Chinese authorities announced that three Hong Kong booksellers are under investigation for "illegal activities," ratcheting up suspicion that they've fallen victim to a Beijing-backed crackdown on the city's publishing industry.
Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping and Lam Wing Kee have been placed in criminal detention in mainland China, Hong Kong police announced Thursday night, citing a letter from the Interpol Guangdong liaison office of the Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department. They had been missing for 100 days.
Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory of 7.3 million people, is geographically joined to southern China's Guangdong province, but maintains an independent judiciary and law enforcement apparatus.
In recent months, five Hong Kong booksellers have gone missing under mysterious circumstances; all are connected to the Mighty Current publishing house and its bookstore, Causeway Bay Books, which specializes in titles that irritate China's Communist Party leadership and are banned on the mainland.
The booksellers' disappearances have raised concern in Hong Kong, which has remained relatively insulated from a wave of political crackdowns on the mainland.
"Every morning, Hong Kong people wake up to another news headline of utter absurdity," said Jason Ng, a columnist and author of "Umbrellas in Bloom," a book chronicling the Occupy movement, a massive pro-democracy protest that consumed the city in late 2014. "There is one clumsy lie covering another clumsy lie every day. And the plot gets more and more farfetched."
"The sense of pessimism and despondency began after Occupy," he continued. "We asked ourselves, if even doing that didn't work, what chance do we have? The bookseller story is another nail in the coffin, and a pretty long one at that."
Before they went missing, Lui was an owner of the bookstore, Lam was a manager and Cheung oversaw warehouse inventory. According to the police announcement, the three are involved in a case related to a man with the surname Gui.
This appears to be a reference to Gui Minhai, a China-born Swedish national and another Mighty Current owner, who disappeared from his Thailand home around mid-October. He was last seen in early January on state-run Chinese TV confessing to having fled the country while on parole for a 2003 drunk-driving conviction.
The three men became Gui's colleagues in 2012, and the nature of their involvement in the case remains unclear.
A fifth associate, Lee Bo, vanished Dec. 30 in Hong Kong. Lee, another bookstore owner, is a British passport holder.
The sale of politically outspoken books is legal in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" arrangement designed to protect many civil liberties nonexistent in the rest of China.
Hong Kong's protection of free speech has birthed a cottage publishing industry that has churned out scores of explosive tomes on China's politics, both past and present. Some are deeply reported exposes, others salacious conjecture.
Public outcry mounted over Lee's disappearance, after it appeared he had been spirited into mainland China by extrajudicial means.
Hong Kong police said Thursday that they received a letter from Lee stating he "doesn't need to meet with the Hong Kong police." Observers suspect that it was written under duress.
Under a long-standing reciprocal mechanism, Hong Kong and mainland authorities are expected to notify each other if their residents have been detained across the border. Yet since the men began disappearing in October, Hong Kong police have repeatedly said that queries to mainland authorities about the men's whereabouts have gone unanswered.
Even the nature of the booksellers' detention remains unknown.
"The fact that [mainland authorities] are unwilling to specify is probably intentional," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based independent researcher specializing in human rights and criminal justice issues in China. "Since it keeps the actual status mysterious, [that] makes it impossible to know what the relevant deadlines are."
If they're being held under "residential surveillance in a designated location" — a type of enforced disappearance — he added, then investigators "can hold them for up to six months before going to the procuratorate for approval for formal arrest."
So far, the cryptic response from mainland authorities has done little to satisfy the public. Even Hong Kong's normally pro-Beijing politicians have issued repeated calls for the truth behind the disappearances.
"Usually they keep mum on sensitive matters like this," said James To, a pro-democratic local lawmaker. "It seems to me even they can tell how this has touched a nerve with Hong Kongers, and they're concerned this won't get resolved and blow over quickly."
It seems the longer the case drags on, the stronger the rallying cry against China's central government grows.
"After Occupy, Hong Kong society has remained divided. One mistake that Beijing made in this is that this has given a live issue for everyone to form a consensus on," said Fu Hualing, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong who specializes in legal relations between Hong Kong and mainland China.
"There are certain core values — personal freedom, limited police power, the rule of law — that we all treasure in Hong Kong."
Special correspondent Law reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Kaiman from Beijing.