(Picture credits to Marco Lam)
Under normal circumstances, a missing bookstore owner would have been just a minor mention on TV and possibly a short paragraph in the newspapers. But this particular ‘kidnap’ has received attention of proportions far beyond normal; what was meant to be a purely local event has turned international. Why is that been the case?
Lee Bo’s disappearance involves a Hong Kong citizen possibly taken outside legal channels by Chinese agents with no jurisdiction in the city. For some Hong Kong citizens, his case has confirmed their worst fears – that Hong Kong’s “high level of autonomy” is no more. That the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly have been irreparably compromised. That Hong Kong is being brought back into the fold of China years in advance with no way of resisting. Given Hong Kong’s political polarization and the society’s atmosphere of distrust towards authority, it is no surprise that this disappearance case has become so high-profile locally.
Since the Umbrella Revolution, the divide between the pro-establishment and pro-democracy political camps has grown to the point where compromise over any dispute has become nigh impossible. The Legislative Council has lost its effectiveness as politicians constantly bring back the tensions surrounding electoral reform into every piece of legislature that they debate, and conflicts that once could be solved by civil discussion now almost inevitably escalate to points where police involvement is needed to maintain order.
Connected to this is the general sense in Hong Kong society that the government fails to represent local interests. This undoubtedly relates back to the way that the Chief Executive is currently elected, through a majority vote of a 1200-member Election Committee (out of the city’s total population of over 7,000,000) claiming to “broadly represent” the Hong Kong people. The track record of the current Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying has not exactly been a good one either. His political leaning towards China has been the subject of scrutiny by the pro-democracy parties and political groups since his electoral campaign, and their accusations against him of favouring China’s interests over Hong Kong’s have only grown stronger since then. His indifferent attitude and inaction towards citizens’ concerns about parallel trading resulting in a lack of daily necessities for people living near the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, the exorbitant costs and indefinite finish date of the Guangzhou high-speed rail link, just to name a few issues, has cost him a great deal of credibility. More recent politically charged controversies such as the appointment of pro-establishment executive councilor Li Kwok-Cheung as Hong Kong University’s new council chairman, and the curious omission of political hot potatoes and extensive inclusion of China’s “One Belt One Road” economic strategy in the most recent policy address have also contributed to his all-time low approval rating of 37.5% (HKU Public Opinion Poll, 12/01/16). Needless to say, in such an atmosphere of distrust and disapproval towards the Government, increasingly regarded as putting China’s interests above Hong Kong’s interests, any incident involving China’s perceived interference in Hong Kong will lead to more vocal criticism of both governments.
Lee Bo’s British citizenship has added an extra dimension to this. The involvement of the UK through a statement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has sparked louder voices of both support and disapproval. The FCO urged the Hong Kong government to “honour its commitment” to press freedom, and hoped Chinese authorities would “continue to make every effort to ensure that the environment in which the media and publishers operate in Hong Kong…supports full and frank reporting”. For some in Hong Kong, this is the foreign backing they have been waiting for, a force that can help them combat the spectre of Mainland China’s control. For others, this is a political nightmare – China’s accusations of Hong Kong harbouring “foreign forces” working to bring China down internationally are now "justified". Add on deeper conflicts over the “One Country Two Systems” policy stipulated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that handed Hong Kong back to China, and this becomes an even greater strain on Hong Kong-China relations when it is least needed.
The hubbub surrounding the disappearance of Lee Bo is but the manifestation of the greater problem of Hong Kong-China relations. “One Country Two Systems” remains ambiguous, there is no consensus on the way forward for electoral reform, the political rift in Hong Kong society seems to have no hope of being closed, the people view both the Hong Kong and Mainland China governments with animosity, and many other problems besides. How can Hong Kong find a consensus about its future? How can it retain its autonomy, while ensuring safety and prosperity? There is not long left until the 2047 deadline when Hong Kong must be integrated fully with China – the future is uncertain, and prospects are grim.