Anyone just vaguely following China affairs knows that the Xi Jinping regime is engaged in a campaign of ‘rectification’, including a major clampdown on media, discourse and ideas. They will also have noticed that the process extends to management of Xi’s own image, to the extent that learned observers talk of a Mao-style personality cult.
Hong Kong is not immune, with the city’s administration clearly now under the guidance of Beijing officials intolerant of local opposition forces. Where the media are concerned, Alibaba’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post suggests that the Communist Party wants the Hong Kong press to go beyond wanton obsequiousness and start playing a more engaged role in promoting the ‘mass line’.
So it should not be all that shocking that China-linked interests have been extending their grip on Hong Kong’s bookstores, at least partly to reduce the availability of salacious tabloid-style books on China’s leaders, aimed largely at Mainlanders visiting the city. Nor was it initially a big deal when, a few months back, men involved with a small publisher behind such works started going missing while visiting Shenzhen. It is not uncommon for Hong Kong men to be inconvenienced by matrimonial or business problems over the border. But it started to look more serious, and one feasible-sounding explanation was official pressure via trumped-up charges, as befell another Hong Kong publisher.
Things started to look even grimmer as it transpired that another person linked with the publishing house had disappeared in Thailand, whose despotic and inept military junta kowtows to Beijing. And then last Wednesday, a fifth man linked to the publisher vanished right here in Hong Kong. He was apparently taken to Shenzhen, without travel documents, from where he called to say he was part of an ‘investigation’. (A decent summary of the story is here.)
Hong Kong officials and (most) media would be reluctant at any time to question the good name of the Chinese government. With so few details about what really happened, it’s not surprising it took them a few days to get their heads around all this. To many people, however, this looks like something that has been barely thinkable up to now: a criminal act of abduction and cross-border transfer by officials or at least agents of the Chinese authorities. Demonstrators believing this assembled outside Beijing’s local Liaison Office yesterday.
Taking all five disappearances together, given the Xi-clampdown context, is there another rational explanation? Not that Xi would have to personally order a major transgression of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle and violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy. But it is all too easy to imagine him (or any dictator) holding some petrified underling responsible for ensuring that an embarrassing girl-tells-all book does not appear. In the Chinese system, as the word goes down the command structure, the fear of failure and desperation to obey mount. Lower-tier officials will do whatever it takes to deliver results.
The Hong Kong cops are acknowledging a missing-person case. The city’s de facto leader when the Glorious Motherland appears in the slightest way imperfect, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, has issued a minimalist holding statement. This probably does not reflect insensitive, uncaring brutishness (a task her boss CY Leung does not need to delegate to her). It looks like sheer terror at the possibility that the Communist Party’s thugs are indeed rampaging on this side of the border.
If this turns out to be the case, it is hard to see how Chinese or local officials can wriggle out of it – by blaming over-eager triads, say. Someone has to account for five people last seen alive. Local apologists for the regime in Beijing will more than ever be on the defensive. The mainstream establishment in the business community will, at least discreetly, be concerned, and a few aghast. The opposition camp will be proved vividly correct in its warnings about Communist encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms and values. (Or China will simply round up every dissenter in the city, switch off the Internet, and be done with it.)
This looks like a big screw-up. To compound it, consider Ursula Gauthier. Her article on China’s counterproductive Xinjiang strategy would have received little attention had Beijing not kicked her out. (And Beijing could have avoided looking even more like the ultra-sensitive cry-baby dictatorship it is.) Whatever has happened to the five Hong Kong publishers, and whatever comes next, a hitherto oblivious world will now want to find out more about Xi Jinping’s girlfriend, and any other dirt those guys came up with.