Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers: Where Are They?

Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers: Where Are They?


By Emily Lim

Part II on Hong Kong’s exceptionalism 

On Dec. 30, 2015, Hong Konger Lee Bo, who is a shareholder of Hong Kong bookstore Causeway Bay Books, which is known for publishing titles banned in China, disappeared. Lee had been investigating the disappearance of his four colleagues, who have all been missing since Oct. 2014.

It is suspected that the Chinese authorities had a hand in their disappearance, particularly since three of the booksellers were last seen in Shenzhen, China. Their disappearance has again raised questions about whether the Chinese government is honoring its commitment to the high level of autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong under the Basic Law, which establishes the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ relationship between the two nations. In a press conference, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying reinstated Hong Kong’s respect for the rule of law, freedom of press, and freedom of expression,  saying: “It is unacceptable if mainland legal agencies enforced law in Hong Kong as it is against the Basic Law.”


Causeway Bay Books could only exist in Hong Kong because of the social freedoms guaranteed to the Hong Kong people by the Basic Law (for more information, please read Hong Kong’s Exceptionalism Explained). Facebook, The New York Times, and other internet pages and forums censored in China are accessible in Hong Kong.

As a result of China’s growingly intrusive policy in Hong Kong, it is also known as a ‘city of protests’ for the tendency of its citizens to demonstrate. Aside from the annual pro-democracy protests that take place on the anniversary Hong Kong’s handover to China, Hong Kong has also become a major ground for protests by followers and supporters of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual practice group persecuted by the Chinese government. In 2003, 500,000 took to the streets to demonstrate against Chief Executive Tung Chee Wah’s government when it proposed the anti-subversion law under Article 23, which would have threatened citizens’ rights to free speech by giving the Hong Kong government powers to pass laws prohibiting the broad and ambiguous categories of treason, sedition, theft of state secrets, and—most significantly—foreign political organizations deemed a danger to national security. The massive demonstrations were a major factor in the article being shelved.


Despite the spirit of protest of Hong Kong, there is a pervading fear that the freedoms offered under Hong Kong’s constitution are being eroded. In particular, there is a concern that the freedom of press is deteriorating. In Feb. 2014, Kevin Lau, the former editor of Chinese-language daily circulation newspaper Ming Pao, was stabbed, leading to speculation that he was attacked because of his outspoken political views. The previous month, Lau had resigned as the paper’s editor-in-chief. Due to suspicion that he resigned because of pressure from censors, over 90% of Ming Pao’s staff signed a petition demanding an explanation for his resignation. In Dec. 2015, Chinese internet firm Alibaba paid $266 million to buy Hong Kong’s main English-language subscription newspaper South China Morning Post, which in the past has covered political scandals and human rights cases in China. According to Alibaba, the deal was motivated by an interest to improve the China’s portrayal in what is considered the biased perspective of Western news outlets, leading to fears that the paper will lose its independent editorial voice.

Economically, Hong Kong operates independently from China. It has its own currency, monetary reserve, and customs regime, but has strong economic links to the mainland. Half of Hong Kong’s exports goes to China, and one-third of Hong Kong’s bank assets are loans to Chinese customers. Tourism and retail spending by Chinese citizens account for 10% of Hong Kong’s GDP. Nevertheless, much of the international community considers Hong Kong’s economic system as separate from China’s. The World Trade Organization treats Hong Kong like another country; even investment law in China categorizes Hong Kong’s investors as ‘foreign.’


From an economic perspective, Chinese economic influence has played a part in fermenting tensions between Hong Kong and China. As China’s world economic power has grown, Hong Kong’s economy is increasingly eclipsed: at the time of the Chinese handover in 1997, Hong Kong’s economy was 18% the size of China’s; at the time of the 2014 pro-democracy protests, Hong Kong’s economy was a mere 3% of China’s.

Conflicting economic objectives have also sharpened differences: between 2009 and 2014, property prices in Hong Kong doubled, with the blame for the soaring prices falling upon wealthy Chinese investors. Following the 2008 baby milk formula scandal, in which high concentrations of the chemical melamine were found in milk formulas, leaving six infants dead and over 300,000 babies sick as a result of kidney stones, Chinese tourists have flocked to buy Hong Kong’s better-regulated milk formula, leading to a 2013 law[12] passed by the local government limiting the number of milk powder tins tourists can bring out of Hong Kong. In 2013 alone, 50 million mainland tourists visited Hong Kong. Their sheer number and manners, which are considered uncouth by many local citizens, has sparked clashes and even an anti-Chinese tourist protest in May 2015.

Following 150 years of separation from the mainland, Hong Kong has developed a distinct cultural identity. Most significant is the difference in language. Although Cantonese is spoken in neighboring Guangdong province, Putonghua remains its official language. In Hong Kong, English and Cantonese Chinese, but not Putonghua, are the official languages and are used in schools, courts, and official positions. Furthermore, since Hong Kong was not exposed to the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Hong Kong, like Taiwan, has preserved the use of traditional written Chinese, whereas China now uses simplified Chinese.

In many ways, Hong Kong is considered separate by the international community: Hong Kong has its own passport, is recognized as an independent participating dependency by the International Olympic Committee, has its own flag, and has its own currency.

These social, economic and cultural differences between Hong Kong and China came to a fever pitch in 2014, culminating in the Occupy Central or “umbrella” movement. Under the Basic Law, which formulates Hong Kong’s constitution, the Chinese government has agreed to a democratically elected Chief Executive in 2017, and universal suffrage in the form of legislative council elections in 2020. However, following an announcement by the Chinese government that candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election would be pre-screened, effectively violating its promise for free elections and instead guaranteeing the election of a pro-China candidate, over 100,000 people turned out in a three-month long peaceful occupation of Hong Kong’s central business district, Central.

Although the Occupy movement was disbanded by the Hong Kong police in Dec. 2014, it has ignited a spark of resistance and opened public dialogue within Hong Kong. The disappearance of the five booksellers has not gone by quietly, and in early Jan. 2014, thousands gathered to demonstrate for their release. While it is uncertain as to whether Hong Kong’s freedoms will be preserved or will continue to be eroded by the Chinese government hangs in the balance, it is certain that the Hong Kong people will not let go of their human rights and social freedoms lightly.

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