Protest in Hong Kong against the disappearance of five booksellers, including Lee Bo
The disappearance of the booksellers, among them Lee Bo, has heightened concerns about mainland interference © Getty

In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways the authoritarian tentacles of the Chinese Communist party are spreading. While engaging with the Chinese government and avoiding xenophobia, it is essential that liberal democracies everywhere stand up for universal values and the rule of law and hold Beijing to account for unacceptable behaviour beyond its borders.

The most flagrant recent example is in Hong Kong where Lee Bo, a British citizen and publisher of books on Chinese politics, appears to have been abducted in the territory last month and spirited into the care of the state security apparatus in mainland China.

This would be a violation of the arrangement guaranteeing the former British colony a high degree of autonomy and should be of concern to the UK government and public.

Four of Mr Lee’s colleagues had already been “disappeared” — three of them while on a visit to mainland China and one of them, Gui Minhai, while on a visit to Thailand. Mr Gui, a Swedish citizen, reappeared on Chinese state television this week confessing to a fatal drunk driving charge he committed 12 years ago and saying he had decided to turn himself in.

There is no record of Mr Lee or Mr Gui passing through either Hong Kong or Thai immigration, which strongly suggests China is now operating a programme of “extraordinary renditions” targeting people beyond its borders. Indeed, Mr Gui’s supporters have asked why he would travel to Thailand to turn himself in for a crime he allegedly committed in China.

The most egregious element of the case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers is the fact that the real reason for their abduction would not be considered a crime almost anywhere in the world, including Hong Kong. If supporters of the men are to be believed, their sin was to publish a book detailing Chinese president Xi Jinping’s former lovers. This does not even constitute a crime in mainland China, unless the definition of “national security” can be extended to protecting the feelings of party leaders.

Public protestations from western governments, including the UK, have mostly been mild. That fits a pattern in recent years in which most foreign governments, tempted by the promise of China’s enormous market, have gradually reduced their criticism of the Communist party’s human rights record.

But it is one thing to say the human rights situation in China is the country’s own business; quite another to downplay the abduction from outside the mainland.

Some may compare these abductions to Washington’s post-9/11 policy of extraordinary renditions. Clearly western democracies are still vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy as a result of the actions taken by the Bush administration last decade. But without excusing the actions of the CIA and US administration, it must be noted that the people caught up in those operations were accused of planning terrorist attacks and committing mass murder, not writing exposés of Mr Bush’s peccadilloes.

Western governments have been pusillanimous in their dealings with China over human rights, partly due to their desire for commercial advantage. This has allowed Beijing to pursue a policy of “divide and trade”.

A common EU approach is needed to persuade China that it cannot act with impunity. Britain in particular has a historic responsibility to show leadership. The freedom of the people of Hong Kong is a matter on which the government under Margaret Thatcher made a treaty commitment. London cannot shrug and look the other way.

Letter in response to this editorial:

Lee Bo’s nationality falls within a grey area / From Frankie Leung

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