Freedom of the press and publication is deteriorating rapidly in Hong Kong as Beijing violates the Basic Law with growing frequency. That should serve as a warning for Taiwan.
A Swedish fellow countryman has been in Chinese detention for over 15 months, without legal counselling, let alone a trial. Despite repeated requests, the Swedish embassy in Beijing has only been allowed to visit him twice.
Gui Minhai came to Sweden in 1988 and was granted a residence permit after the Tiananmen Square massacre the following year. In 1992, Gui obtained Swedish citizenship, also giving up his Chinese citizenship in the process since dual citizenship is not allowed in China.
As a Swedish citizen, Gui went on to earn a PhD at a respectable university and started a family. He moved to Hong Kong in the early 2000s to establish the publishing house Mighty Current. It published hundreds of sensitive books and was increasingly seen as a nuisance by the Chinese leadership, especially given that a large share of its customers were Chinese tourists bringing their purchases back to China proper.
Although Mighty Current’s publications were not always based on the facts but sometimes also on gossip, its business nevertheless didn’t break any Hong Kong laws. This, and his nationality, gave Gui a certain sense of security.
“My father is proud of being Swedish, and always told me he really felt like a Swede. He also believed that his Swedish citizenship would protect him if he got into trouble because of the publishing,” his daughter, Angela Gui, said when I spoke to her last fall.
But nationality, or even location, no longer matter for China when critics need to be silenced. Gui was kidnapped by Chinese security agents in October 2015 while spending time in his holiday apartment in Thailand. Two months later, his colleague Lee Bo, a British citizen, was snatched from the streets of Hong Kong and taken across the border to China. In all, five owners and employees at Mighty Current disappeared during the last months of 2015.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond happened to be visiting China during the Lee Bo incident. At a press conference he urged his Chinese counterparts to reveal Lee’s whereabouts, and added that his kidnapping would be an “egregious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.
The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini constitution, agreed upon by British and Chinese officials before the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, guaranteeing the city a range of fundamental rights and freedoms. Articles 27 and 39 of the Basic Law enshrine freedom of the press and publication; moreover, under “one country, two systems,” law enforcement officers from the mainland are not allowed to perform their duty in Hong Kong. We must note that “one country, two systems” is the same framework that Beijing has offered to Taiwan.
Last fall in a basement coffee shop in Hong Kong, I meet with Bao Pu, an American citizen who founded the publishing house New Century Press in Hong Kong in 2005. Thanks to his contacts on the mainland, Bao has been publishing a solid collection of unique but politically sensitive books. His biggest success was Prisoner of the State (2009), based on secret recordings with China’s liberal premier Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted and placed under house arrest after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
While Bao saw a growing interest from Chinese tourists for this kind of literature — Prisoner of the State sold out in Hong Kong in just a matter of hours and its digital version has been downloaded more than 20 million times — he was always aware of the risks. He told me that Hong Kong bookstores started to feel increasing pressure starting in 2009, when China hinted that the stores might lose business on the mainland if they continued to sell politically sensitive books in Hong Kong. Around the same time, men from mainland China increasingly made “appointments” with Bao, trying to convince him to cancel the publication of some of his most sensitive books.
Chinese President Xi Jinping refers to this type of literature as “poison,” Bao said. He also told me how a campaign to intensify the crackdown on the industry and prevent books from reaching China was launched just after Xi assumed the presidency in 2013. “All Chinese travel agencies now had to warn the customers that [politically sensitive] books were carried over the border ‘at their own risk.’” Warning signs were set up at border crossing points and luggage controls became more rigorous. Rumors of more people being caught started to spread, and the books were soon associated with “great danger.”
In early 2016, the five kidnapped publishers were paraded on television. On Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Gui Minhai was seen in tears “confessing” to a drunk driving incident that had supposedly occurred in China 10 years prior. Gui said he had “decided” to turn himself in voluntarily, in a sudden spell of bad conscience. His four colleagues also appeared on TV, portraying Gui as the mastermind of their “criminal activities” and begging the Chinese authorities for a second chance.
Gui’s colleagues were released and allowed to return to Hong Kong due to their “good attitude.” But soon thereafter Gui appeared on TV for a second time to “confess” to the crime of smuggling 4,000 books to mainland China. For Angela Gui, it was obvious that the confessions were being made under forced circumstances, especially since her father also said he wanted to give up the Swedish citizenship that he used to treasure so much. Angela has not seen her father since, and Swedish police have warned her against traveling to Asia.
