The glimmers of some sort of denouement are starting to appear in the Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Hong Kong Publishers. Reading – indeed rummaging vigorously – between the lines, we can tentatively venture to suggest:
- The five were indeed abducted by/for Chinese authorities. The evidence is ‘circumstantial’ as in ‘overwhelming’. See the defensive, petulant whining of such organs as Global Times, insisting that abductions did not happen but were in any case justifiable. The Chinese state is not the only gang of thugs around, but who else would have both motive and means – to grab these five people?
- The instigators probably did not commit criminal acts out of overzealousness or misguided loyalty, but were following orders. Otherwise a senior Chinese official with a bit of sense would have called a halt when the first disappearances became known back in October.
- The abductions are part of a clampdown by China’s oh-so-tough top leadership on that great threat to national security, Hong Kong’s gossipy-books industry. Other publishers and stores are expressing fears, and Page One – which targets Mainland customers at its airport branches – seems to have been pressured into taking anti-Beijing titles off its shelves.
- With one UK citizen, one Swedish citizen and three other Hongkongers on their hands, and overseas governments and media asking awkward questions, the Chinese party-state is going into face-saving, damage-limitation mode – with predictable subtlety. Lee Bo’s wife seems to have been persuaded to retract her police report. And Beijing’s officials have used slimebag-lawmaker Ng Leung-sing to float the depressingly unoriginal, not to say astoundingly lame, caught-with-prostitutes smear against the five missing men.
It will be interesting to see how the China gets itself out of this. Getting one guy to sign a ‘confession’ and refuse to talk after his release would be reasonably simple. Orchestrating five victims’ reappearances in such a way will be far more difficult and less plausible (though Communist Party propaganda often seems to begin and end with self-delusion).
As the Economist says, the Hong Kong (and national) government should be worrying that this outrage will play into Hong Kong pro-democrats’ hands. The pro-dems are saying they are scared of being next and warning that Hong Kong’s autonomy really is now in shreds. They should ditch the self-pity stuff. Rather, they should see this as an opportunity from heaven to shape public opinion in Hong Kong, be proactive and go mercilessly on the offensive with maximum abuse, name-naming, shaming and straightforward accusation along the lines of ‘Communist Party kidnaps Hongkongers’. They can turn this into a major, trust-destroying, reputational screw-up for Beijing.