The abduction and detention of five booksellers by China last year shows that Hong Kong can no longer be considered a safe haven for locals or foreigners to openly discuss Chinese politics, an academic says.

Hung Ho-fung (孔誥烽) is an associate professor at John Hopkins University, and author of The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World.

In the past, critics of the Chinese government have assumed they would be safe in Hong Kong, Hung told The News Lens International (TNLI) in an e-mail interview.

“So, Hong Kong has been a place where people from around the world could get access to different views and different open information about Chinese society, politics and economy that are not available in mainland China.”

This is how China’s one-country two-systems is “supposed to work,” Hung says, adding that “free space” in Hong Kong is now “closing up.”

“People expressing critical views of China and divulging information and facts deemed inconvenient to the Chinese authorities will have to think twice now, for freedom of speech and information in Hong Kong is converging with mainland China,” he says.

The five men who disappeared late last year all worked at a Causeway Bay bookshop, known for selling material critical of China. They all later reappeared in China, and told media they were collaborating in an investigation voluntarily. However, one of them, Lam Wing Kee (林榮基), last week broke the silence on his detention Lam has since told Taiwan’s Public Television Service that if he were to look for political asylum, he would seek to go to Taiwan.

Impact for foreigners

Hung says the fact that foreign nationals were among the five booksellers – two are European citizens – makes the case “more worrying.”

“This incident establishes a precedent that any foreigner accused of breaching law in mainland China could be arrested and transferred to the mainland in Hong Kong, even though the persons have not broken any law in Hong Kong,” he says. “With draconian laws against ‘subversive activities’ and ‘leaking of state secrets’ in China, people from around the world who need to deal with China – not necessarily politically, but also socially and economically – would become vulnerable even in Hong Kong.”

He notes that there have been reported cases of Hong Kong businessmen being kidnapped and taken to China over financial disputes.

“This bookseller case will have wide repercussions even to the foreign business community in Hong Kong. No one is safe.”

Political implications

A spokesperson from the Civic Party, one of the opposition groups in Hong Kong’s parliament, told TNLI the booksellers case is “the most serious case of political abduction since the 1997 handover.”

“We are appalled by the blatant ways in which the Central Government has disregarded ‘one country, two systems.’”

The events show that the Chinese central authorities have “all along been lying,” while the Hong Kong Security Bureau has “made little efforts, if any,” to rescue the five individuals, the Civic Party says.

“As Lam made known publicly, the video recording made of him while he was detained in the mainland was nothing but the result of coercion: thus, when he was made to ‘plead guilty,’ he did so not of his own free will,” the party says. “Likewise, [detained bookseller] Li Bo admitted to him that he had been involuntarily taken back to the mainland from Hong Kong, which is blatant indication of cross-border law enforcement by Chinese security officers.”

The Civic Party wants the Hong Kong government to obtain a guarantee from China that the booksellers will not be harmed, and it wants China to “hand over” the security officers who “have unlawfully acted in breach of the agreement that there will not be cross-border enforcement for possible prosecution.” It also wants Chinese government officials who were involved or aware of the incident to be held accountable.

Asked whether the case could influence Hong Kong’s September legislative elections, Hung says this is “difficult to assess.”

Still, he notes that as the case “clearly shows,” one-country, two-systems is not working, which could mean that “candidates running on a ‘self-determination’ or even ‘independence’ platform look more appealing – at least less marginal.”

“It is interesting that Lam Wing Kee himself said in the Asia News Channel interview that ‘one-country two-systems’ is broke and the way out for Hong Kong is to seek independence,” he says. “It will resonate particularly well with the young people.”