Causeway Bay district, Hong Kong. Photo by Flickr user IQRemix
China’s economy may be slowing, but Beijing has begun exporting a new and highly undesirable product that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are absolutely right to condemn.
The export? Repression. The condemnation? Pending, maybe. Because Obama and Kerry have maintained near total silence on the subject thus far.
China’s abuses of its own citizens’ rights to free expression are well-documented, as is the harsh and arbitrary nature of its justice system. Nothing new there. What is new is that the Chinese, apparently enraged by an unflattering book about their current president, have decided to take their abuses on the road, to Hong Kong and Thailand. Hong Kong, while part of China, was famously (albeit porously) guaranteed to keep its own legal and political systems when China recovered sovereignty from the United Kingdom in 1997. Thailand, of course, is a wholly independent country, although apparently one where Chinese operatives feel free to abduct a target if they think it is worth taking a little verbal heat.
The disappearances of five Hong Kong-based booksellers last year sparked protests and outrage. Three vanished in mainland China; one disappeared from Hong Kong and one vanished while on vacation in Thailand. All five men were affiliated with Causeway Bay Books, as well as the store’s related publisher, Mighty Current, whose material included critical commentary of Chinese politics and gossip on Chinese leaders’ personal lives, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The disappearances caught the attention of many parties concerned by China’s rapidly deteriorating concern for even the appearance of abiding by international human rights standards. The U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan committee that monitors the rule of law in China, cited the booksellers’ detention in a letter urging Obama to pressure Chinese President Xi Jinping on the state of human rights in his country. A group of humanitarian organizations also mentioned the five detained men by name in a letter asking for similar pressure from Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
As of this writing, four of the men have returned to Hong Kong, while the fifth remains in Chinese police custody. All four of the men who have been released initially told the Hong Kong police that they did not want any assistance and declined to disclose any details about their detention by Chinese authorities.
Gui Minhai, the bookseller who is still detained, appeared on Chinese state television months after his disappearance to “confess” his involvement in a 2003 hit and run fatality. His daughter, Angela Gui, called the confession “clearly staged and badly put together” in her testimony before Congress. Such forced confessions are becoming regular practice inside China, but the audacity of their export is new.
In February, all five booksellers gave interviews to a Hong Kong broadcaster. In a move that completely violated due process, the interviews implicated the men in selling books illegally to customers in mainland China and indicated that Gui was the mastermind behind the alleged scheme. Meanwhile, Lee Po, the man who disappeared from Hong Kong, claimed that he went to mainland China of his own free will in order to help his staff members; yet there was no record of his leaving Hong Kong because he decided to sneak across the border, despite the fact he could have crossed it legally with his home-return permit. Such interviews are evidence, not of what the men giving them have done, but of the level of fear instilled in them.
This truth became even clearer when one of them, Lam Wing King, held a news conference in Hong Kong earlier this month describing his ordeal. He explicitly stated that he was coerced into confessing that he had mailed banned books to mainland China. His release was conditional on returning to the mainland and providing Chinese authorities with names of his customers, something he said he “did not dare” actually do. Unlike his fellow captives, Lam has no family on the mainland, which he said made him feel responsible for publically telling the truth, despite the personal risk.
Maybe Obama and Kerry think a low-key, backstage approach is the best way to moderate Chinese behavior. Maybe they think the limited gains they could hope to achieve by intervening do not justify what it would cost America, financially or otherwise. Maybe the internet is not working properly at the White House and at Foggy Bottom. Maybe they just don’t care enough to bother.
Whatever the reasons, as the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule arrives next month, it is increasingly clear that the supposedly ironclad 50-year guarantee of “one country, two systems” really means “one country, our system when we want to impose it” as far as Beijing’s current leadership is concerned. It never made any sense to believe otherwise, with that deal coming less than a decade after Tiananmen Square. So maybe Obama and Kerry keep silent because the first thing that comes to their mind to say is “What did you expect?”