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Hong Kong Bookstore Disappearances

Hong Kong Bookstore Disappearances
Chinese books on sale at a bookstore at Hong Kong international airport. Sept. 3, 2012. Ph (Barbara Demick)

The list of the month's best-sellers, posted on the glass door of the People's Bookstore in Hong Kong, offers some titillating titles on Chinese politics, including "Xi Jinping's House of Cards."

Independent bookstores purveying tell-all tomes and supplying fresh fodder on China's often-murky politics have stood as a testament to the "one country, two systems" arrangement under which the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but has managed to protect many civil liberties nonexistent in the rest of the country.

There's been a distinct chill in the air, however, since four associates of one such business, Causeway Bay Books, were reported missing. The bookstore also runs a publishing arm, which churns out sensational books on the Chinese leadership.

Causeway Bay co-owner Gui Minhai, a prolific author and Swedish national, has not been heard from since Oct. 22, said Bei Ling, Gui's longtime friend and executive director of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, an advocacy group for freedom of expression.

Gui had been living in Thailand and made plans to fly to Hong Kong for business and to meet a mutual writer friend visiting from Shanghai, Bei said.

Several Hong Kong news outlets have posted surveillance video from Gui's condo building in Pattaya, Thailand, showing him leaving in his white SUV with another man. Bei filed a missing person report with Thai police, and Gui's daughter, who lives in London, has sought help from the Swedish consulate.

Another co-owner, Lui Por, and two other Causeway Bay employees went missing in mainland China four days later, on Oct. 26, said Lee Po, the third co-owner of the bookstore.

Lui and one of the two missing employees are married to women who live in mainland China and they regularly visited their spouses there, Lee said.

Hong Kong-based Initium Media, a news website, reported that one of the Causeway Bay Books employees was seen by residents of a southern Chinese village being led away by a dozen armed plainclothes officers.

The family of the other missing employee — the store manager, who most nights was known to sleep on a cot at the bookstore — did not immediately realize that he was missing.

Hong Kong police confirmed that missing-person reports have been filed on the three by family members and colleagues.

"It's hard for me to believe selling books would cause such a problem," said Lee. "I used to think crossing into the mainland shouldn't be too risky."

Ho Pin, who runs a competing publishing house, Mirror Books, expressed dismay over the reports.

"I was shocked, and I found this beyond comprehension," Ho said in a telephone interview from New York, where his publishing house's editorial arm is based.

Like Causeway Bay Books, Mirror Books specializes in Chinese politics — its motto is "must reads for Chinese Communist cadres" — and distributes through a retail branch called Insiders Books just a few blocks from Causeway Bay.

"In the nearly 25 years that we've been in business here, we never faced any risks head-on. That's proof positive that 'one country, two systems,' is being honored," said Ho. "Now people would question if Hong Kong's freedom of the press is being eroded."

Ho said he rejects all solicitations to distribute in mainland China out of respect that the system there prohibits his publications. For those who may have tried, consequences can be dire.

In early November, two mainland Chinese journalists who have worked for Hong Kong media for more than a decade were convicted of operating "illegal publications," referring to the news magazines the duo recently started in Hong Kong but attempted to distribute in the mainland. They have not yet been sentenced.

In the 18 years since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, cross-border arrests have been rare. Free press advocates in Hong Kong worry that the trial and the missing people may be signs of systemic retaliation by authorities seeking to put the squeeze on anyone in Hong Kong who dares to criticize China's central government.

Bookstores like Causeway Bay have a loyal following of mostly mainland visitors who flock to their shops to peruse titles unavailable — and unthinkable — at home, often sneaking them back in their luggage.

A regular customer for nearly a decade from the mainland city of Fuzhou who would give only his last name, Liu, visited the store after he heard about the arrests. Liu picked out the latest issue of "China's Secret Reports," one of the several news monthlies published by Mirror Books.

Liu said he missed the familiar face of the white-haired store manager. "I feel upset about this, but I'd think buying their books is still legal."

Anyone caught crossing into the mainland with forbidden books is likely to have their purchases confiscated, though penalties have rarely been more severe than that.

But enforcement has been stepped up recently. This has prompted at least one Hong Kong bookstore, run by a Beijinger in a popular shopping district, to offer "confiscation insurance." Customers who pay 10% above the purchase price are guaranteed a replacement shipment in the event of seizure by border authorities.

Although publishers try to carve out their own niche, this also is a tight-knit circle shored up by camaraderie and soldered by the determination to not be silenced.

In 2014, Yao Mintian, a former engineer and now publisher of Morning Bell Press, another Hong Kong imprint, was sentenced in mainland China to serve 10 years after he was convicted of smuggling and tax evasion shortly before he was to publish a politically sensitive title.

Another local press, Open Books, produced "China's Godfather Xi Jinping," by Yu Jie, a Chinese dissident writing in exile in Virginia.

Its editor in chief, Jin Zhong, said he's on a "black list" of people forbidden to enter mainland China, but that others may not have such clarity of where the boundaries — and risks — lie.

"For the Chinese Communist Party, politics reigns supreme and family takes a backseat," Jin said. "If you want to criticize the party, you should make proper arrangements. And you have to be prepared to pay the price."

Law is a special correspondent.

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