The missing booksellers incident appears to be “the most significant breach” of the One Country, Two Systems principle since the 1997 handover to China, a new report from the US Department of State said on Thursday.

The United States-Hong Kong Policy Act was established in 1992, allowing the US to continue treating Hong Kong separately from China with regards to economic and trade matters post-handover. The US Department of State submitted reports on Hong Kong to its Congress in 1993 and annually from 1995 through 2007. The reports resumed last year.

The report afforded wide coverage to the missing booksellers saga. Five publishers who sold gossipy titles critical of the Chinese government went missing in Thailand, China and Hong Kong in 2015 and eventually all showed up on the mainland saying they were voluntarily collaborating in an official investigation.

lee bo
Lee Bo. Photo: Stand News.

‘Serious concerns’

It said that many Hong Kong residents and international observers “expressed deep concern” that Chinese security services had abducted Lee and transported him across the border against his will.

“These cases have raised serious concerns in Hong Kong and represent what appears to be the most significant breach of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy since 1997,” it said.

It also cited the UK government as saying that Lee was likely involuntarily removed from Hong Kong, prompting the UK to declare a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration for the first time.

Rule of law, press freedom

“For many in Hong Kong, Lee Bo’s disappearance suggests the Central Government is increasingly willing to side-step Hong Kong’s professional law enforcement agencies, in the process denying Hong Kong residents due process,” it said.

“Apparently coerced video and written confessions by the publishers transmitted via China’s state-controlled media sowed further doubts about the publishers’ fate and the consequences for Hong Kong’s promised high degree of autonomy through 2047.”

It added that concerns were raised about decreasing press freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong as some Hong Kong bookstores decided to remove books banned on the mainland after the incident.

mong kok fehd riot protest
File photo: Joel Christian.

Protest city

The report also mentioned legal proceedings of activists who participated in pro-democracy protests in 2014. It noted that one was acquitted of separate charges of assault in connection with the Occupy protests as the magistrate said the prosecution had not proven its case beyond reasonable doubt.

“Because charges were filed nearly a year after the protests, some said they were politically motivated; Hong Kong’s Department of Justice maintained political considerations did not factor into its decision,” the report said.

It also described the Mong Kok clashes in February. It said “an inspection of unlicensed food vendors by Hong Kong food and health inspectors… descended into chaos as violent crowds clashed with police for over ten hours”.

The report quoted localist groups who said the protest was “in support of street vendors representative of Hong Kong’s unique culture”.

It also mentioned Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying describing the incident as a “riot” and promising a thorough investigation, and said that “a broad spectrum of Hong Kong society, including leading government officials and politicians, roundly condemned the violence.”

district council election poll
Photo: HKFP.

Other concerns

  • The report said the rejection of liberal Johannes Chan Man-mun to a senior position at the University of Hong Kong was regarded by many observers “as a reaction to Chan’s scholarly work on pro-democracy issues and association with pro-democracy activists.”
  • It noted that the Legislative Council rejected a political reform package proposed by the Hong Kong government last year, as all but eight of the 43 pro-Beijing lawmakers missed the vote while attempting to prevent delays to the vote. It cited Hong Kong and Central Government officials as saying that it is unlikely the city will restart the universal suffrage reform process until at least after the next Chief Executive takes office
  • It reported on the district council election last November, saying that the councillors were “Hong Kong’s only elected officials chosen entirely through universal suffrage.”
  • The report also put the purchase of the South China Morning Post by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba as a significant development. It cited comments from Alibaba’s senior management about countering “negative” coverage of China in the international media and the company’s pledge to maintain SCMP’s editorial independence.
US Department of State
The flag of the US Department of State. Photo: Wikimedia Hong Kong.

Foreign interference

In response, a spokesman for the government said Hong Kong has been exercising a high degree of autonomy in accordance with the Basic Law since the handover from Britain.

“This demonstrates the successful implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, which is widely recognised by the international communities”, the spokesperson said. “Foreign governments should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of Hong Kong.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.