With the latest disappearance of Lee Bo, the number of booksellers who have disappeared in the last couple of months in Hong Kong has gone up to five. These disappearances beg the question as to whether bookselling is a dangerous profession in the former British colony, or if it is rather a case of being affiliated to the wrong publisher.
Indeed, it has been reported that all those who disappeared were either connected to the publishing house Mighty Current or headed the company as is the case for Gui Minhai, the owner of the publishing house.
Mighty Current, set up by China-born Swedish national Gui Minhai, specialises in gossipy paperbacks highly critical of China’s leadership. Some of the paperbacks also contain details of the private lives of China’s senior leaders and their families. Although banned on mainland China, the publishing house and its bookstore, the Causeway Bay Bookstore, are allowed in Hong Kong and are a success with Chinese tourists from the mainland.
Although freedom of the press is granted in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has started cracking down on publishers and journalists in recent years. Last year, the publisher Yin Mantin was sentenced to 10 years in prison on smuggling charges; his family, however, believes that his prison sentence is in retaliation to a book he published, which was critical of President Xi Jinping.
On the subject of book publishing, a source who refused to be named has affirmed that Mr Gui Minhai was about to bring a book out, no doubt critical of the regime.
“I am quite certain that the main target was Mr Gui. They wanted to prevent him from publishing that book,” the source says, and adds that “the others were taken because they thought the contents of the book had already been distributed.”
In the midst of the arrests of the bookseller, two other journalists were tried for selling political magazines.
The wave of arrests has caused concerns among the Hong Kong publishing industry. Bruce Lui of the Independent Commentators Association issued a statement just after the arrest of the two journalists in which he wrote that “the unfortunate coincidence of the report of the disappearances and the detention of Wang Jianmin and Guo Zhongxiao have cast a shadow on freedom of the press, a right enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”
As for Amnesty International, it notes that “it is a deeply troubling case and it will have serious implications about the deterioration of freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”
For the families of the missing however, these condemnations might do more harm than good.
The Hong Kong police, which is investigating the disappearance of Mr. Lee, awaiting on their Chinese counterpart to confirm whether or not they have detained the bookseller. His wife however has said that she received a call from him from a mainland number in which he told her he was “assisting in an investigation.”
For pro-democracy activists in the semi-autonomous territory which has a British style legal system, Hongkongers “have been living with a false sense of security and that’s very frightening.”