A Hong Kong publisher specializing in books banned in China has disappeared mysteriously, sowing fear among Hong Kongers that the Chinese government is growing bolder about encroaching on their liberties. As the saga continues to unfold, Beijing is reacting bizarrely, and in ways that suggest that the story is the extension of a long-running power struggle at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party.
Mighty Current is an obscure Hong Kong publishing company that churns out gossipy titles about China and its top leaders. On Dec. 30, Lee Bo, 65, an editor at the company, received a phone order for a dozen books, including several about the private life of President Xi Jinping. That evening he went to get the books in a warehouse in a quiet part of town. He never returned. Two of the company’s co-owners and two employees had disappeared before him, one after the other, beginning last October.
Within days of his disappearance, Mr. Lee called his wife, and faxed a message to colleagues saying he was “O.K.” and had gone to China “in his own way.” This was ominous, for his wife had found Mr. Lee’s travel documents at home; she began to worry that he had been abducted and forcibly brought to the mainland by Chinese government operatives.
Concern deepened after the mainstream Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that the local police were in possession of footage from surveillance cameras at the book warehouse showing Mr. Lee being shadowed by strangers as he walks into an elevator. A witness claims to have seen him being forced into a car by several men and driven off.
Gui Minhai, one of Mr. Lee’s missing colleagues, who left his home in Thailand under extremely suspicious circumstances a few months ago, appeared earlier this week on Chinese state TV, in China, looking sullen and mouthing an implausible mea culpa about voluntarily returning to the mainland because of a deadly car accident many years ago.
The case of the disappearing booksellers has touched a nerve in Hong Kong: Once again, the Chinese authorities seem willing to violate the territory’s Basic Law, its mini constitution since 1997, which guarantees Hong Kongers various political rights, many unavailable in China. Those rights include freedom from arbitrary arrests, especially by Chinese law enforcement agents. They also include the right to eventually elect Hong Kong’s top leader, the chief executive, by universal suffrage: It was Beijing’s attempt to undermine that right that set off the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive, who is widely regarded as a Communist Party minion, has done little to quiet Hong Kongers’ anxieties. On Jan. 5, hard pressed and visibly embarrassed, he appealed to Mr. Lee “to come forward and reveal what had happened.” Angered by this evasiveness and hypocrisy, several thousand people marched through the Central District of Hong Kong on Jan. 10, demanding that Mr. Leung press mainland authorities for an explanation.
The official response from the Chinese government has been baffling. Several articles and editorials in the Global Times, an ultranationalistic Communist Party newspaper in Beijing, have claimed that the Hong Kong publishers violated Chinese law and were subject to arrest for selling books banned in China that were then brought to the mainland. (Communist Party officials themselves are known to be avid readers of such political gossip.)
The Global Times has also argued that China’s “coercive power-wielding departments” could resort to covert, extraterritorial enforcement so long as they did not “tie up a captive like a major criminal, manhandle him into a car and drive across the border.” The statement came across as another expression of the Chinese government’s blatant disregard for the Basic Law, and it further fanned anti-Beijing passions in Hong Kong.
Then the story took an intriguing turn. Citing sources close to the central government, two Hong Kong newspapers in good standing with Beijing, Sing Tao Daily and the Hong Kong Economic Times, claimed that the Global Times did not represent the views of the Communist Party leadership and that its statements had damaged China’s image.
Why would there be two conflicting accounts of the same story from known proxies of the Chinese government?
Perhaps because the very top of the Communist Party itself is split. During and after his long tenure as the party’s general secretary and China’s president, Jiang Zemin was known to be at odds with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, later the country’s president and prime minister, respectively. Tensions carried over to Mr. Xi, who in turn became president with the backing of Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen.
Bo Xilai, a princeling and Jiang protégé, was purged during the final days of the Hu-Wen rule. After Mr. Xi became president in 2012, Zhou Yongkang — security czar, member of the politburo’s standing committee and a Jiang man — was sidelined on corruption charges.
The Falun Gong’s theology, or its claim that the Chinese authorities are harvesting human organs, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the spiritual movement has often proved correct in its analysis of power plays in Beijing. According to a recent article in Epoch Times, a Falun Gong publication, even as Mr. Xi has tried to muffle so-called small channel news, political gossip supposedly leaked from the inner circles of the Communist Party, the Jiang faction has continued to feed Mr. Lee and his partners juicy stories about the Xi family.
Indeed, among the books Mr. Lee was picking up when he disappeared was one titled “The Six Women of Xi Jinping.” (A previous marriage of Mr. Xi’s ended in divorce, and his current wife was chosen from the cultural troupe of the People’s Liberation Army, which is often derisively portrayed as a harem for top Communist Party officials.) Mr. Lee’s wife was a long-time columnist at Ta Kung Pao, one of two official Communist Party newspapers in Hong Kong, which published gushing stories about Zhou Yongkang. (Her column was abruptly suspended recently.)
Of course, many Hong Kongers care little about the details of Mr. Lee’s political connections. What matters to them is that his suspected abduction represents yet another attack on their freedoms, and yet another sign that the “one country, two systems” formula that supposedly protects Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing is steadily being eroded.
The fear and outrage that is spreading in Hong Kong is feeding anti-Communist and separatist sentiments there. This should worry Beijing, and so should the condemnation it has received from Western governments. (Mr. Gui is a naturalized Swedish citizen, and Mr. Lee holds a British passport.) But the fallout was also so predictable that one wonders how China’s leaders, supposedly grandmasters of strategic machination, went about this political calculus.
The Chinese government’s questionable management of its financial markets recently has already suggested that it is seriously disconnected from reality. And now it is using brute force to snuff out a tiny Hong Kong publisher of two-bit political gossip. Is the Communist Party simply becoming more ruthless in quashing dissenting voices, or is its political judgment slipping?
Lian Yi-zheng is a columnist on economic and political issues for the Hong Kong Economic Journal.