For a translated version, click here.

It is hard to know how far back into the past we need to go to put the latest Hong Kong headlines into perspective. Which previous years, exactly, need to be kept in mind while trying to understand the disappearance under mysterious circumstances of five people linked to a pair of companies, Mighty Current Media and Causeway Bay Books, booksellers known for publishing and selling highly speculative and often gossipy works on the careers, kin, private lives, and factional maneuvers of leading figures in the Chinese Communist Party? One year that has to loom large is 1997. That was the year of the handover, which turned a British Crown colony into a specially administered part of the People’s Republic of China, a transition with profound implications for nearly all aspects of local political and social life.

There is a more recent year, however, that is also worth paying attention to: 2012. That was a portentous year for Hong Kong thanks to student-led protests, triggered by proposed changes in how history and civics would be taught in schools. More than the student protests, though, the most relevant aspect of 2012 for the booksellers is what took place on the mainland: a dramatic power struggle that ended with one high-profile political figure, Bo Xilai, in disgrace and imprisoned and another, Xi Jinping, assuming leadership of the party and readying himself to take the presidency of the country in 2013.

In short, the path to understanding 2016 runs through 1997 and 2012.


For more than two years before the handover, a countdown clock in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ticked off the seconds until its arrival. When the clock reached zero on July 1, 1997, the official media proclaimed a joyous “return” of Hong Kong to the “embrace of the ancestral homeland.” Unremarked was the fact that what was being absorbed into China was a great international metropolis, very different from the modest settlements that had existed at the time of the First Opium War, when Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom. 

Another clock, metaphoric rather than literal, began ticking as soon as the handover passed. This imaginary countdown clock will hit zero in 2047: Beijing promised the British government and Hong Kongers that for 50 years after the city traded hands, it would be able to go its own way on many issues, with public life remaining far less controlled there than in any mainland metropolis. Any dramatic Chinese actions along the way raise questions about how well or badly China’s leaders are doing in living up to their promise. 

A version of this 1997 question arose in 2003 when Beijing floated proposals to introduce a tough new Patriotic Act–like security plan that would limit freedoms in the city. It scuttled the plans after facing street protests. The 1997 question was asked again in 2012 when plans to bring mainland-style patriotic education to Hong Kong were revealed—and then tabled, again because of protests, in which a very young Joshua Wong, who would go on to become the most prominent leader of the Umbrella Movement that rocked Hong Kong in 2014, played an important role.

The 1997 question came up in various ways with various answers over the course of 2014, the year of the most dramatic demonstrations of all. There was clear evidence that year of just how large a gap remained between Hong Kong and the mainland cities, since no protesters were killed during the Umbrella Movement, only a limited number arrested, and sympathetic coverage of the demonstrations appeared in many local news venues. There were also worrying signs, however, that the distance between the public spheres on opposite sides of the border could easily narrow—in fact had already narrowed considerably in some ways. Local police used tear gas against unarmed protesters, for example, which was an uncharacteristic thing for them to do in Hong Kong; there were thuggish efforts to intimidate outspoken journalists and block the distribution of some newspapers; and Hong Kong’s chief executive, C. Y. Leung, made it clear that on fundamental issues, he saw his interests as aligned with those of Beijing. 

A Hong Kong resident waves a Chinese flag and Hong Kong flags during a rally March 23, celebrating the 100-day countdown to the resumption of Chinese rule over the British colony at midnight of June 30.
A Hong Kong resident waves a Chinese flag and Hong Kong flags during a rally March 23, celebrating the 100-day countdown to the resumption of Chinese rule over the British colony at midnight of June 30.
As employees of Mighty Current Media and Causeway Bay Books simply began to disappear late last year, the 2047 countdown clock seemed to lurch dramatically toward zero. At the start of this year, word came down that a fifth individual involved with the two companies, British passport holder Lee Po (Paul Lee), was on the mainland, presumably spirited away there (he had previously told people he would not cross the border because he feared for his safety if he did) and presumably held against his will.

The 1997 question was echoed even more recently when Chinese state television ran Mighty Current Media employee Gui Minhai’s “confession”—the term placed in quotes because observers had good reason to feel that it was coerced. Gui, a Swedish citizen, had until recently been living in Thailand, and according to the Beijing media, he suddenly decided to go to the mainland to accept punishment for a drunk driving incident that took place over a decade ago. The widespread assumption in Hong Kong is that there is a political motive behind the disappearance of Gui, Lee, and their colleagues, because their publications are of a sort that Beijing dislikes: works on the factionalism and personal peccadilloes of powerful mainland political families. Some Hong Kong bookstores unaffiliated with the publisher have begun to engage in a form of preemptive self-censorship, removing from their shelves publications on highly sensitive subjects, such as the private lives of top Beijing leaders, which are banned on the mainland but not in Hong Kong and are sometimes bought by visitors from across the border. 


Now step back in time to 2012. As the year began, Bo Xilai, a well-connected regional official, was still making a bold bid to use his power base in Chongqing to leapfrog Xi, long slated to succeed Hu Jintao as head of the Chinese Community Party, to claim the country’s top post, or at least secure a central position on the next Standing Committee, the small group within the Politburo that traditionally determines national policy. To pull off this feat, Bo had relied on a mix of personal charisma, a high-profile local campaign against mobsters and official corruption, and a play to nostalgia by organizing mass performances of “red songs” from Chairman Mao Zedong’s era. 

