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The missing booksellers: if we let this go, will Hong Kong still be Hong Kong?

By Elizabeth Lui

Over the past week, Hong Kong has been clouded by fear and anger as Lee Bo—a shareholder of the Causeway Bay Bookstore, which specializes in books critical of the Chinese Communist Party—went missing in mysterious circumstances.

According to his wife, Lee called from Shenzhen following his 30 December disappearance to say that he was “assisting in an investigation” and would not be back for some time. While another letter allegedly written by Lee said he crossed over to China “by his own method,” there is no way that Lee could have travelled across the border legally and voluntarily, since his travel documentations were left at home.

In an earlier interview, Lee told a local magazine that he “did not dare to go back to mainland China” because he knew he was “blacklisted.” It is therefore suspected that he may have been kidnapped by mainland authorities as a form of political persecution.

Four other employees of the same bookshop and publishing house have disappeared over the past few months. The 22-year old store is one of the most popular independent bookshops in the city and has long attracted mainland tourists due to its massive collections on Chinese politics.

According to Albert Ho, a legislator in Hong Kong, the Bookstore was planning to publish a book concerning the private life of President Xi Jinping, and was advised not to do so. Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has recently published an article claiming that the abduction of Lee was “legal and justifiable.”

Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

This incident is outrageous and demands attention from the international community, as many fear that Chinese authorities have attempted to enforce mainland law in Hong Kong. It is not only totally unjustifiable but also completely illegal, given that the two are separate jurisdictions.

If we let this go, it will only give de facto consent to China’s extraterritorial actions in Hong Kong, which will eventually lead to a complete break down of our legal autonomy as guaranteed under the One Country, Two Systems arrangement.

One can’t help but wonder: if Chinese laws are to be applied in Hong Kong, will our internet be censored? Will we still be allowed to go protest on the street? Will Big Brother come and catch us even if we break no Hong Kong laws? Will the city soon turn into a Chinese version of an Orwellian society?

And most importantly, will Hong Kong still be Hong Kong?

Shenzhen Hong Kong border

Shenzhen-Hong Kong border.

While China’s grave and widespread human rights abuses are well known the world, Hong Kong has long been a sole beacon of freedom on Chinese soil.

The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration guaranteed that Hong Kong, after its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, would be run under the principle of One Country, Two Systems. The Hong Kong Basic Law, which implements the Joint Declaration, guarantees that Hong Kong will have our own laws as a Special Administrative Region and that Hong Kongers will continue to enjoy basic freedoms.

The national laws of China, which increasingly restrict the civil liberties of mainland citizens, will, alas, not apply to Hong Kong. In particular, our press freedom, which only exists on paper in mainland China, has been our greatest bulwark against the encroaching authoritarianism from our northern border.

We may still be struggling for democracy, but at least we are confident that we can openly criticize the Communist government and expose the misgivings of China’s political leaders without having to fear for our lives—that is, until the mysterious disappearance of Lee Bo and his colleagues. This could mark the moment when our remaining sense of security crumbled, and China’s white terror came knocking at our doors.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was taught to be an independent thinker and a woman of principle and integrity, thanks to the excellent education I received. Independent thinking and moral principles, however, can never go alone without a sound legal institution protecting one’s freedoms to express oneself without fear. For this reason, it is extremely disheartening for me to see the city’s core values steadily eroded.

Borrowing the words from the film Nefarious, the crisis in Hong Kong “doesn’t need interested observers, it needs incurable fanatics.” If Hongkongers remain incurably indifferent, and if the international community chooses to turn a blind eye, it will only fuel the tyrant’s aggression, pushing Hong Kong further into a corner.

The world should stop being just the interested observer, for the Chinese government may have already violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The British government should also step up its efforts in exerting pressure on China, given that Lee is a British national and Britain was one of the signatories to the Joint Declaration. The country should therefore have an obligation—at least morally—to ensure compliance from both sides.

Whether they choose to join protests this Sunday or sign the online petition, others, too, should stand up and do something—for the missing booksellers, and for the future of Hong Kong.

Elizabeth Lui is a master student at the University of Oxford studying comparative social policy.

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The missing booksellers: if we let this go, will Hong Kong still be Hong Kong?