Many in Hong Kong Fear Beijing’s Reach After Editor’s Disappearance

MICHAEL FORSYTHE January 8, 201608hongkong_web1-articleLargeAnthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Protesters with photographs of five missing booksellers, including Lee Bo, second from right, this week.

HONG KONG — A Hong Kong-based editor, who specializes in gossipy books about Chinese leaders, vanishes. His wife files a missing persons report with the police. She abruptly withdraws it after a faxed letter surfaces, apparently in her husband’s calligraphy, stating that he is in mainland China of his own volition, helping with an investigation. Hong Kong border officials have no record of his ever leaving.

The case of Lee Bo — Paul Lee is his English name — and his four missing colleagues has all the makings of an espionage thriller. But to many of the 7.2 million people in this former British colony, his disappearance and apparent surfacing across the border that demarcates Hong Kong from the rest of China have fueled a profound fear, by calling into question the legal guarantee that people here would be shielded until midcentury from Beijing’s reach under an arrangement known as one country, two systems.

The case also threatens to stoke tensions between the mainland and Britain, which has recently pushed to move closer to China, declaring the beginning of a “golden decade” of ties between the two countries. On Tuesday, Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said during a visit to Beijing that Mr. Lee was a British citizen. The next day, he said that it would be an “egregious breach” of the 1984 agreement that set in motion the return of Hong Kong to China if Mr. Lee, as many in Hong Kong fear, was plucked from the city to face prosecution in China. China issued a terse rejoinder, with a spokeswoman stating that it opposed “all foreign interference in China’s internal affairs.”

To legal scholars and human rights groups, Mr. Lee’s case, and those of his four colleagues at the publishing house Mighty Current Media, is the latest example of the ever-lengthening arm of the Chinese state, which, as its economy grows, appears to be increasingly willing to reach beyond its own legal jurisdiction to apprehend people. In the United States, Chinese government agents are pressuring Chinese expatriates wanted on corruption charges to return to the motherland. In October in Myanmar, officers abducted a teenager whose mother, a human rights lawyer, is jailed in the mainland, and returned him to China.

“As China interacts to an ever greater degree with the world, these problems arise more frequently,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University. “It’s not only the extending reach of Chinese law, but the extending reach of Chinese lawlessness.”

For people in Hong Kong, China’s justice system does not have far to reach. Beijing considers ethnic Chinese born in Hong Kong to be citizens of the People’s Republic, even if they hold a foreign passport, as long as they do not renounce their Chinese citizenship. That is a result of the 1997 handover of sovereignty back to China after more than 150 years of British rule. Even as Mr. Hammond disclosed Mr. Lee’s British citizenship, his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, said on Tuesday that Mr. Lee was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.”

“The missing booksellers’ case has struck fear into the hearts of all Hong Kongers, who are watching this case very closely,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

In China, notions of ethnicity, patriotism and citizenship are closely intertwined, encouraging officials to hold an expansive view of who should be loyal to Beijing. Gary F. Locke, the United States ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014, was hailed by many people after his appointment because he is ethnically Chinese. But when it became clear that he was there to represent America, the state-owned news media scorned him as a traitor to his race.

“Since ancient times, Chinese people believed that if you’re ethnic Chinese, even if you go to the end of the earth, you are still Chinese,” said Liang Yingming, a retired international studies professor at Peking University, who immigrated to the mainland from Indonesia in 1955. “But that isn’t in accord with reality.”

On Monday evening, the drama surrounding the case rose when the faxed letter surfaced — via a news agency in Taiwan — purportedly from Mr. Lee to an employee of a bookstore belonging to Mighty Current, the publishing company of which his wife is an owner.

“Because of urgent problems I have to deal with, which cannot be known to the outside world, I have found my own way to return to the mainland, to assist certain parties with an investigation,” the letter read. “It may take some time.”

It is unclear what investigation Mr. Lee might be aiding, but Mighty Current is one of the most prolific publishers of thinly sourced, salacious books about Chinese leaders, broaching topics many other publishers considered off limits, including the love life of President Xi Jinping. The books are popular with mainland Chinese visiting the city, because they are banned back home. Another co-owner, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who disappeared from his condominium in Thailand in mid-October, was known to be able to write a full-length book in as little as one month.

Mr. Cohen and other legal scholars said that the notion that Mr. Lee voluntarily left Hong Kong — neglecting his travel papers at home and somehow evading tight border controls — is far-fetched. Having abductees write letters that absolve the authorities of any wrongdoing is a common tactic, they say. On Wednesday, the largest local English-language paper, The South China Morning Post, reported that in an interview before his disappearance, Mr. Lee said that he had no fear for his safety after four of his colleagues vanished in October because he had not traveled to the mainland “for many years” and had no plans to do so.

A pro-Beijing lawmaker in Hong Kong, Ng Leung-sing, added further confusion, suggesting on Tuesday that “an old friend” had told him that the editor and his missing colleagues were actually sneaking across the frontier separating this former British colony and the mainland to visit prostitutes, and had been caught in the act. He apologized the next day.

“The latest suggestion that the publisher went to Shenzhen and was arrested for having prostitution in Shenzhen is a laughable and well-known Communist smearing tactic,” Johannes Chan, a former dean of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty, wrote in an email. A panel turned down Mr. Chan in September for a senior post at the university, prompting large protests on campus after many faculty members and students blamed pressure from Beijing for his rejection.

Follow Michael Forsythe on Twitter @PekingMike.

Kiki Zhao and Yufan Huang contributed reporting from Beijing.



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