A Hong Kong publisher has suspended plans for a book criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping, a sign that the recent disappearance of five booksellers has exacted a heavy toll on the city's independent publishing industry.
Jin Zhong, head of the Hong Kong publishing house Open, decided in early January to scrap plans to publish "Xi Jinping's Nightmare" by Yu Jie, a Chinese writer and democracy activist living in the U.S.
"Many booksellers are afraid of selling these kinds of books now," Jin said in a phone interview Thursday. "This crisis is very severe."
Hong Kong, a former British colony of seven million in southern China, has long been a haven for free speech — since 1997, Beijing has administered the city under a "one country, two systems" arrangement, exempting it from the mainland's heavy censorship constraints. Tomes about the private lives of mainland political leaders — some well-sourced, others largely speculative — have become popular purchases for mainland tourists on cross-border trips.
Yet since October, five people tied to Mighty Current Media, a publishing house behind several recent political exposes, have gone missing under mysterious circumstances, casting a pall over the industry. One, British citizen Lee Bo, went missing on Dec. 30 while he was in Hong Kong, raising fears that mainland authorities have conducted an extralegal — and possibly unprecedented — political abduction in the territory.
"The whole thing about Hong Kong's safety in the publishing industry, including book and magazine publishing, is that we are guaranteed by law that Beijing and Hong Kong will not cross into each others' territories and arrest people," Jin said. "So this time we need to consider a lot of things, and take a step back in order to protect ourselves."
"Under such circumstances," he said, "many of my family members said 'since you know there's such a risk, why do you want to do this? Do you not want your family anymore? Since you can avoid [persecution], why not just avoid it? So I decided to tell Yu Jie to hold temporarily and wait for a bit."
Yu has already written one highly critical book about Xi Jinping, "Godfather of China Xi Jinping." Several booksellers initially refused to publish the book, and the few who agreed faced heavy intimidation. One, Yiu Mantin, was arrested during a visit to mainland China before its release. Chinese authorities accused him of smuggling industrial paint, and in May 2014, sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Jin agreed to publish the book after Yiu's arrest; it was released in 2014.
On Tuesday, Yu wrote an op-ed in the local newspaper Apple Daily claiming that several other Hong Kong booksellers had refused to publish "Xi Jinping's Nightmare," and he now planned to publish it in Taiwan. He called the democratic island a "last lighthouse of publishing freedom in ethnic Chinese society."
The disappearances began in October when Gui Minhai, a China-born Swedish national and co-owner of the bookstore Causeway Bay Books, went missing while in Thailand. Three other bookstore operators, Lui Bo, Cheung Jiping and Lam Wing-kei, were reported missing in November. They were last seen on the mainland.
Lee was also a co-owner of Causeway Bay Books, which is run by Mighty Current. Since his disappearance Dec. 30, the store has closed, and at least one prominent bookstore chain, Page One, has taken politically sensitive books off its shelves.
On Sunday, thousands of Hong Kong residents gathered to protest Lee Bo's disappearance, shouting "free Lee Bo!" and waving banners that read "missing person."
The disappearances "imply that nowadays even the basic law of Hong Kong is not enough to protect the personal safety of activists, or people who show their disagreement to the Communist Party," said Joshua Wong, a 19-year-old activist who helped lead the Umbrella Movement, a massive pro-democracy protest that rocked the city last autumn.
"Even the booksellers and their peers, they just sell their books — they didn't violate any law, or any regulation in Hong Kong, but they still face persecution and abduction."
Since Lee Bo vanished, the mystery surrounding his disappearance, and his current treatment, have deepened. No mainland or Hong Kong authorities have confirmed that the booksellers were detained. Last week Lee's wife Choi Ka-ping, a columnist, said that she received a handwritten fax from Lee, saying that he decided to return to the mainland "in order to understand some personal issues."
Hong Kong's top official, Leung Chun-ying, said in a policy speech Wednesday that he has raised the case of the missing booksellers with Beijing. "I have already conveyed the Hong Kong government's and the public's concern to the relevant bodies," he said, according to local media reports.
Joseph Yu-shek Cheng, a retired professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said Lee's disappearance shows that China is willing to abrogate its promises of one country, two systems.
"It's very scary," he said. "I think it is sad, in the sense that the Chinese authorities do not care anymore about the international impact, the international image, and they are apparently willing to pay the price."
"I do believe the price is substantial," he said. "Because in the long term, people will see that and say, how can I trust you? I mean people in Hong Kong are all asking that question, quietly. How can I trust what the leaders say? How can I trust the promises and pledges of the Chinese authorities?"