Proxy War Between China Leaders Enmeshes Hong Kong Publishers

Despite the 1997 promise that China would leave Hong Kong alone for 50 years, Beijing in recent months has extended a harsh crackdown on freedom of speech in the supposedly autonomous region, now handing down convictions and prison sentences to the editor and publisher respectively of two Hong Kong magazines as well as an editorial assistant and the publisher’s wife.

The convictions and arrests appear to be a small part of a larger war for primacy being waged in Beijing between forces allied with Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Communist Party of China from 1989 to 2002, who as head of the so-called “Shanghai Clique,” remains an underground foe of the current president, Xi Jinping, according to China watchers who prefer not to be named for their own political safety. Jiang’s forces were believed to be providing salacious materials, some of it of dubious provenance, about top officials connected to Xi. The five booksellers mysteriously kidnapped last year from Hong Kong are said to have been collateral damage in the same proxy war.

The books and magazines published by the booksellers have found a huge audience among the millions of Chinese tourists who have swarmed the city in recent years, buying them up to take back to China, where freedom of the press is severely restricted and becoming more so.

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the actions by the Nanshan District Court in Shenzhen. Wang Jianmin, publisher of two Chinese-language magazines in Hong Kong, New-Way Monthly and Multiple Face, faces five years and three months in prison on charges of operating an illegal business and on bribery and corruption charges in relation to his other business, in the natural gas industry. The court sentenced Guo Zhongxiao, editor of the two magazines, to two years and three months in prison.

The sentences of the three follow an unprecedented series of disappearances between October and December last year of five staff members of Causeway Bay Books, which had for several years published a flock of lurid books on allegations of sex and scandal among China’s top officials. Two of the five were apparently arrested on the mainland. A third disappeared from his condo in Thailand, apparently with the connivance of Thai authorities, and eventually turned up in Shenzhen.

The kidnappings, with two of the employees holding passports from the UK and Sweden, shocked the city and generated international concern. Hong Kong’s most prominent English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, gave the story scant coverage, a signal that the paper, until recently one of the most prominent English language papers in Asia, was pulling in its horns on critical coverage of China.

The bookkeepers are believed to have been taken into detention when they became a part of the Jiang-Xi squabble, according to Beijing watchers who do not want to be named out of concern for their own political safety.

Two of the missing men, Gui Minhai and Lee Bo, broadcast confessional videos in which they said they had returned to the mainland was voluntary and that they regretted their previous actions as booksellers. That was blown out of the water when a third bookseller, Lam Wing-kee, participated in a long press conference orchestrated by opposition lawmaker Albert Ho, in which he said his confession and those of his associates had been written for him by the Central Investigation Team, which is under the control of the top levels of the leadership in Beijing.

Mainland authorities denied Lam’s allegations. Nonetheless, they kicked off an international furor and severely damaged Beijing’s credibility, recalling decades-old forced confessions under the dictatorship of Mao Zedong.

In the current case, Wang and Guo, who have been imprisoned since May 2014, said they would not appeal. The time they have already served will count against the remainder of their sentence, and Guo is scheduled to be released next month, according to a CPJ statement.

Liu Haitao, an editorial assistant at the magazines, was sentenced to two years in jail, suspended for three years. The court sentenced Wang's wife, Xu Zhongyuan, who helped mail the magazines to the mainland, to one year in prison, suspended for two years. Guo, Liu, and Xu were all convicted of operating an illegal business, according to the South China Morning Post.

The two publications specialized in publishing insider information and speculation about Chinese political elites before authorities detained Wang and Guo and the magazines ceased publishing, the CPJ said.

“In an editorial at the time of their arrest, the Hong Kong- and Taiwan-based newspaper Apple Daily described Wang's magazines as ‘close’ to the political factions of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and former Vice-President Zeng Qinghong,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in its printed statement. The New York-based press watchdog organization said it believes the corruption charges against Wang are in retaliation for his activities as a publisher.

“Under China's one country, two systems, residents of Hong Kong are entitled to civil liberties, including freedom of speech and of the press, that have traditionally supported a flourishing industry for books on Chinese politics that are banned on the mainland,” the CPJ said. “But Hong Kong's once-vibrant publishing industry is increasingly under pressure.”

Chinese authorities, said CPJ Deputy Executive Director Rob Mahoney, “apparently are not content with tightly controlling information on the mainland--they are trying to restrict what is published in Hong Kong. We call on Beijing to stop harassing and jailing journalists like Wang Jianmin and Guo Zhongxiao and to allow citizens free access to any news media."

Prosecutors said Wang's company, National Affairs Limited, had made more than HK$7 million, including CNY66,000 in sales from the two magazines in mainland China. Defense lawyers disputed this, saying copies of the magazines were sent to only eight people on the mainland, according to press reports. But at a November 5, 2015, hearing, the three journalists and Wang's wife pleaded guilty to the charges against them, Hong Kong newspapers reported at the time.

Guo, originally from the mainland, is a Hong Kong resident. Wang holds passports from Hong Kong and the United States. China does not recognize dual nationality.

“In the past couple of years, Hong Kong-based publishers and journalists have been detained, journalists have been physically attacked, and self-censorship is on the rise, amid increasing influence from Beijing,” the CPJ said, alluding to the case of the booksellers.

The press watchdog organization cited the May 8, 2014, case of Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian, who was preparing to release a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Yao was sentenced to 10 years in jail for "smuggling ordinary goods" to Shenzhen. His family told CPJ at the time of his detention that Yao believed he was bringing bottles of paint over the border for a friend.