The disappearance of five China dissenters has raised questions about the extent to which Beijing will go to rein in critics. The authorities in Hong Kong said on Feb 4 that China had confirmed that three residents of the territory, Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping and Lam Wing Kee, were being subjected to "criminal compulsory measures" for "illegal activities". They had been missing since the middle of last October with little information on their whereabouts or why they were being held.
A fourth man, Swedish national Gui Minhai, and a fifth, Lee Bo, who has a British passport, went missing from Pattaya, Thailand, and a Hong Kong street respectively. All five are connected with Mighty Current Media, a Hong Kong publisher known for producing books critical of the communist party elite. Given that background, there were suspicions about the voluntariness of Mighty Current co-owner Gui's appearance on China's state-run CCTV to say he had travelled to China to face charges related to a drink-driving incident in 2003. Thus far, he has had no known access to family or the Swedish government.
To some, it might smack of covert tactics associated with the Cold War era. Others might join it with other dots like Beijing's conduct of maritime claims and the eyebrow-raising act last September of its envoy to Malaysia, when he appeared to intervene in that nation's racial politics. Britain has also charged that China has committed a "serious breach" of the "one country, two systems" approach. A key pillar of this was Article 4 of the Basic Law, the functional Constitution since 1997, which stipulates that "only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority" to enforce law. Hong Kongers were also promised various political rights, including freedom from arbitrary arrests, and the right to eventually elect their chief executive by universal suffrage.
China's attempt to undermine that right set off the Umbrella Movement in 2014. This week's street violence in the Mongkok area, triggered by policemen clearing illegal hawker stalls, might suggest underlying resentment felt by some Hong Kongers towards the authorities led by Beijing's handpicked chief, Mr Leung Chun Ying. It also comes exactly a month after thousands marched in the Central district to press Mr Leung for a harder stand against the disappearances.
Given these circumstances, Beijing would be wise to handle Hong Kong with care. There are stirrings of unease among major corporations. Already, Mr Li Ka Shing, the territory's most famous tycoon, has famously sold down his China and Hong Kong assets. Besides, with more than US$3 billion (S$4.2 billion) flowing out of China on average every day, this is not the time for the Chinese authorities, whatever their motives, to add to the churning in the pot. Hong Kong's laws must be respected by all if order is to be maintained.