, said Anson Chan, formerly the second ranking official in the Hong Kong government.  It would “be the death knell for ‘one country, two systems.’” 

In fact, such warnings have been sounding for some time.  Few in the West have wanted to do anything about them.  If the United States and its allies do not act swiftly, the freedoms Washington has vowed to defend since 1997 will deteriorate more rapidly. “China thinks that it’s just a matter for China,” said Joshua Wong, a leader of the Hong Kong democracy movement. “But I would like to say it’s a matter for all citizens worldwide.”  He is right.   A China that breaks its obligations on Hong Kong and snatches its citizens and foreign nationals from abroad presents a serious threat.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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