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Mystery Deepens Over Missing Hong Kong Booksellers

  • Shannon Van Sant

Student leader Joshua Wong (C) and other members of student group Scholarism protest over the disappearance of booksellers outside the British consulate in Hong Kong, Jan. 6, 2016.

Student leader Joshua Wong (C) and other members of student group Scholarism protest over the disappearance of booksellers outside the British consulate in Hong Kong, Jan. 6, 2016.

British officials are pressing the Chinese government for answers about Hong Kong booksellers who have recently vanished. Analysts say the disappearance threatens free expression and freedoms that have long set the port city apart from the rest of China.

Britain gave control of the former British colony back to China in 1997, with the promise that the Chinese government would maintain a one country, two systems model for the special administrative region.

Secretary Hammond commented on the disappearance of Lee Bo, a publisher of books critical of China's leaders, who vanished in Hong Kong last week.

"Lee Bo, who is a British passport holder and has gone missing, and we have urgently inquired both of the Hong Kong authorities and of the mainland Chinese authorities what if anything they know of his whereabouts," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks at a joint news conference with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not seen) after a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Beijing, China, Jan. 5, 2016.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speaks at a joint news conference with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not seen) after a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Beijing, China, Jan. 5, 2016.



Mystery deepens

Lee, 65, is a shareholder of Causeway Bay Books, a store that sells books about the private lives of Chinese leaders. This week, Taiwan’s Central News Agency published a letter purportedly written by Lee that said he had gone to mainland China voluntarily to work with concerned parties. Subsequently his wife, Sophie Choi, withdrew a missing persons report for her husband on Monday.

“Snatching people from the street is more than just mere intimidation. It not only offends the press but it offends the rule of law in Hong Kong because people in Hong Kong are guaranteed freedom of the press,” said Michael Davis, a Professor at Hong Kong University.

Lee is the fifth man linked to a publishing company, Mighty Current, to go missing since October. The four other associates have been unaccounted for since then.

FILE - Protesters post photos of missing booksellers during a protest outside the Liaison of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, Jan. 3, 2016.

FILE - Protesters post photos of missing booksellers during a protest outside the Liaison of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, Jan. 3, 2016.

Tom Leander of the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) expressed concern at what he says is a lack of resolve by the Hong Kong government and Chief Executive Cy Leung to defend the city’s autonomy and rule of law.

Freedom of the press

“I know [Hong Kong Chief Executive] CY Leung has said that it’s unconstitutional that a bookseller would be taken… without the Hong Kong police knowing it over the border. However he has not come out and made any more direct references to the situation and he has not approached Beijing directly about it. It’s a difficult situation because part of Hong Kong’s attraction is its rule of law and its freedom of the press,” said Leander.

In recent weeks, Chinese media have published editorials critical of Lee’s publishing company, saying that it "maliciously fabricated content" and caused an "evil influence" in mainland China.

The Chinese government has not offered any information on the whereabouts of the missing booksellers. When questioned about the case, Chinese officials have said that any citizen born in Hong Kong of Chinese descent is a citizen of China, and warned against interference by other countries in China’s internal affairs.

Pros Laput in Hong Kong also contributed to this report.

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