Bo’s plans unraveled in unexpected and dramatic ways early in 2012. There were reports that his “law and order” drive was actually a brutal effort to settle scores and consolidate control; one of Bo’s close associates broke with him and sought help from the U.S. consulate in Chengdu; and Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife, a high-profile lawyer, wound up facing murder charges for the late 2011 death in mysterious circumstances of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who had been a member of the couple’s inner circle. By year’s end, both Bo and Gu were behind bars.

When Xi assumed power, as planned, in November 2012, it seemed at first to herald a return to the patterns set in place over the preceding decade, when Hu had served as both party head and president. One hallmark of Hu’s time in power was that he functioned less as a solo strongman than as the first among equals in a collective leadership group made up of the Standing Committee. Another was that little attention was paid to his private life and colorless personal style. Bo’s fall was seen as a signal that there was no longer a place in national politics for outsize personalities, as there had been in the China of Mao’s time (1949–76), and it was assumed that Xi would be as bland as possible. There was also hope in some quarters that Xi, whose father had sometimes taken relatively liberal positions, might break from the restriction of Hu’s final few years in power. From the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics until the last months of his rule, Hu had overseen a gradual reining in of civil society and ramping up of censorship. The most optimistic trackers of Chinese affairs speculated that Xi might reverse this trend. 

The reality has proved much more complex—and, for those concerned with freedom of speech, much more discouraging. Xi has distanced himself from some things Bo did but put his own spin on other techniques that the Chongqing strongman had experimented with before his downfall. Xi has, in fact, proved a far more colorful leader than Hu, inspiring talk of “charisma,” a term used for Bo but not for Hu or Hu’s immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Xi has invoked red symbols and quotes by Mao in ways that bring Bo to mind more than Hu or Jiang, and he has carried out his own intense drive against corruption, which some consider to be largely about settling scores. 

In addition, whereas little attention was paid to Hu’s wife on public occasions, Xi, again more like Bo than like his immediate predecessors, has been presented to the public as part of a powerful, loving, and occasionally elegant couple. His wife, Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer, began playing a diplomatic role much like that of a U.S. first lady, something that neither Jiang’s nor Hu’s spouse had done. And when it comes to civil society, Xi has steadily tightened the screws still further on civil society. There have been crackdowns on the mainland on feminists, labor activists, rights lawyers, and crusading journalists, among others.

A student leader looks on as students attend a rally in the campus on the first day to boycott classes at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China January 20, 2016.
A student leader looks on as students attend a rally in the campus on the first day to boycott classes at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China January 20, 2016.
Bobby Yip / Reuters
How exactly does bringing up the events of 2012 shed light on the case of the disappearing booksellers? Most obviously, any mainland moves to make Hong Kong’s public less freewheeling, more constrained, and riddled with fear fits within the general trends since Xi took power. Stores pulling books from the shelves that had been acceptable the year before, in this sense, parallels feminists being detained in 2015 for doing things they could do with relative impunity just the year before. 

There is also a different way, though, in which Beijing’s heightened concern with the discussion of the private lives of Chinese leaders and its hard-line position toward the spreading of “rumors” in print and online can be linked to the events of 2012. The Chinese Communist Party has always sought to minimize exposure of the issues that Mighty Current publications highlight, from alleged feuds among top leaders, to the accumulation of enormous wealth by relatives of high officials, to the sex lives of China’s most powerful men and women. But these kinds of works are especially problematic to Beijing now, given the extent to which the legitimacy of the Chinese political system is being tied to Xi’s personality and the emphasis the press has periodically put on his being part of a companionable and loving couple. In addition, the 2012 purging of Bo made it clear that talk of divisions within the top tier of the Chinese leadership was not something that had disappeared in 1989, after Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Deng Xiaoping’s heir apparent as paramount leader, was placed under house arrest, accused of disloyalty. Discussions of intraparty divides as well as of the leader’s private life became more sensitive in the wake of the 2012 scandals and the shift from Hu to Xi than they had been just a few years before.


It would be foolish to predict what will happen to the booksellers, much less to Chinese–Hong Kong relations. In 1990, with the Berlin Wall freshly toppled and the memory of massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and other Chinese central plazas fresh in their minds, many observers proclaimed that communist rule in China could not last much longer; yet more than a quarter century later, the party is still in control. When Hong Kong was handed over to China, more than a few confident prognosticators asserted that despite promises of being able to go its own way, Hong Kong would quickly become a place with as constrained a public sphere as a typical mainland city, yet the protests of 2003, 2012, and 2014, among other events, proved them wrong.

One thing is clear, though: when looking to the next twists and turns in both the strange saga of the booksellers and the often surprising development of Hong Kong–mainland relations, it is important to keep asking the 1997 question. Further, with Xi Jinping as head of the party and head of the state, it is important to remember the events of the year that brought him there and the measures he has pursued on the mainland as well as in relation to Hong Kong since making it to the top.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now