January 7, 2016
The recent disappearance of publisher Lee Po—allegedly kidnapped from Hong Kong and rendered to Mainland China—has prompted widespread alarm about the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy, both within the city and internationally. In a widely-shared video, Umbrella Movement student activist Agnes Chow claimed that “Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore.” In an interview with The New York Times, legislator Dennis Kwok said that, “this sort of stuff is just not supposed to happen in Hong Kong.” Even political figures traditionally viewed as pro-Beijing have felt compelled to express their concern. But the alleged rendition—the latest in a string of five disappearances linked to the Mighty Current publishing house—did not occur in isolation. Instead, it and the other Mighty Current disappearances should be viewed as part of a broader effort by Beijing to supress critical voices—not only in Hong Kong, but well beyond its borders.
Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are ostensibly guaranteed in Hong Kong, both under international law applicable in the territory and under the Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document. But Hong Kong’s media landscape, although freer than the Mainland’s, has increasingly come under Beijing’s influence. Pro-Beijing tycoons have invested heavily in Hong Kong media companies, the most recent example being Alibaba’s acquisition of the South China Morning Post (though he purchased it from another pro-Beijing owner). The scrappy pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily has suffered from withdrawn advertising, allegedly due to pressure from Beijing. And the Chinese government’s liaison office—which, under the terms of the Basic Law, isprohibited from interfering with matters within Hong Kong’s autonomy—controls three major bookstore chains within the city, as well as a variety of print and online media outlets. The result is a media landscape within which self-censorship is pervasive, as the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned in its latest annual report. Mighty Current, and the Causeway Bay Books bookstore it owned, were one of the few remaining avenues for distribution of “forbidden books”—mainly salacious exposés about Mainland political figures. The disappearances—along with other acts of intimidation such as that which led to the shuttering of independent news site House News in 2014—have the practical effect of damaging or silencing alternatives to a mainstream Hong Kong media that has largely been captured by pro-Beijing interests.