A slow-growing China brokers little dissent

A protester in January holds up a missing person notice for Lee Bo, one of five Hong Kong booksellers from Mighty Current publishing who went missing late last year. Flickr
A protester in January holds up a missing person notice for Lee Bo, one of five Hong Kong booksellers from Mighty Current publishing who went missing late last year. Flickr

A slow-growing China brokers little dissent

With each new report leaking out of Beijing of an aggrieved everyday Chinese citizen or journalist gone missing, concerns continue about a growing crackdown on dissent on mainland China as the nation’s growth rate continues to slow. It is no longer just pollution from China that Hong Kong citizens have to worry about.

And indeed, all of China’s Southeast Asian neighbours and trading partners, including Cambodia, should take note.

The Asian Development Bank in its 2016 Asian Development Outlook, released on March 30, forecast China’s economic growth would continue to moderate. In its flagship annual economic report, the ADB saw China’s growth slowing to 6.5 per cent this year, and 6.3 per cent in 2017.

In contrast, Beijing has predicted growth of 6.5 to 7 per cent this year, and an average of 6.5 per cent over the five years ahead. The slowing growth rate has already reduced by up to 0.3 percentage points the economic outlook for developing Asian nations overall, notes the ADB, given China’s trade and supply linkages.

Yet, if it was simply a slowing, but still growing China that the economic power’s trade partners had to contend with, that would be challenge enough. Instead, in a potentially ominous new development for businesses in Hong Kong, new worries and ensuing protests have arisen over whether China’s version of “rule of law” and treatment of dissent has now extended beyond its borders.

No longer have only mainland Chinese citizens been caught up in China’s legal and security system. So too have Hong Kong citizens, as well as passport holders from Sweden and the United Kingdom, vanished and then reappeared over the past few months under mysterious circumstances.

Hong Kong, a capitalist, freewheeling city-state, has been pretty much left on its own to run as an autonomous special administrative region of China since the British left the former crown colony in 1997.

That could now be changing. As China’s GDP growth rate moderates to the slowest in a quarter-century, more attention may well be placed by authorities in China on stomping out anything that could trigger questions about their leadership and ability to run the nation.

In a tale that reads as if from a Cold War spy thriller, Gui Minhai, a Swedish national born in China, went missing last autumn from his condominium in the Thai city of Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand. Four of his colleagues also disappeared.

One, Lee Bo, vanished at year’s end from Hong Kong, the home base of their publishing company Mighty Current Media and its now closed retail arm Causeway Book Store. Mighty Current has specialised in part in publishing and marketing controversial and outright gossipy books, often highly critical of China’s leadership. Gui and Lee’s other three book publishing colleagues reportedly disappeared while in mainland China.

Gui subsequently reemerged on China’s government-run state broadcaster CCTV. In a tearful broadcast confession, Gui said he had returned to China to face justice for his involvement in a 2003 fatal hit-and-run accident in the city of Ningbo. Family and friends are sceptical and wonder if the filmed statement was coerced.

And Lee reappeared back in Hong Kong at the end of March after more than two months in mainland China. According to the Washington Post, he was quoted by a Chinese website as saying he would never sell “fabricated” books or run a book store again.

Why the disappearances? A leading theory focused on Mighty Current Media’s possible publication of a tell-all book on the twice-married Chinese president Xi Jinping’s alleged love affairs.

This time, as the rumours – and conspiracy theories – went, Mighty Current’s plans may well have spurred Xi to send Chinese security forces across the border into both Hong Kong and Thailand to spirit away the Swedish and British passport holders back into China against their will.

“An upsurge in cases of possible enforced disappearances in China in the context of an ongoing crackdown in dissent is deeply worrying,” the global writers’ organisation PEN International said in a statement released in London in early January.

More intrigue will follow. Western media outlets are reporting that Chinese dissidents in the United States and Europe are saying that close relatives back in China may have been detained by the police as part of a wide investigation to uncover the identities of the authors of a mysterious letter that appeared on the internet in China, calling for Xi to resign.

Steve Herman, Southeast Asia bureau chief of Voice of America and a longtime Asia reporter now resident in Bangkok, noted earlier this year that “a critical unanswered question is whether there was collusion between the Chinese government and Thai authorities. The lack of concern expressed by the ruling military junta is notable.”

Ominously, he added: “China has demonstrated that it has the long reach to apparently abduct people beyond Hong Kong, including here in Southeast Asia.”

A climate of fear may well come should it ever be confirmed that Mainland Chinese security forces have abducted people from the streets of Hong Kong and Thailand. But until then, business goes on.

Yet the tale of the missing booksellers and a seeming growing crackdown on criticism of China’s leadership by individuals at home and abroad should give reason to pause.

Whether in Hong Kong, Thailand or one of China’s other major Asia trading partners, leaders should recognise that it is a clear, and transparently enforced rule of law – not looking the other way on “enforced disappearances” – that will be essential for business confidence and economic growth in the long run.

China too must recognise at some point that its strength will lie ultimately in the free enterprise and free speech of its citizens.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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