What first was five booksellers missing last December evolved into five booksellers under arrest by the Chinese government due to their work with Mighty Current Media, a media group that is openly critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

The reaction to the five missing people took a new turn in the diplomatic world as China faces scrutiny over its tightening of press freedom in Hong Kong. Among the five includes a Swedish national Gui Min-hai, who was taken by Chinese authorities in Thailand, and dual UK-Chinese citizen Lee Bo, which the UK government had taken his disappearance as a sign of Hong Kong’s eroding special status.

United States alarmingly observing the unfolding of events

The United States expressed its “deep concern” for the events that unfolded in Hong Kong regarding the booksellers. State Department spokesman John Kirby urged China to “clarify the current status of all five individuals and the circumstances surrounding their disappearances and to allow them to return to their homes.”

This remark highlights the long-time concern of Beijing’s gradual reduction of Hong Kong’s special it does highlight the reaction from the international community regarding the disappearances of the five booksellers; Sweden, the EU, Canada, Germany, and other countries had “strongly condemned the abductions and arbitrary detentions of the booksellers.” Namely, Human Rights Watch has voiced its concern as well, calling for action during the upcoming G20 and US-ASEAN summit meetings met later this month.

Spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Liu Kang, responded to the assertion by stating its respect for Hong Kong’s autonomy and the interference of foreign countries into such a domestic affair to be inappropriate.

Members of student group Scholarism hold up placards during a protest about the disappearances of booksellers outside China's liaison office in Hong Kong,. Photo Credit: Reuters/達誌影像

Members of student group Scholarism hold up placards during a protest about the disappearances of booksellers outside China’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Reuters/達誌影像

United Kingdom criticizing China

In what The New York Times observed as the “strongest public criticism of China to date”, the United Kingdom saw the arrest of Lee Bo, a bookseller holding dual British-Chinese citizenship, as a “serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration guaranteeing legal autonomy signed by China and the UK. The declaration, signed in 1984, was the foundational document that established the 1997 handover of Hong Kong while enshrining existing laws under Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond elaborates, “We urge the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing to take the necessary steps to maintain confidence in the system and the sanctity of the rights, freedoms and values it upholds.” This was part of a report on Hong Kong matters that was submitted every six months to the UK government.

China struck back at the UK, stating that it was within their “domestic affairs” and that the UK has no right to interfere in domestic matters. Hong Lei of China’s foreign ministry stated the British Report to be “irresponsible carping and finger wagging.”

Taiwan’s silence belies careful observation

There have been some protests against the kidnappings of the five bookshop owners, but the government on Taiwan has been largely silent on the issue compared with the United States and the United Kingdom. In January when news broke out about the kidnappings and imprisonments, then-presidential candidates Eric Chu and Tsai Ing-wen both called for the government to look further into the situation.

Meanwhile, a petition was launched by the Taiwan Publish Free activist group calling for the opposition of “acts of oppression against freedom of publication by the Communist Party in China.” It has been reported that over 35 bookstores and a thousand individuals affiliated with the book industry has signed on, including scholars, authors and publishers.

While the reaction is somewhat muted, the impact is giving the Taiwanese increased wariness about China’s governance, especially when it is contrasted with a high level of freedom the Taiwanese media enjoys.

As China faces increased international scrutiny, China’s human rights record may decline with the case of Hong Kong starting from the 2014 sit-in protest and the surprising performance of Edward Leung in the recent by-election. The Taiwanese may feel China’s grip on civil liberties to be ever tighter and the light on respecting fundamental freedoms transforming ever darker.

Edited by Olivia Yang

“China criticises Britain for ‘interfering’ in case of missing Hong Kong booksellers" (The Guardian)
“US calls on China to clarify status of missing Hong Kong booksellers" (The Guardian)
“Britain Accuses China of Violating Treaty in Hong Kong Bookseller’s Case" (The New York Times)
“Cultural groups in Hong Kong, Taiwan petition govts to act on bookseller’s disappearance" (Hong Kong Free Press)
“UK, Sweden express concern over missing Hong Kong booksellers" (CNN)
“Eric Chu urges China to explain HK ‘disappeared’" (Taipei Times)
“Taiwan’s Tsai urges answers on Hong Kong booksellers" (Yahoo News)
“China dismisses US criticism over missing booksellers" (The Irish Times)
“China Has Finally Told Hong Kong It Is Holding the 3 Missing Booksellers" (TIME)
“China/Hong Kong: Free ‘Disappeared’ Booksellers" (Human Rights Watch)
“Hong Kong By-Election Results Show Rising Tide of Youth Discontent" (The News Lens)