HONG KONG: Government is responsible to answer for Lee Bo’s and Lam Wing-kei’s disappearances

Hong Kong enjoys a unique position in Asia, being a jurisdiction where the presence of the rule of law is a felt experience among the general public. In this Special Administrative Region of China, though not a democracy in the true sense of the word, everyone enjoys equal protection under the law. Unfortunately, recent events that have unfolded in Hong Kong have tainted this image, and the scenario is sinister.

Mr. Lee Bo, the husband of a shareholder in Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong registered publishing company, went missing on December 30, 2015. The bookstore is popular among mainland tourists as a source of books banned in China. Four other staff members of the store have been missing since October of last year.

What makes Lee’s disappearance unique is that he has disappeared from Hong Kong. Of his four other missing colleagues, Mr. Lui Bo and Mr. Cheung Jiping are reported to have gone missing when they visited Mainland China, Mr. Gui Minhai went missing from his home in Thailand, and Mr. Lam Wing-kei is suspected to have disappeared from Hong Kong. Authorities in Hong Kong claim that he had crossed the border into China before being reported missing.

It is widely suspected that the Chinese authorities are behind the disappearances of the bookstore employees. However the authorities in China have not yet made any statement on this case. This suspicion is based on the fact that the store was publishing books that are banned in China. Recently there has also been widespread criticism about arrest and detention of many Chinese lawyers.

This incident has provoked negative public sentiment in Hong Kong against the Chinese government, and against the Hong Kong administration. Authorities in Hong Kong, at least concerning Lee’s disappearance, have publicly acknowledged that they are investigating the case.

It is the paramount duty of the state to ensure the safety of persons and the property of people living within its jurisdiction. The disappearance of Lee and that of his colleague Lui lays a responsibility upon the Government of Hong Kong to explain the situation. Under what circumstances were these two persons reported to be missing, is their whereabouts being investigated, and is the Government actively working for their safe return to Hong Kong? That Hong Kong is a special administrative region within China must not be used as an excuse by the government to neglect discharging their responsibility.

Disappearance is a crude and terrifying weapon with which dictators in Asia and across the world have undermined the rule of law in many countries. In every jurisdiction where disappearances have occurred, it has left deep wounds which are hard to heal. Disappearance has a numbing effect upon immediate family members and close friends of the disappeared. It undermines public confidence in the government and nurtures a deep distrust of state institutions.

The future of Hong Kong and its people is closely associated with how best the administration will handle the disappearances of Lui and Lee. Failing to manage the two cases with adequate seriousness has the potential to undermine Hong Kong’s political destiny and its unique position as an oasis of rule of law in Asia.