Five Hong Kong booksellers go missing. China later confirms it has detained two of them. One is seen “confessing” on state television.
It sounds like a Graham Greene novel, except that the story is real, with a dangling plotline that leaves at least two big questions unanswered:
Are the booksellers' detentions part of a broader crackdown on free expression in Hong Kong, whence many taboo-breaking publications filter into mainland China?
Or is this more of a targeted operation, one aimed at a particular publishing house known for its gossipy books on the sex lives of top Chinese leaders?
It could be a mix of both, according to Bao Pu, founder of New Century Press in Hong Kong and the son of a prominent Chinese Communist Party leader purged years ago.
Mr. Bao said the five missing booksellers, part of the Mighty Current publishing house, may have put themselves at risk with their salacious books. But at the same time, he added, the Chinese government has for years worked to undercut and defang Hong Kong's entire independent bookseller industry.
“The impact of this one incident is minimal compared to everything else that has been going on the last ten years,” says Bao in a telephone interview from Hong Kong. “They have pretty much wiped us out.”
Hong Kong has been rocked this month by the Mighty Current disappearances. One, a Swedish national named Gui Minhai, vanished from his Bangkok apartment in October. Soon after, another, British passport holder Lee Bo, went missing in Hong Kong, with his wife saying he had been abducted.
Who might be next?
“This has really struck fear into people in Hong Kong,” said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International, based in Hong Kong. “People may be overreacting, but they don’t know if they could be next.”
China’s recent confirmation that it is holding Mr. Gui and Mr. Lee hasn’t diminished concerns of supporters.
Gui’s whereabouts, for example, became clear when state television in China ran a tearful public confession by him of 12-year-old drunk driving charges. “The video [confession of Gui] certainly raises more questions than answers,” said Bao. “It doesn’t address how he got to China. There are obvious discrepancies.”
Lee’s wife, Sophie Choi, told Hong Kong media this week that she met her husband Saturday at an undisclosed location on the mainland. She said he was acting as a witness for an investigation and repeated what she said were Lee’s wishes that media stop paying attention to his case.
Bao said he feels empathy for anyone who finds themselves in Beijing’s crosshairs.
In 1989, he was a young protester in Tiananmen Square. His father, Bao Tong, was a top aide to Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang. Both leaders refused to crack down on the pro-democracy protests and were purged; Bao Tong later spent seven years in prison.
Following his father’s arrest, Bao Pu fled to the US and thence to Hong Kong, founding New Century Press in 2005. He specializes in political memoirs by party leaders, including a blockbuster diary by Zhao Ziyang on the party’s handling of the Tiananmen crisis.
Bao Pu acknowledges that he is not a fan of Mighty Current’s publications. While the two businesses cater to a similar audience – Chinese tourists eager to buy banned political books – the two publishing houses are worlds apart.
New Century Press publishes only a few titles a year, mostly careful insider accounts of party dealings. Mighty Current mass-produces tabloid-style books that critics say are based largely on rumor and innuendo.
Such books, said Bao Pu, have lowered the publishing standard in Hong Kong and made it harder for legitimate publishers to survive.
“Yes, it is a big market,” he said. “But the valuable books are buried by hundreds of books that have a sensational title, and made-up facts. There are hundreds of those, unfortunately.”
Speculation abounds on why Mighty Current was targeted at this time. Sources have told the Christian Science Monitor that Gui was preparing to publish a book on the former lovers of Chinese President Xi Jinping. That claim has not been confirmed.
Speculations on Jiang Zemin's status
One of Mighty Current’s recent books reported that former Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin had been under house arrest since May of 2015, for opposing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Soon after it was published, Jiang appeared with Xi at China’s grandiose military parade in September.
In Hong Kong independent publishers and journalists point to a pattern of harassment, even violence, that dates back years.
In February 2014, two men with knives attacked Kevin Lau, a former editor-in-chief of Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper often critical of Beijng.
More recently, some Hong Kong bookstores have pulled books from their shelves that are banned on the mainland. In May, police in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, arrested two journalists for “operating illegal publications” in the city. There have also been reports of Shenzhen border guards stepping up their searches of cars entering from Hong Kong to confiscate banned books.
Mr. Nee, the Amnesty researcher, said there’s little doubt that Beijing is undermining free speech in Hong Kong. Last April, he noted, the Cyberspace Administration of China published a report calling for a “sweep-out” of illegal publications that promoted “reactionism” through “content relating to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and ‘foreign harmful culture.'”
The report called, in part, to “thoroughly cleanse and strike down all kind of illegal harmful information and create a clear and orderly online ecosystem.”