Reports of missing bookstore associates raise autonomy concerns in Hong Kong

When Lee Bo, co-owner of Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong, recently failed to come home for dinner, his wife grew concerned and filed a police report.

But days later, she withdrew the missing person report, saying only that a friend of her husband’s had relayed to her that her husband was safe and sound. Hong Kong officials say his whereabouts remains unknown.

Lee, who was last seen a week ago, was the most recent of several local citizens – all affiliated with the bookstore, which specializes in titles that irritate China’s Communist leadership – believed to have been detained on the mainland, raising concern among Hong Kong legislators and residents.

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The public outcry has grown as signs have mounted that Lee may have been taken from Hong Kong into mainland China by extralegal means.

“Mainland Chinese authorities owe the Hong Kong government an answer. Right now they have yet to confirm or deny if these men are being held,” said James To, a lawmaker in the semiautonomous Chinese territory of 7 million.

Hong Kong and China’s central government have established a reciprocal mechanism under which one jurisdiction is supposed to report to the other if their residents are being detained across the border. So far, no report has been made on the bookstore workers.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement designed to protect many civil liberties nonexistent in the rest of the country.

Hong Kong’s protection of free speech has birthed a cottage publishing industry churning out explosive exposes on China’s politics past and present. Recently, the political climate in mainland China has chilled, with mass arrests of rights activists, political dissidents and human rights lawyers. Even so, the disappearance of the bookstore employees has sent alarm through Hong Kong.

Lee was last seen a week ago at the store’s off-site warehouse on his way to deliver books to a new customer.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said the government was highly concerned about the case but that there was “no indication” that Chinese authorities were responsible.

“If mainland Chinese law enforcement personnel are carrying out duties in Hong Kong, it would be unacceptable,” Leung said.

A letter faxed to a bookstore employee said Lee had gone to the mainland “by [his] own way” to “cooperate in an investigation by certain parties.” The document also said his “circumstances are very good and everything is normal.”

But Hong Kong’s immigration department has said there’s no record of Lee leaving the territory.

“This letter, that is meant to dispel fear about his disappearance, has exactly the opposite effect,” said Ching Cheong, a longtime local commentator on China’s politics. “All isn’t well.”

In early November, Lee raised concern about the disappearances of three colleagues who had visited mainland China. His fellow co-owner, Lui Por, and two employees went missing in late October.

Another co-owner, Gui Minhai, a prolific author and Swedish national, went missing Oct. 22, a week or so before he had planned to fly from his resort home in Thailand to Hong Kong for business.

After Lee disappeared, he called his wife twice to ask her to keep quiet but refused to divulge his location, according to local news reports.

Prior to Lee’s disappearance, Hong Kong police said missing-person reports had been filed on the other three Hong Kong citizens by family members and colleagues. Those will now be combined with Lee’s case for continuing investigation. Even though Lee’s wife has withdrawn her report, police said, the case remains open until Lee is found.

The Global Times, a newspaper closely affiliated with China’s Communist Party, this week took aim at those raising questions regarding the men’s whereabouts. In a strident editorial, the paper said the incidents had been “hyped up” by people who “cannot wait to define the case as a ‘violation of One Country, Two Systems.’ ”

“Causeway Bay Books almost only publishes and sells mainland-related political books, many of which contain maliciously fabricated content,” the paper said, asserting that Lee was “assisting an investigation” and “was not taken away by mainland Chinese police.” The paper added: “Those books have through various channels entered into the mainland and have become a source of certain political rumors.”

Li Dan, a Beijing-based publisher who owns a bookstore that specializes in mainland Chinese politics in a popular Hong Kong shopping district, surmised that the disappearances may have to do with more than just publishing titles deemed unsavory by authorities.

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What is more worrisome to Li is that mainland Chinese customs officials have stepped up searches for banned books over the last year after Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. Such titles used to be popular souvenirs for mainlanders visiting Hong Kong.

Mainlanders who work for the government can be blacklisted if they are found in possession of such books, and sales recently have plunged as the number of mainlanders visiting Hong Kong has dropped.

To save on operating costs, his bookstore has since curtailed hours to weekends.

Many Hong Kongers fear the disappearances of the bookstore employees might signal the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“The bottom line used to be whatever you do in Hong Kong, it is still a safe haven,” said Ching. “Now you’re no longer safe.”

Law is a special correspondent.

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