The Chinese scare tactics have been successful. The kidnappings and “confessions” had an enormous effect on the market, making many potential customers even more afraid of bringing books to China. “It’s almost like smuggling drugs,” said Bao Pu, who has also encountered problems with production: “After the kidnappings, all the big printing houses stopped printing sensitive books. I was forced to cancel a 10-year cooperation with my printer and spent a long time looking for a new, smaller printing house willing to take the risk.”
After the kidnappings, all the big printing houses stopped printing sensitive books. I was forced to cancel a 10-year cooperation with my printer and spent a long time looking for a new, smaller printing house willing to take the risk.
Bao explained that just like the bookstores, most large printing houses have business in China and do not want to risk losing their lucrative production on the mainland. “This year  our sales plunged by 80 percent, and this will be the second year ever we make a loss,” said Bao, adding that the Chinese authorities have managed to almost entirely kill off the industry.
In 2015, the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong also took control of Sino United Publishing through a locally based shell company. The publisher controls 80 percent of the market through three local major bookstores. Almost immediately upon the acquisition, its new owner banned sales of books related to the Occupy movement in its stores.
Local media noted that this, too, was potentially a violation of the Basic Law. Article 22 states that no department of the Central People’s Government can interfere in affairs that Hong Kong administers on its own in accordance with the law.
The same trend is obvious in news media. Upon acquiring Sino United Publishing, the Chinese Liaison Office also gained control of media outlets such as Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily. Furthermore, in its report “The Invisible Hand on Hong Kong’s Media” (2016), Reporters Without Borders shows how a majority of Hong Kong’s media sector is now owned by businessmen with interests in China.
Most notable is Alibaba’s purchase of the South China Morning Post in 2016. Its vice chairman, Jack Tsai, admitted that the purchase was aimed at making reporting on China “more positive,” with the logic that what is good for China is “also good for Alibaba.”
Behind this is also the growing frequency of violence targeting the few outspoken publications left in Hong Kong. The life of Kevin Lau, a former editor of Ming Pao, was hanging on a thread on his way to hospital after he was attacked with a meat clever in broad daylight on a busy Hong Kong street in 2014. The following year, the above-mentioned Jimmy Lai had his office and residence fire bombed. And during the Occupy movement, dozens of reporters were intimidated by paid thugs.
Across the Strait
Similar developments occurred in Taiwan in 2008 when the China Times Group was bought by food conglomerate Want Want Group. According to Forbes, its head, Tsai Eng-meng, is Taiwan’s richest man. He is also known for his pro-Beijing views on many issues, ostensibly due to his business interests and assets in China. No surprise then, that the China Times newspaper has since adopted a pro-Beijing stance.
Large demonstrations took place when Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai in late 2012 signed a deal to sell the Taiwanese operations of Next Media to a consortium of entrepreneurs. Many of the buyers, including Tsai Eng-meng’s son, had extensive business interests in China, sparking fears of the deal’s impact on press freedoms in Taiwan.
A student-led movement pressed Lai to announce that the print holdings of Next Media were not for sale, and the Kuomintang (KMT) government in early 2013 approved anti-monopoly draft legislation for the media sector proposed by the Democratic Progressive Party. (The bill, however, was never passed and the TV holdings of Next Media were later sold.)
Thanks to public resistance, Taiwan has fared better than Hong Kong, and ranks 51st in Reporters Without Borders’ index of global press freedom — higher than any other Asian country. The same index saw Hong Kong sliding from 34th to 70th in just five years (2010-2015).
Taiwan can learn two lessons from the state of the media and publishing industry in what was once Asia’s “free city.” Firstly, there is no point in signing any political deal with China resembling the “one country, two systems” framework or the Basic Law. Promises not only can but will be broken.
Secondly, it is of outmost importance that actors with connections to or with large business interests in China be denied a foothold in the Taiwanese media or publishing industry. With a DPP majority in the legislature, the already proposed anti-monopoly bill, or a new and similar bill, should be made into law.
Meanwhile, the National Communications Commission, created only in 2006, has an important task in fending off investments in Taiwanese media from pro-China stakeholders. This is not an issue of protectionism or a limit on free trade. It is a matter of fairness. For all the globalization rhetoric coming out of Beijing lately, the Chinese media sector is not open to foreign investment. So why should Taiwan, or any other country for that matter, allow China to invest in theirs?