Hong Kong and the Disappearing Booksellers

The Port City's Clock Runs Down

Books on China politics and senior leaders are displayed inside a bookstore in Hong Kong, China, January 8, 2016. Bobby Yip / Reuters

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,

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