A protestor in Hong Kong wears a mask depicting a missing bookseller.



The Human Rights Nightmare That No One's Talking About

It’s easy for us to forget, especially during a grueling election season, just how good we have it in America. Sure, we’ve got racial strife, corporate tyranny, and justice system corruption for days, but at least we have the basic right to stand up for ourselves and complain about it. The people of China, for example, are not so lucky. In a saga that has developed over the past several months, and is just now being brought into the international spotlight, the Chinese government has systematically abducted—and possibly framed—owners of Hong Kong bookstore Causeway Bay Books. The charges? Speaking ill of China and its president, Xi Jinping.

But before we delve headfirst into one of the most frightening freedom of speech cases in recent memory, a little context is key. Hong Kong is not exactly part of China. After the British declared war on China for its economic interests (a moral discussion for another time), Hong Kong became part of the British Empire. It remained under British rule until as late as 1997, which means that many of Hong Kong’s residents have dual citizenship with the UK. Though it is under Chinese authority, Hong Kong remains an “autonomous territory.” This has not been such an easy pill to swallow for the Chinese; ever since its independence from Britain, tensions have been high.

Posters for books about China’s politics, including Xi Jinping.

Which brings us to the matter at hand. Since Hong Kong is proudly separate, both politically and geographically, from mainland China, it has a little more wiggle room when it comes to freedom of speech. Keep in mind, China is a poster child for censorship. From blocking Twitter to its billions of citizens, to airbrushing people of color out of a Star Wars: The Force Awakens poster, it has complete control over what media enters and exits the country. So when books started emerging out of Causeway Bay Books with titles like The Collapse of Xi Jinping in 2017 and Xi Jinping and the Elders: War at the Top, the government wasn’t too thrilled.

As in any classic authoritarian government scenario, things got shady quickly. Last October, Causeway publisher Gui Minhai vanished from Thailand in November 2015. Over the next two months, a grand total of four of his colleagues also disappeared, two when visiting mainland China, and two from their homes in Hong Kong. One book publisher going missing is unfortunate, but five publishers from the same company all vanishing without a trace is suspect, to say the least.

Gui Minhai, the bookseller who went missing on a trip to Thailand.

The people of Hong Kong thought so, and took their fears to the streets in protest, the most recent of which was but two weeks ago. They demanded answers from the Chinese government, who up to this point had rarely shown such blatant interference in autonomous Hong Kong’s public affairs. The latter two abductions in particular struck a chord with the territory’s people, as the only possible explanation pointed to Chinese authorities entering Hong Kong and making arrests well outside their jurisdiction.

But after the events of the past few days, the situation has only grown grimmer. One of the men abducted out of Hong Kong, Lee Bo, a dual British citizen, suddenly appeared on Chinese television. While crying on the government run network, he “confessed” to surrendering himself to authorities based on a hit-and-run case over a decade ago. His supposed guilt from his past crime caused him to travel out of Hong Kong to China to turn himself in. Naturally, there isn’t anything suspicious about this. The fact that four of his coworkers disappeared around the same time and also reappeared on mainland China is just a coincidence, right?

Demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Since the majority of us weren’t born yesterday, human rights workers are up in arms about Lee’s “confession” and the situation facing the other four booksellers. British foreign secretary Philip Hammond said that Lee’s implied abduction is an “egregious breach” of Chinese authority. He continued to tell The Guardian that “It would not be acceptable for somebody to be spirited out of Hong Kong in order to face charges in a different jurisdiction. It is an essential part of the settlement in Hong Kong that it has its own judicial system.”

Again, China does not have a great track record with human rights. This bookseller incident is disturbing on a variety of levels, not least of which are the continued suppression of free speech, its frayed relationship with Hong Kong, and a justice system not out of line with the policies of Stalinist Russia. It is a worrisome issue, and one made all the more so by the inability of people outside China to do anything to change it. The best that the rest of us can possibly do is to stay informed and vigilant about the situation as it continues to develop. And thank your lucky stars that you can take to Twitter to say whatever you want about how terrible America is.

Images via Getty Images, Reuters, SCMP

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