The disappearance of Lee Bo and four other people involved in publishing books critical of China’s Communist Party is undermining the oasis of freedom that the Territory once was. Surveillance, fear and self-censorship are growing. Scholars make “odd” visits to activists and foreign missionaries. Whilst Hong Kong is described as a cultural desert, the mainland sees violent repression against lawyers, Protestants, Catholics, Uighur Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists. Like Jerzy Popieluszko, Fr Wei Heping is a martyr. Freedom in Hong Kong will be no more unless the same freedom comes to China.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – It is the end of Hong Kong. Hong Kong, as we have known it, the one where we have lived, is no more. The Hong Kong of "one country - two systems" was to last at least 50 years; instead, it has only lasted 18. The end came 32 years ahead of time. The date of its death is 30 December 2015, just after 6 pm.
On that day, witnesses saw some men forcing publisher Lee Bo (pictured) into a van. Since then, nothing has been heard from him, except his desperate wife who received a phone call from him in which, uncharacteristically, he spoke in Mandarin, and said that he was in China to help the authorities in an investigation. In October, three other people, from a small publishing house, disappeared whilst in China. A fourth person, also from a small Hong Kong publishing house, disappeared in Thailand.
Five Hong Kong publishers disappear into thin air, like under the worst fascist, communist or military regimes. The one thing they had in common was that they published and sold books that criticised the Chinese Communist Party, books that mainland Chinese tourists snapped up when they visited Hong Kong. Another was that they were preparing a new critical book on Chinese President Xi Jinping with some titillating titbits about his private life.
In the past, I wrote many times that there is no democracy in Hong Kong, but that at least there was freedom. Now I cannot say that anymore. Hong Kong residents have already been imprisoned for political reasons as they travelled in China. However, Chinese security operations never reached into Hong Kong.
As pro-democracy leader Lee Cheuk-yan rightly pointed out, the abduction of Lee Bo is Hong Kong people’s worse nightmare: disappearing into thin air, i.e. into the hands of Chinese officials. People always felt safe in Hong Kong. No more! According to police sources, there is no record showing of Lee Bo crossing the border. The Hong Kong government says it knows nothing about it. I am inclined to believe that since it counts for nothing. Secret agents do not ask permission to act against dissidents, or use legal procedures. Chinese authorities are silent. Or rather, they have admitted something, namely that Lee Bo, despite his British passport, is still Chinese. This is an unusual way of interpreting international law.
The consequences of the mysterious kidnappings have been devastating. Books that criticise the Chinese regime have been removed from the city's bookstores. Yu Jie, a Chinese dissident who lives in the US said that Open, a Hong Kong-based publishing house, has decided not to publish his book on Xi Jinping, which is already finished. The chief editor of Open Magazine, the foremost China-watcher publication in Hong Kong, announced that he plans to immigrate to the United States in the coming weeks. Anyone who has been outspoken is now afraid. In mainland China, Hong Kong was disparagingly described as a 'cultural desert'. That was unfair. But now it is truly turning into a culturally conformist desert. Through self-censorship, and with minimal efforts, the Beijing regime is having resounding success.
This is not the beginning of the end; it is the end. The beginning came when, a few years ago, nothing was done to pursue the city’s process of democratic development as desired by the people and as required under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which regulates its constitutional life.
Hong Kong’s agony will last a few more years. Most publications are already in the hands of friends of those in power, including, unfortunately, the daily South China Morning Post. Those journalists who had a critical voice have been elbowed out one by one, without too much fuss. Softly but surely, the purge will be completed. Eventually, this will happen in education. Then religions will be asked to follow the party line. It is a matter of time.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong some socially active residents, including some foreign missionaries, have been received unsolicited visits from kind Chinese “scholars” who ask them many questions, about their views and what they know. They are always courteous and kind, but what lies behind such visits is very clear.
Things in general are no more complicated than they appear. All it takes is having a pair of eyes to see. Under Xi Jinping, respect for human rights and religious freedom has taken a backseat. In China, journalists continue to be arrested, disappear or endure otherwise restrictive measures. So far, 49 journalists have been detained. Nosy foreign journalists have been expelled, the latest case involving French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who wrote an article about the repression suffered by the Uighur population in western China. Unfortunately, human rights lawyers, who represented real hope, have been targeted as well. More than 700, law professionals and associates, have been detained, arrested, or prevented from working.
Since 2009, 145 Tibetan Buddhists set themselves on fire in protest against China’s oppressive policy in Tibet. By and large, this tragedy has been ignored. Christians too suffer. More than a thousand crosses have been taken down, and many churches have been demolished. Above all, there is the sad and disturbing case of Wei Heping, a young and brave priest serving an underground Catholic community, who was found dead in the Fen River in Shanxi under suspicious circumstances. The tragedy took place on 7 November 2015. At first, the police hurriedly ruled the case a suicide. Nothing suggests this conclusion. Many believe he met a violent death because of his influence with young people and online. For many Catholics he is a martyr. If that were the case, he would be the first priest killed in China in 25 years. His fate is like that of Fr Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest who was killed by government agents in 1984, and is now a blessed. In Hong Kong, Wei Heping was remembered by hundreds of faithful on 30 December, at the same time as Lee Bo was being deported to China.
A journalist friend does not share my pessimism about Hong Kong’s fate. He says that Hong Kong will make it. I sincerely hope he is right. Mine is not a forlorn pessimism, but a simple reading of the facts. Things are almost always as they appear, and they almost always end as expected. The latest events show us that Hong Kong’s fate and that of China are now the same. There will be no more freedom in Hong Kong, unless the same freedom also comes to China.