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Hong Kong's disappearing bookseller controversy, explained

A Hong Kong protestor holds up a picture of Lee Bo, one of the disappeared booksellers.
A Hong Kong protestor holds up a picture of Lee Bo, one of the disappeared booksellers.
(Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Just before the New Year, a Hong Kong bookseller named Lee Bo disappeared.

Lee specializes in books banned in the rest of the country. His whereabouts had been unknown until Monday, when Chinese authorities confirmed that he was on the mainland. It's still unclear whether they're the ones who brought him there — that is, whether they had abducted him from Hong Kong.

Lee is one of five Hong Kong booksellers to disappear in recent months, all five of whom are employed by the Mighty Current publishing house. One, Mighty Current owner Gui Minhai, went on Chinese state TV Sunday night and tearfully "confessed" to a 2003 hit-and-run. "We can’t rule out that it was made under duress," William Nee, Amnesty International’s China researcher, told the Associated Press.

The story has electrified Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China that still retains special freedoms and has a partially separate government, for the disturbing questions it has raised: Is China launching a deliberate attack on Hong Kong's freedoms? And if it is, what does it mean?

The mystery of the disappearing booksellers

Choi Ka-ping, the wife of Lee Bo, pictured after his disappearance.
(Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Hong Kong's book publishers are notorious throughout China for publishing things the Chinese authorities would rather keep quiet, and often forbid in the rest of the country. Mighty Current is one of the biggest, specializing in publishing questionably sourced books about the private lives of Chinese Communist Party officials. Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Quartz that they are "the largest publisher of gossipy titles in Hong Kong."

Mighty Current's attacks are unsparing. The 2015 best-seller at Causeway Books, a Mighty Current store, alleges that Chinese President Xi Jinping's support inside the communist party is totally spent, and that former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are teaming up to bring him down. For the past several months, it has reportedly been putting together a book on the president's sexual history, including The Lovers of Xi Jinping or Xi Jinping and His Six Women.

And then in October, four Mighty Current employees vanished.

Three of them — general manager Lu Bo, as well as employees Zhang Zhiping and Lin Rongji — disappeared during a visit to the mainland in late October. They haven't been heard from since. The fourth, owner Gui, was on vacation in Thailand. According to an investigation by the free speech group Independent Chinese PEN Center, Chinese agents probably nabbed him. (This theory has not been independently confirmed.)

"It is not certain that Gui, also a naturalized Swedish citizen, was smuggled back to China by the government," Guardian writers Oliver Holmes and Tom Phillips concluded in a separate December investigation. However, they also found evidence that a number of strange men who did not speak Thai, and who wrote Chinese names in the guest book, showed up at Gui's apartment while he was out in the days before his disappearance.

Then in late December, Lee disappeared. Unlike the prior other Mighty Current employees who'd gone missing, Lee hadn't been out of Hong Kong when he vanished. Days afterward, Lee called his wife to say he was in Shenzhen, a Chinese mainland city just across the border from Hong Kong. It's still unclear whether he went there of his own free will or was abducted from Hong Kong by Chinese agents.

In sum: What we have is a series of suspiciously timed disappearances, all involving employees at the same publishing house. In each case, it seems highly plausible — though not yet confirmed — that Chinese authorities were involved.

"They have been operating for years with no problems, but now the bookstore is getting into trouble and the people are getting into trouble," an anonymous Hong Kong publisher told the Guardian.

This has led a number of observers to conclude, understandably, that China's security forces abducted the booksellers — which would be a significant erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy from the rest of China and its special status as a haven for certain freedoms.

Why China would target Hong Kong booksellers — and why it's getting worse

Xi Jinping.
Li Xueren/Xinhua/Getty Images

It's certainly possible that the publishing house has done something to attract Beijing's ire, such as the rumored book on Xi's sexual history. But these disappearances come amid a wider move to restrict booksellers in Hong Kong.

Since at least 2013, China has been cracking down on subversive Hong Kong publishers. "While Mighty Current has dominated the news," Quartz's Zheping Huang, Echo Huang Yinyin, and Heather Timmons write, " the crackdown really started years ago":

The first Hong Kong publisher known to be nabbed by the mainland authorities was Yao Wentian, chief editor of Morning Bell Press, who was preparing to publish a book titled China’s Godfather Xi Jinping, written by exiled Chinese author Yu Jie. The book criticizes Xi as a dictator, comparable to famous patriarch in the Italian-American Mafia trilogy. [...]

In May of 2014, a pair of Hong Kong journalists behind two political affairs magazines Multiple Face and New Way Monthly were taken away by police from their homes in Shenzhen. The magazines has questioned Xi’s rise to power. After being detained for more than 17 months, publisher Wang Jianmin and editor-in-chief Guo Zhongxiao pleaded guilty to "running an illegal business" before a Shenzhen court after sending the magazines to eight friends on the mainland.

Bei Ling, the director of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, believes this crackdown on Chinese publishers is a direct result of Xi's ascension to power in November 2012.

Before Xi, "we didn’t hear of anyone being abducted in Hong Kong or jailed in the mainland," Bei told the New York Times. "Under Xi Jinping, the intolerance of the leadership for books about the inside workings of the party published in Hong Kong’s free society has reached new levels, to the extent that they would order the abduction of political writers and their publishers across borders."

It's not just Hong Kong where this is happening: Xi has been carrying out a harsh campaign across China's mainland against domestic dissidents, which the Washington Post calls "the harshest crackdown on free speech in decades." The Hong Kong booksellers' main audience is Chinese mainlanders visiting the island, who purchase the books in order to get a less restricted (and more tabloid-y) take on their country's political scene.

Attacking the Hong Kong publishers, from Xi's point of view, may be a way of preventing subversive ideas from spreading into mainland China.

Hong Kong is worried about its freedoms

Hong Kongers protest after the booksellers' disappearances.
(Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

In 1997, when Hong Kong's British rulers handed the city-state over to China, Hong Kong was guaranteed free speech rights, an independent judiciary, and free elections to begin in 2017. Ever since, people in Hong Kong, who often see themselves as distinct from the rest of China, have worried whether Beijing will honor that deal.

Hong Kong residents deeply resent mainland interference in their political system, and have a long history of protesting in defense of their rights. So for them, the bookseller disappearances are about an even bigger question than whether China is now abducting publishers who print politically sensitive material that was previously allowed: It's about whether Hong Kong will remain free or be subsumed under the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian rule.

Indeed, since the abduction of the five booksellers, thousands of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets in anger. They have a strong case on the merits: If the Chinese authorities really did abduct Lee from inside Hong Kong borders, they've broken their own rules as to how they have to treat Hong Kong.

But there is little reason to hope that protests will bring change. In 2014, when Beijing announced modifications to the 2017 Hong Kong election that would make it less free, Hong Kong responded with mass protests that didn't appear to change the situation much. This could end up being yet another example of the mainland chipping away at Hong Kong's democratic freedoms — and getting away with it.

That's how the story is perceived in Hong Kong, anyway. The cases of the booksellers are still unclear enough that it's possible those perceptions will turn out to be wrong. But it is those larger political dynamics that make this story so important.