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Released Hong Kong Booksellers Return to Mainland

A mainland Chinese tourist checks the door of the closed Causeway Bay Bookstore which is known for gossipy titles about Chinese political scandals and other sensitive issues that are popular with visiting tourists from the mainland, in Hong Kong, Feb. 5, 2016.

Two Hong Kong booksellers recently released from mainland Chinese custody have returned to Beijing after briefly stopping in Hong Kong, where they asked local police to drop their missing persons cases.

Cheung Chi-ping and Lui Por were released by Chinese officials on separate days last week. Both men immediately departed Beijing for Hong Kong and then crossed back into mainland China on the same days, according to friends and acquaintances.

“They probably were given less than 24 hours, the purpose of their return is to ask Hong Kong police to drop their cases," said Bei Ling, a poet and friend of Gui Minhai, one of the missing booksellers. "They had to go back to mainland China, [and] of course it is also to let Hong Kong people think they came back.”

Writer Hu Zhiwei, who is a longtime friend of the bookstore owner, Lee Bo, also confirmed to VOA Thursday that the two had returned to mainland China.

According to Hu, Lee’s wife has sold nearly 450,000 copies of books in a warehouse to a pulp mill and will probably destroy 50,000 copies of books in the store, to shut down the business for good.

After Lee’s abduction, Lee’s wife said she would give up everything for her husband’s release, including the warehouse and bookstore.

All five missing booksellers were from Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong book shop that specializes in gossipy political books about Chinese leaders.

Their cases have raised concern in Hong Kong that Chinese authorities are overriding a "one country, two systems" formula protecting Hong Kong's freedoms since its return to mainland China from British rule in 1997.

Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong’s Baptist University who heads an association of independent commentators, told VOA the pair's swift return to mainland China doesn't appear to "reflect their free will," and suggests they "had been coerced to return to Hong Kong [only] to close the case."

“The way it was handled shows mainland China doesn’t want the outside world to to investigate, or ask how the booksellers went missing, or whether mainland police illegally conducted the so-called cross-border law enforcement," Lui said. "They want no more pressure from Hong Kong police or civil investigation."

Chinese officials have denied wrongdoing. When asked about the case at a daily news briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he did not have a "grasp" of the situation and declined further comment.

Mainland Chinese police said in a statement last week that three of the five booksellers — Cheung, Lui and Lam Wing Kee — would be released on bail. It was not clear what would happen to the other two: Gui Minhai, who is a Swedish national who went missing in Thailand last October, and Lee Bo, who is a British citizen and went missing from Hong Kong.

Many in Hong Kong believe the booksellers, who have all appeared in what seem to be staged confessions on Chinese television, were abducted by mainland police.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service. Some information is from Reuters.