By: Frank Ching

In an unprecedented attack on press freedom, five men – owners and employees of a publishing house in Hong Kong – disappeared. Three were arrested in mainland China and two abducted from Hong Kong and Thailand, appearing subsequently in mainland China.

No charges have formally been laid, but the actions appear to be part of a crackdown on Hong Kong’s freewheeling publishing industry, which the Communist Party fears is undermining the Chinese government. 

By openly flouting a commitment to respect Hong Kong’s political system and flagrantly violating Thailand’s sovereignty, attempting to shut down publication of annoying books at the expense of its international reputation, China has demonstrated its deepening own insecurity.

Since 1997, when Hong Kong sovereignty was transferred from Britain to the mainland, concerns about China respecting the “one country, two systems” generally proved misplaced until now. Complacency was rudely shaken starting in October as the men connected with the Hong Kong–based publishing company Mighty Current Media disappeared – one while holidaying in Thailand. An unconfirmed report in London’s Sunday Times claims that the detentions were related to a secret Chinese directive to “exterminate” banned books and magazines at their source, “identifying 14 publishing houses and 21 publications in Hong Kong as targets.” Beijing makes no secret of its annoyance with Hong Kong’s freewheeling press, and many publications have had a tough time: The Nineties, established in 1970, went out of business in 1998. Open Magazine, established 1987, ceased publication in 2014.

But the book publishing industry continued with a proliferation of political and gossipy books sold around Hong Kong and at its airport, attracting the interest of millions of mainland Chinese travelers.

The books, some serious, others more fiction than fact, have provided sensational fare to Chinese who want to know more about insider politics and the personal lives of top officials. Bei Ling, co-founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center who was interviewed by the Chinese-language site of The New York Times,noted that Gui Minhai, who disappeared in October while in Thailand, has published books titled Mistresses of the Chinese Communist Party, Secrets of Wives of Chinese Communist Party Officials and Women of the Shanghai Clique.

Bei said Gui owned several publishing houses which every month put out four or five books, accounting for about a third of books on elite politics published in Hong Kong.

Other publishers have released serious books, such as the memoirs of the disgraced party leader Zhao Ziyang, who had opposed the use of force to suppress the students in 1989 and who spent the rest of his life under house arrest. His memoirs were smuggled out to Hong Kong and published in Chinese by New Century Press – run by Bao Pu, son of Bao Tong, Zhao’s former political secretary, and his wife, Renee Chiang. The book was published in English by Simon & Schuster as Prisoner of the State: the Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.

Needless to say, China bans such books, regardless of content, thus lending them the additional cachet of forbidden fruit.

Such books would annoy politicians anywhere, but China may have gone so far as to take the drastic steps – hitherto unimaginable –of carrying out abductions in foreign territory, Thailand, and in Hong Kong. Moreover, both those victims are foreign nationals. Evidently, from Beijing’s standpoint, these books are not merely an annoyance, but rather instruments that could erode support for the Communist Party and ultimately bring about its overthrow.

The Beijing newspaper Global Times, an affiliate of  People’s Daily, justified Chinese action by suggesting that the Hong Kong bookstore had “to a large extent, targeted at the mainland” and “undercut the mainland’s rule of law system.” The Sunday Times report did not provide details about the background of the secret directive but, Ching Cheong, a veteran China watcher in Hong Kong, has asserted in an article in the Hong Kong Economic Journal that the five “disappearances” stem from a struggle within the party over efforts to deal with banned books in Hong Kong – with each side feeding information to various authors and publishers, not necessarily true, to benefit itself.