Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, right, is accompanied by pro-democracy lawyer Albert Ho after giving a news conference in Hong Kong, June 16, 2016.
Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, right, is accompanied by pro-democracy lawyer Albert Ho after giving a news conference in Hong Kong, June 16, 2016.

WASHINGTON - China is toughening its position in the case of five Hong Kong booksellers it detained last year for publishing books critical of Chinese leaders.

The detentions have fueled global concern about perceived threats to the autonomous Chinese territory’s freedoms.

Last week, Chinese authorities threatened stronger legal action against one of the booksellers whom they recently released, Lam Wing-kee, and challenged his account of being mistreated while in custody.

Lam went missing in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen last October, the same month that three of his colleagues also disappeared, two of them in southern China and the other one, Gui Minhai, in Thailand. A fifth member of the bookseller's group, Lee Bo, vanished in December in Hong Kong.

All five reappeared in January and February on Chinese TV networks, confessing to breaking Chinese law for using their Hong Kong bookstore, Mighty Current, to sell books banned by Beijing to readers in mainland China. The televised confirmations of the booksellers being in Chinese custody intensified international criticism of Beijing from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

Under pressure

William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher for rights group Amnesty International, said the booksellers’ case had turned into a “public relations disaster” for Beijing.

"The Chinese government has been trying to find a way to resolve this and stop the hemorrhaging," Nee told VOA’s China 360 podcast.

He said Beijing’s initial move was to put the booksellers on Chinese TV earlier this year to try to show that they were being treated fairly. But, he said the appearances did not have the desired effect.

"They put [Mighty Current co-owner] Gui Minhai on national news network CCTV to say that he felt a pang of conscience and came back to China to confess to a crime he supposedly committed more than 10 years ago – but that does not make any sense,” he said.

Nee also noted the Phoenix TV appearance by bookstore shareholder Lee Bo, who spoke about smuggling himself from Hong Kong to mainland China. “That also made no sense,” he said. “The international community has not bought these explanations."

Hong Kong rights activists have said they suspect Lee was seized in Hong Kong by Chinese agents and secretly taken into the mainland, in violation of Hong Kong’s autonomous constitution, or Basic Law.

FILE - A protester wearing a mask of bookseller Le
FILE - A protester wearing a mask of bookseller Lee Bo stands in a cage during a protest against the disappearances of booksellers in Hong Kong, Jan. 10, 2016.

Additional gestures

In March, China took a bigger step by releasing Lee and two of the other booksellers who had been detained on the mainland, and letting them return to Hong Kong. The three have kept a low profile since.

Beijing made a further effort to ease international concerns in April through a senior official at the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, Wang Zhenmin. Wang described the booksellers’ detentions as “very unfortunate” and said “no one wants such a case to happen here in Hong Kong.” He also said, “Only Hong Kong’s government can enforce the law within the legal jurisdiction of Hong Kong. This is protected under the principle of ‘one country two systems.'"

Nee said Wang’s language “reassured” Hong Kong people “a little bit."

But Beijing's conciliatory moves ended after it allowed bookseller Lam to return to Hong Kong in June. He has not kept a low profile.

Two days after arriving home on June 14, Lam held a news conference accusing Chinese security agents of abducting him and taking him to the eastern city of Ningbo. He said they kept him isolated there for five months and coerced him into giving up his legal rights and making the televised confession of breaking Chinese law.

Lam said the Chinese agents allowed him to return to Hong Kong on condition that he would bring his bookstore's customer data back to the mainland. He said he decided to defy that order in order to tell the world what happened to him and his associates, and because he has no family on the mainland to worry about, as opposed to the three booksellers who returned to Hong Kong before him.

Rights activists have accused Beijing of using the mainland-based relatives of the booksellers as leverage to keep them quiet.

Since Lam made his accusations, China has gone on the offensive. State-run media reported on July 5 that Ningbo’s public security chief warned Lam to return to the mainland or face "other legal measures.”

FILE - A pro-democracy activist burns a letter nex
FILE - A pro-democracy activist burns a letter next to pictures of missing staff members of a publishing house and bookstore, including Gui Minhai, owner of Mighty Current, outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, Jan. 3, 2016.

Toughening stance

"China has reignited the fires to some extent, with the Ningbo police saying they could change the criminal course of measures against Lam,” Nee said.

Last week, Beijing officials also showed a visiting Hong Kong delegation a video of Lam in custody, appearing to show him being well treated, cheerfully eating food and getting a haircut. They were the types of scenes that Lam had said were coerced by Chinese security agents.

"The fact that [Chinese authorities] were using this video to show the Hong Kong side that what they did to Lam was lawful, is just unbelievable,” Nee said. “I think what we are seeing is that there is not satisfactory coordination between China’s public security bureau and its foreign relations and soft power projection."

Nee called for more international pressure on Chinese leaders to resolve the booksellers' cases, with bookstore co-owner Gui Minhai still in detention.

“We do not know what charges they eventually will put on him. So this case could potentially go on for years, which is why we need prolonged and intense focus from the international community, including the United States," he said.