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News analysis

'Big blow to Hong Kong's faith' in one country, two systems

Experts say bookseller's story of arrest and detention has strained HK's ties with Beijing

There is a new hero in Hong Kong and his name is Lam Wing Kee.

At least, that would appear to be the case if one was in Causeway Bay yesterday afternoon.

The slightly slouched 61-year-old bookseller was besieged by the media while onlookers gawked and held up their smartphones.

"Thank you, Mr Lam," said veteran Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho. "Thank you, Hong Kong," Mr Lam said. Applause broke out.

Two days after Mr Lam's startling account of how he was seized in Shenzhen, detained for eight months and forced to make a televised confession for mailing gossipy books about Chinese leaders to mainlanders, he and pan-Democrats led a protest against the Chinese authorities' "white terror" actions.

Mr Lam (centre) participating in a protest march in Hong Kong yesterday against the Chinese authorities' "white terror" actions. Thousands of supporters joined in the protest, hailing his courage in going public with the account of his arrest and det
Mr Lam (centre) participating in a protest march in Hong Kong yesterday against the Chinese authorities' "white terror" actions. Thousands of supporters joined in the protest, hailing his courage in going public with the account of his arrest and detention at possible risk to his safety. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands, hailing his courage in going public at possible risk to his safety, took part. Away from the march, others also expressed concern over his revelations.

 

The most damaging of Mr Lam's claims was the recounting of an alleged conversation he had with fellow bookseller Lee Bo. Mr Lee had told him he was kidnapped in Hong Kong itself, said Mr Lam.

 

If it was true, this meant that Chinese security agents were operating in Hong Kong in breach of the "one country, two systems" framework.

 

Underscoring how the episode has perturbed Hong Kong, politicians and analysts across the spectrum are acknowledging the damage it has inflicted on Hong Kong's relations with Beijing.

Professor Lau Siu Kai, who often articulates the central government's policies in Hong Kong as vice-chairman of its think-tank here, characterises it as having dealt "the most serious blow" to Hong Kongers' confidence in the "one country, two systems" framework, the South China Morning Post reported.

Pro-establishment politicians - with an eye on an important legislative council election in three months - are joining the call for an investigation to be carried out.

So why did Beijing do it?

One reading is that high stakes - more important to Beijing than Hong Kongers' feelings or even the success of the "one country, two systems" formula - are involved.

On Thursday, Mr Lam said a "central special investigative unit" was spearheading the case. This, said political scientist Joseph Cheng, indicates that high levels of Chinese leadership are involved.

The Causeway Bay Books store sold books that were not flattering to President Xi Jinping. One that was in the pipeline deals with his alleged extramarital life. Said Prof Cheng: "These publications are a mix of truths and exaggerations, probably based on certain documents, and were likely used as tools by President Xi's rivals."

It thus appears that the Chinese authorities were trying to track down who had passed the information to the authors, and wipe out the booksellers' sales network on the mainland.

Whatever the reason, questions have been raised about the legality of China's actions. A foreign ministry spokesman asserted it could deal with Mr Lam, a Chinese citizen, under Chinese laws.

Is it illegal to mail items banned on the mainland from Hong Kong? And even if it was illegal, was due process under Chinese law carried out? Mr Lam's defenders said that he could have been properly investigated and prosecuted.

China also failed to inform the Hong Kong government it had arrested a Hong Konger within 14 days. What is clear is that the already bumpy road ahead for Hong Kong will get rougher.

Mr Lam urged Hong Kongers to take a stand and speak out.

"I hope if we are ever to face other incidents in future, Hong Kongers will come out again. Don't let it end here," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 19, 2016, with the headline ''Big blow to HK's faith' in one country, two systems'. Print Edition | Subscribe