Booksellers’ Arrests Pose a Fundamental Threat to Hong Kong

By attacking freedom of information, detentions by mainland China authorities undermine a principle central to the city’s economy and markets.

There are signs that freedom of speech and information is under attack in Hong Kong, a development that poses an ominous threat to the city’s status as a bastion of free enterprise at the gates of mainland China.

China and the U.K. signed an agreement in 1984 guaranteeing that Hong Kong would have self-rule and retain the liberties it had become accustomed to — including freedom of speech and freedom of the press — for 50 years after the territory’s return to Chinese control, in 1997. But many Hong Kongers fear Beijing is reneging on the agreement following the recent detentions of five booksellers by Chinese authorities.

The five disappeared in seemingly mysterious circumstances between October and December 2015: One in Hong Kong, three while visiting the mainland and one while on holiday in Thailand. But any doubt about what really happened was removed earlier this month when one of the five, bookshop manager Lam Wing-kee, recounted his experience to the Hong Kong media.

Lam told a room packed with journalists that he was detained while crossing into China from Hong Kong on October 24 and held under house arrest for eight months for violating Chinese law on illegal distribution of political information. During the ordeal, he was forced by interrogators from the Communist Party’s central investigation unit to sign documents promising that he would not reveal details of his ordeal or seek help from lawyers. Unbowed, Lam went public anyway and has led two protests since returning to Hong Kong.

“The Chinese government has forced Hong Kong people into a dead end,” he said.

In 1994 Lam founded Causeway Bay Books, a popular store that specializes in books on Chinese politics, including investigations into topics that mainland media doesn’t cover. The store is often packed with tourists from the mainland, and Lam had developed a lucrative business of mailing those books to clients in China, which is apparently why he was targeted by the mainland authorities.

Lam sold the store in 2014 to publishing house Mighty Current Media Co. but has continued to work there. The company has three shareholders, two of whom were among those detained on the mainland. The third investor, Gui Minhai, disappeared while on holiday in Thailand in November only to turn up on the mainland, where he was charged with illegal publishing. He had been preparing to publish a book detailing the love affairs of one of China’s top leaders, according to a number of sources familiar with the so-called Causeway Bay Books disappearances.

Gui, who is still in detention, appeared in a confessional video broadcast on China Central Television and insisted that he had gone to mainland China to voluntarily surrender to authorities for his role in a fatal drunk driving accident in 2003. But the Hong Kong press conference by Lam, who appeared with local legislator Albert Ho in a room at the city’s Legislative Council complex, made clear that the disappearances were anything but voluntary. Lam said he and the others had been arrested, interrogated and detained by authorities operating directly under President Xi Jinping.

Although all but Gui have been allowed to return to Hong Kong after as much as eight months in detention, the arrests have shocked Hong Kong and aroused international concern. In a report to the U.K. Parliament in February, foreign secretary Philip Hammond said the incident was “a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong and undermines the principle of one country, two systems.” Self-rule, of course, includes self-policing powers. The owners of Causeway Bay Books clearly did not violate Hong Kong laws, which allow the publishing and retailing of books about Chinese politics, no matter how salacious they might be. Those offended have right of recourse and can sue publishers under the city’s defamation laws.

The saga is worrisome and indicates that media freedom in Hong Kong is under threat. Hong Kong’s thriving capital markets are highly dependent on a vibrant and free flow of information. Without a free media environment, Hong Kong’s very existence is threatened. Investors, both Chinese and global, come to Hong Kong because they trust in the transparency and fairness of the system, which includes a free media environment that keeps authorities under the constant eye of the public.

Leaders in Beijing should realize Hong Kong’s transparent system is critically important to the success of China’s further economic and financial reforms. They therefore must refrain from repeating similar extralegal arrests and exercise judicious restraint in handling those whom they see as dissidents in Hong Kong. China cannot afford to have Hong Kong lose its luster as a global financial center that is built on a foundation of free flow of information. The world is watching.

Follow Allen Cheng on Twitter at @acheng87.