HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

Missing Impossible: Hong Kong, China, and the Abducted Booksellers

By Erik Wennermark

Middle-aged men with stern faces stand outside their shops and watch the procession, smoke cigarettes and grumble. A few are curious, interested in the reason for yet another protest march in Hong Kong – is it Falun Gong people again? Or those damned Umbrella students? They hold phones up to their faces to record the passersby.

Young cops on the pavement are unconcerned, don’t even watch, and instead wile away the time button-mashing at League of Legends. A homeless guy picks through the trash for empty bottles. Aside from the footsteps, this stretch of marchers, routed onto this quiet street, is silent.

missing publisher protest

Photo: Erik Wennemark.

Earlier, when the march was on Des Voeux Road in Central, walking past Hermes and Lane Crawford and other high-end shops so fancy I don’t even recognize their names, there was greater energy. Estimates place the crowd in a range between 3500 and 7000 people. It is an all-ages affair.

I overhear an Australian couple ask a policeman minding the crowd what the story is. He tells them a blatant lie and they move on nodding their heads at the great moment of cultural connection. I debate for a moment calling after them, “Actually they’re protesting the abduction of five Hongkongers by Chinese secret police,” but think better of it. Other Sunday afternoon shoppers and wandering tourists seem equally oblivious, take a few snapshots and move on.

The signs the marchers hold are pre-printed, indicating pre-planning. There are trade groups, professional organizations and the like: Financiers and Progressive Lawyers Group support Hong Kong Freedom. The umbrella imagery is present, along with the colour yellow, which we all wore for so many months back then. “Umbrella Blossom” is a new turn-of-phrase. “USA – UK please help Hong Kong!”

bookseller disappearance protest lee bo

Photo: HKFP.

For some reason there is a petition on the White House website that doesn’t ask for anything, just recounts the story of the abductions in poor English. International Umbrella media darling Joshua Wong delivered a letter to the British Consulate. Don’t hold your breath.

It’s not as if the booksellers were putting out particularly good work – the books were popular with mainland tourists after all, not known as arbiters of good taste. Mighty Current, the publishing imprint of the store, specialized in saucy tales of high-ranking Communist Party members, supermarket check-out aisle stuff, not high-brow political critique. Nonetheless, many see this is a direct attack on the idea of Hong Kong.

More than just free speech, it is the prospect of Hong Kong people being under the sway of Chinese law, being swept away in the middle of the night, that has frightened so many. Even C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive and goat of Occupy, has implored the Chinese government for some reasonable explanation of what has happened, an explanation that has yet to come. “It would be unacceptable if mainland law enforcement agents enforce laws in Hong Kong because this violates the Basic Law,” he said.

It’s 2016 now and that means to me that the Umbrella Revolution happened two years ago. The one-year anniversary of the day we were all tear gassed by fierce-eyed baton-wielding riot police was the last time I went to Admiralty – there’s really no reason to go there unless you work for the government.

All this was so long ago I barely even remember, much like the news that flitted past a blue screen I held in front of my face, news of a Hong Kong man, a bookselling man, who had disappeared in Pattaya, Thailand in November. I found this news unremarkable – I have been to Pattaya, a long time ago: I was with my father and we went to see a Sylvester Stallone movie.

Occupy Central

Harcourt Road during Umbrella Movement. Photo: Wikimedia.

Now I am no longer a ten-year old I might get up to a few other things than Sly Stallone flicks. But who can say really, what the Hong Kong bookseller was up to there and why exactly he disappeared? There is a lot of trouble you can find in Pattaya without Chinese paramilitary forces staging a midnight abduction. Members of the Hong Kong parliament seem to share my suspicions.

But then the number of disappearing booksellers kept increasing – it’s like a Hardy Boys story – and it became difficult to put it all down to high jinks. Then there was this video.

I remember watching Agnes Chow on the makeshift stage at the central protest site in Admiralty, where she stood with other members of the student group Scholarism and the protest leaders of Occupy Central. She was the only girl in the mix of teenage boys and men. She was also the one who stepped away from the protests after a time, citing exhaustion and stress, which seemed to me an eminently reasonable, even right, reaction for a 17-year-old student engaged in a 24-hour-a-day occupation.

Remembering this, I clicked the link of her Youtube speech about the abductions. What I heard was, “In the past, we were safe because we lived in Hong Kong instead of the mainland China. However, the circumstances have changed… Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore, it is named as Hong Kong only.” I was momentarily jarred from my complacency.

For his part, Joshua Wong, when sharing the video on his Facebook page, wrote, “Even I am also afraid of my personal safety after this incident happened, I still believe we should continuously fight for freedom from fear because it is an important core value that we should uphold.”

The march winds from Admiralty to Central, to Sheung Wan to Sai Ying Pun and eventually to the front of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The march is orderly and well-mannered, quiet even, aside from the few pockets where one person or another shouts in Chinese into a loudspeaker: “No political abductions! Let them go!” I am told.

But the space in front of the LOCPGHKSAR is limited and I wonder about the planning of the Hong Kong police as there are many people and I wonder where they will all go. The police are keeping a tight rein on matters, the sky starts to spit cold rain, and we are close to a subway station. They will go home it turns out. I see the the police planning was just right.

A man with long thin grey hair and a long goatee wears a black t-shirt that says “Fuck the Government” in English and Chinese. He walks past the gated Chinese building, shakes a fist, and disappears back underground.

Erik Wennermark writes prose in Hong Kong. Check out his work about the Umbrella Movement for Guernica Magazine and follow him on Twitter

Missing Impossible: Hong Kong, China, and the Abducted Booksellers