Friday, February 17, 2017

Disappearances and Closed Doors: A Return to Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong on Monday, I noticed the front-page news about a missing billionaire in Hong Kong. Since then, there has been more news:
At least 30 employees of a Hong Kong billionaire who was whisked to China about two weeks ago have been stopped from leaving the mainland, with many more probably unable to travel, two people familiar with the matter said Monday.

It has become increasingly apparent that Beijing’s dragnet extends far beyond the billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, and is now closing in on dozens, if not hundreds, of his employees in one of the most far-reaching crackdowns on a private Chinese conglomerate in the nearly four decades since the country began to embrace free markets.
The case is reminiscent of the five staff of Causeway Bay Books who disappeared in 2015 and ended up in mainland China under similarly mysterious circumstances.

Since I visited the closed Causeway Bay Books store just over a year ago, one of the more remarkable related events was Lam Wing-kee's account of his abduction from Hong Kong and detention in mainland China. He could share his story only after returning to Hong Kong and ignoring the demands placed on him. In his full written account, Lam answered a question the media hadn't asked him but he felt was important:
Why did these people sell the bookshop but leave it empty? . . . Everyone knew that these people were rich. Yet they wouldn’t waste their money on nothing, would they? I am going to quote my own words — “when I was in Shaoguan, Shi told me that I had to continue working in the bookshop after I came back to Hong Kong. He would be in contact so I could report what was happening, through text or photographs. They wanted to understand what was going on in Hong Kong, especially those who were buying books about political theories.” Don’t you understand? The purpose of those people buying off the store was to have it serve as a convenient point of surveillance, from which they could spy upon Hongkongers.
This past Sunday I revisited the bookstore's location. The blue and white Causeway Bay Books sign still hangs prominently over Lockhart Road.

Causeway Bay Books sign above Lockhart Road in Hong Kong

After walking up one flight of stairs, I found the store's familiar closed doors, now without the notes of support I had seen before. Some written messages on the store's directional sign were visible though.

closed door of Causeway Bay Books

Contrasting in several ways, immediately next door SisterHood Lady Products was open for business.

entrance to SisterHood lady products in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

While taking photos I noticed a man was watching me from partway down the stairway. After I started to leave he gave me a thumbs up. As we continued to walk down together he said in English, "Communist Party is bad." When I asked if he was from Hong Kong, he told me he was from "Peking" — the name for Beijing formerly used in English.

I was curious to learn more about the man, but I doubted I could confidently answer the questions now in my mind. I simply wished him well and headed down the street unsure of when I would next return to the bookstore. The man remained at the building's entrance for several minutes busy with his mobile phone.

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