World

Hong Kong publishing disappearances point to China

Hong Kong:  The recent disappearance of five men tied to a publisher of provocative books about China's top leaders has alarmed many people in this semi-autonomous city, who fear that the historic agreement guaranteeing the former British colony its separate government and legal system may have been dealt a severe blow.

In the worst-case scenario, the five were kidnapped by emissaries of Beijing and are being held in mainland China, to suffocate their voices and ferret out their Chinese sources.

On Wednesday, Lee Bo, an editor at the publishing house, Mighty Current Media, whose wife is one of its three owners, became the latest to vanish. He was last seen leaving a warehouse in Hong Kong. On Saturday morning, he called his wife, Choi Ka Ping, from Shenzhen, across the border in the mainland, saying he was assisting in an investigation, according to Bei Ling, a writer based in the US who has been following the case and who talked to Ms Choi.

Mr Lee's disappearance came after the disappearance of four other men tied to Mighty Current and a bookstore it owns in Hong Kong, all of whom vanished in October. One, the co-owner Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, was last seen at his home at a resort in Thailand; the third co-owner, Lu Bo, vanished when he was in Shenzhen. Two employees, Zhang Zhiping and Lin Rongji, were also last seen in southern China in October, according to Mr Bei, local news media reports in Hong Kong and statements from human rights organisations.

The cases, which appear to be related, have given rise to myriad theories. Mighty Current has written, published and marketed books highly critical of Chinese politicians, covering topics such as the sex lives of top leaders and corruption. The titles are banned in the mainland, where the news media and the publishing industry are tightly controlled by the governing Communist Party.

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But in Hong Kong, where a broad range of civil liberties was guaranteed to last a half-century by the agreement that paved the way for Britain to return its former crown colony to China in 1997, publishing such books is not only legal but it is also a thriving business catering to visitors from the mainland. While there is no proof that the five were spirited away by the Chinese authorities, the nature of the books they sold has led many to suspect that the continuing crackdown on civil society in mainland China is spreading into Hong Kong and has prompted the Chinese authorities to illegally apprehend Mr Lee, a native of the city.

"It is very concerning for most Hong Kong people because this sort of stuff is just not supposed to happen in Hong Kong," said Dennis Kwok, a prominent lawyer and a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. "If it is confirmed that officials are involved, that would make the case even worse."

Hong Kong's top official, Leung Chun-ying, told reporters Monday that the police were investigating the disappearances, adding that only Hong Kong officials have the authority to enforce the law in the city. Mr Leung and other officials have said there is not enough known to point a finger at anyone who may have been involved in what may have been abductions. The city's police said that there was no record of Mr Lee leaving Hong Kong, according to a report in the city's largest-circulation English-language newspaper, The South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong operates as a semi-independent region with its own form of government and a legal system inherited from Britain under a framework called "one country, two systems". Although it has made extradition and legal cooperation agreements with many countries, including the US, in the more than 18 years since its return to Chinese sovereignty, there has been no such agreement signed with the mainland, said Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"This has been one of the black holes in the Hong Kong-mainland legal relationship," Mr Young said.

Ms Choi, the wife of Lee, could not be reached by telephone. But the men have not been completely out of contact. Besides Mr Lee's call to his wife on Saturday, Mr Gui has contacted his wife, who lives in Germany, through Skype several times, the last time on December 24, Mr Bei said. Money was even wired from Mr Gui's account to his daughter, he said.

Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based publisher whose company has also put out political books banned in the mainland, said Mr Gui and Mr Lee had been marketing thinly documented titles about Chinese leaders for about a decade, sometimes at a rate of one a week.

Mighty Current controls an umbrella of publishing companies, some difficult to trace, that are responsible for anywhere from one-third to 60 percent of the racy Chinese political books on sale at newsstands and in bookshops, Mr Bao and Bei said, meaning that if it were eliminated, that would greatly reduce the number of such books.

New York Times

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