Kidnapped HK Publishers an Alarming Threat to Free Speech

The disappearance of four Hong Kong-based pro-democracy publishers from a vacation home in Thailand, apparently after being kidnaped by Chinese police in October, is alarming on several different levels – that Beijing has no problems kidnapping critics on foreign soil and that Hong Kong may no longer be a free press sanctuary.

It is also an indication of how reluctant Hong Kong’s government is to defend the rights of intellectuals and a free press in the territory when Beijing comes calling. The only response* to Asia Sentinel's queries to the office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was to shunt the questions to the Wan Chai police station, which replied two days later that the men were classified as "missing persons."

That is a bad precedent. There have been criminal cases like that of Cheung Tze-keung, who earned the name of “Big Spender” and who was executed in 1998 in Guangzhou after committing a series of spectacular kidnappings in Hong Kong -- not the mainland. Although Big Spender was a notorious gangster, even then, a year after the handover of the territory to China, there were concerns that China was far too willing to violate the “one-country, two-systems” doctrine. But that was a criminal case. This one involves freedom to publish views critical of the government.

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Big spender gets a bullet in the back of the head

“It seems the machinery of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ has crossed the Shenzhen River,” said Willy Lam, a longtime former journalist and political analyst. “In addition to liberal, pro-democracy academics in Hong Kong’s universities, state security personnel are also targeting publishers and even bookstore operators.”

Tom Grundy, the editor and publisher of the newly launched Hong Kong Free Press, an independent local English-language news website that has been barred from coverage of government press events, expressed fears that, without a strong Hong Kong government response, any opposition journalists from Hong Kong traveling to territories friendly to Beijing could be targeted.

Thais Apparently Agree to Kidnap Move

Thailand is just such a place, with Chinese police apparently collecting up the four at the Pattaya flat of Gui Minhai, a mainland-born Swedish national and co-owner of Sage Communications and three others without interference. It is the second time in recent months that the government, headed by junta leader-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, has apparently allowed Chinese police to remove people the Chinese don’t like from its soil.

In July the Thais disregarded widespread international criticism to send back 109 ethnic Uighur refugees against their will and now has chosen to do it again. The Uighurs are a Muslim minority in the restive Xinjiang region of China who have long complained about harsh cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.

The missing book publishers, besides Gui, also known as Ah-Hai, all Hong Kong residents, are Lui Bo, the subsidiary Mighty Current general manager, the business manager, Cheung Jiping, and Lam Wing-kei, the bookstore’s manager. Lui, Cheung and Lam flew to Thailand in October to meet with Gui, who maintains a vacation flat in Pattaya, south of Bangkok. Gui was last heard of when he emailed printers on Oct. 15 asking them to get ready for a new book.

Two other employees of the publishing venture have also been arrested across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen.

Mighty Current has published about 80 books on China since its establishment in 2012, covering mainly mainland politics, power struggles and scandals. With the opening of the border to tourism – and with an estimated 45 million visitors from China flooding the territory (pop. 7.8 million) in 2015, Gui’s books – many of them telling of lurid problems and scandals on the mainland, reportedly not always bothering with facts– are huge sellers to mainlanders looking for a story different from the one the government tells them and who may buy half a dozen each to take back with them. That has spawned a thriving industry among the Chinese language booksellers. It has also generated a campaign to muscle the publishers into acquiescence. Gui’s is the most extreme case but there have been other forms of harassment.

Stamping out the ‘Poisonous Weeds’

“Many buyers of Hong Kong-produced books – particularly those about Communist Party politics – are mainland tourists and Beijing doesn’t like these “poisonous weeds” to spread in the mainland,” Willy Lam said.

HK Government Ignores Publishers’ Fates

There is little sympathy for Hong Kong’s politics on the other side of the border in any case. For more than a year, Hong Kong has been the focus of growing antipathy towards the mainland as students, young professionals and activists have fought vainly for universal suffrage in the 2017 general elections, only to have Beijing refuse all discussion. The central government insists that while everybody can vote, only candidates approved by Beijing will be considered. That led to mass sit-in street protests that paralyzed much of the central city, particularly the government compound, from Sept. 26 to Dec. 15.

The current incident doesn’t appear to have elicited much sympathy from the Hong Kong government. Other than the police reports there is no indication that authorities have reacted at all to the kidnapping of four of its citizens on foreign soil, an almost unprecedented act in modern times.

“This should be alarming and concerning for the people of Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, the Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “One would hope the government could express more concern at a higher level for the safety of these four because of their work. What has the government done to find these people, to find out how they were detained? There should be some moves regarding that.”

Newspapers Ignore a Major Story

Nor has there been much outrage in the flagship English language daily the South China Morning Post, which has carried the story on its inside pages and sought largely to downplay the whole question of Chinese involvement, mostly characterizing the incident as a “mysterious disappearance.”

For months the paper has been increasingly steering away from confrontation with China, which has triggered departures by many reporters, including all staff members of the paper’s new international edition. On Nov. 6, Editor in Chief Wang Xiangwei was replaced by his deputy, Tammy Tam, which drew huge controversy inside the paper.

“Xiangwei’s reign has not been a good one, but to replace him with someone whose idea of news judgment is sticking a picture of CY Leung into everything, and who struggles with basic English can only make matters far, far worse,” an anonymous staffer told Hong Kong Free Press.

*The government's response was added on Nov. 14 after the story went to press on Nov. 13