China’s Hong Kong crackdown

China isn't new to censorship. This Sept. 24, 2003, photo shows a Chinese man with a stack of the Chinese version of Hillary Clinton's memoir, ""Living History."" The U.S. publisher demanded a recall because parts of the text were censored or shortened. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Five of Hong Kong’s booksellers have gone missing in recent months in what is almost certainly a Chinese effort to suppress free speech in the quasi-independent city.

Their “crime,” in the eyes of Beijing authorities: They published and sold books critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The disappearances have persuaded another Hong Kong publisher of similar books, Jin Zhongshan, to cancel plans to publish “Xi Jinping’s Nightmare” to “avoid the risk” of a similar fate, as he told The Financial Times.

The Chinese crackdown was aimed at a small publishing company called Mighty Current and its Sage bookstore, both specializing in exposes of Chinese politics. Its books are banned in China.

The disappearances began when Swedish citizen Gui Haiming, a co-owner of the enterprises, failed to return from a trip to Thailand. He subsequently was shown on Chinese television confessing to a 12-year-old drunk driving charge and saying he had returned voluntarily to China to face charges. Then three other employees disappeared while on trips to the Chinese mainland. Most recently, another co-owner, British citizen Lee Bo, disappeared from Hong Kong itself.

On Dec. 30, according to The New York Times, Mr. Lee received a telephone order for a dozen books, including several about the private life of President Xi. He went to the firm’s warehouse to collect them and never returned. His wife reported him missing but now says, in what appears to be a case of intimidation by Chinese authorities, that he went voluntarily to China to assist in an investigation.

British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond has said that if Mr. Lee were kidnapped from Hong Kong it would be “an egregious breach” of the understanding Britain reached with Beijing when it turned Hong Kong over the Chinese control in 1997.

China accepted a “Basic Law” that gives Hong Kong citizens fundamental rights and freedoms not allowed in China. The Chinese, in making this commitment, described the arrangement as “one country, two systems.”

The Basic Law provides that the chief executive of Hong Kong and the city’s legislature should be elected by Hong Kong’s citizens. But in 2014 the Chinese national legislature ruled that candidates for office in Hong Kong in those elections would be pre-selected by committees effectively under the control of the Chinese government.

Hong Kong citizens then staged the Umbrella Revolution protests, tying up the city for months.

But China has not yielded on its decision to dominate the nomination process for Hong Kong elections. It is widely expected that pro-democracy candidates will be strictly limited in number or banned.

“Free trade” with China was supposed to promote not just economic liberty but human rights in the world’s most populous nation. And that Basic Law was supposed to assure fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.

However, the disappearance of the booksellers is correctly seen in Hong Kong as a blatant suppression of free speech. Added to the concern is the recent purchase of the South Chia Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English language newspaper, by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, founder of Amazon rival Alibaba. He aims to counter “negative” portrayals of China, according to The New York Times.

But if China’s leaders really want positive publicity, they must stop trying to stifle dissent within — and beyond — their borders.