What do we really know about the death of Zheng Xiaosong, China’s highest ranking official in Macau? It seems clear that he died as a result of falling from a window in his high-rise apartment.

Other than that there is no real information about what happened. Despite knowing nothing, or saying they know nothing, the usual suspects lined up to proclaim on this matter.

Lau Siu-kai, who revels in his role as the Mainland’s semi-detached in-house intellectual, was quick to say, “I don’t think there is anything suspicious.”

Tam Yiu-Chung, who has graduated from leading the DAB to becoming a national ‘statesman’, warned people not to speculate on the cause of the death because “we believe the contents of the press release.”

Tam was referring to a press release issued by the Mainland authorities confirming Zheng’s death and hinting at a suicide by alleging that he was suffering from depression.

This may or may not be true but a clutch of people who met Zheng shortly before his demise say that they did not notice anything amiss about his behaviour. The suggestion of suicide is also complicated by the absence of a suicide note, which either does not exist or, if it does, contains material that is being suppressed.

Then there is the mystery surrounding the police claim that it took them a day to establish the identity of the dead man. Really? Zheng was arguably the most important person in Macau because the local government barely dares breath without consulting Beijing’s Liaison Office, which Zheng headed.

It is entirely possible that, as Tam says, there is nothing suspicious here. But because of the secretive way that the Mainland operates, particularly when it comes to sensitive matters, suspicion is rife.

In a society where rule of law is replaced by rule of the party, people disappear, end up dead and are even kidnapped off the streets with alarming regularity. And the rulers in Beijing show not one scintilla of embarrassment.

They even arranged the disappearance of Meng Hongwei from France at a time when he was heading Interpol and serving as a vice-minister for security. Now Meng faces serious corruption charges. But in a system where the judicial process is, to put it mildly, opaque, there is little hope of discovering whether these charges are true, or motivated by some form of political infighting, or by something else.

Macau flag raising ceremony
A flag-raising ceremony in Macau. Photo: Macau government.

Xi Jinping’s massive anti-corruption drive exemplifies the problems of black box operations. The purge is estimated to have seen over one million officials being punished, including high level people such as Zhou Yongkang, who used to head the security department.

No one seriously doubts that corruption is rife on the Mainland but there are serious doubts over the targets of the anti-corruption drive. Cynics say that all Mainland officials are corrupt to some extent. They only get into trouble if they are caught up in political infighting.

This assertion is hard to prove but in the absence of any real transparency, it is equally hard to prove the opposite.

And here lies the problem: even when something happens, such as the demise of Zheng, where there may well be no sinister explanation, it is hard to credit the official explanation because it comes from a heavily tainted source.

Meanwhile, the Beijing-loving people who run Hong Kong’s government are increasingly coming to ape the black box style of their bosses. When Victor Mallet, the Financial Times journalist, was kicked out of the SAR, officials seemed to revel in their determination not to explain why he had to go.

“We have no need to explain,” they say, with a hint of a smirk. And there is a similar lack of openness surrounding the barring of certain people from standing for election. They are informed of their fate after a closed-door process has been completed in which they are not even allowed to explain themselves. And so it goes on.

Astonishingly the Hong Kong’s government’s defence of its actions runs on the lines of comparing itself with the worst practices of other governments, thus suggesting that it is in line with some sort of international normal practice.

This, emphatically, is not the case, but it is increasingly clear that the habit of secrecy is increasingly obscuring events in Hong Kong and eroding the credibility of the government. It would be reassuring to think that they care but there is scant evidence for that.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship