The Plot Thickens In The Mystery Of Hong Kong's Missing Booksellers
A Hong Kong woman who suggested last week that her husband had been abducted by Chinese police has withdrawn her missing person's report.
The surprise move came after her husband, Lee Bo, who sold books critical of top Communist Party officials, vanished from Hong Kong last week.
Lee was the fifth person in the city connected to the publication of sensational books on top Chinese leaders to disappear since October, prompting speculation among democratic activists that Chinese security agents may have detained them.
Such abductions are very rare in Hong Kong, which — unlike the authoritarian mainland — enjoys freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the rule of law.
Lee is a British citizen, according to U.K. authorities. His disappearance has unnerved people in Hong Kong, a former British colony, and generated international headlines.
On Monday, Lee apparently faxed a handwritten note to a colleague, saying he was in mainland China of his own volition.
"Because I need to deal with some urgent problems and cannot let the outside know, I've gone back to the mainland using my own ways to assist relevant parties in investigation," said a note attributed to Lee. "It may take some time."
"Assisting an investigation" is often a euphemism for being in the custody of mainland authorities.
"I am fine right now," the note continued. "Everything is normal."
Lee's wife, Choi Ka-ping, confirmed the note was in her husband's handwriting. "I believe he wasn't forced to write it, so that's why I withdrew the request for police help," she told reporters outside her apartment Tuesday, according to the English-language newspaper South China Morning Post.
Democratic lawmakers, however, remain skeptical that Lee went to the mainland voluntarily. When he disappeared last week, he left his mainland travel permit at home and Hong Kong police said there was no record he'd legally crossed the border.
Echoing the thoughts of fellow opposition politicians, Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said he suspected mainland authorities had pressed the couple to change their stories.
"I think everyone knows she must be under pressure," said Lee, who is not related to the missing bookseller. "The whole thing has blown up in Hong Kong and they want to placate the public."
Some newspapers in Hong Kong have speculated that Lee and the other missing men were abducted because of their sensational publications — lightly sourced books that traffic in gossip and innuendo about top Chinese leaders and their family members. The books are popular among mainland tourists who visit Hong Kong.
Hong Kong police have asked mainland officials where Lee is, but say they have yet to receive an answer. On Monday, C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong's pro-Beijing chief executive, insisted there was no evidence Lee had been abducted. But if Chinese agents were responsible, he said, it would be illegal and a violation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
On Tuesday, a pro-government Hong Kong legislator, Ng Leung-sing, said at a public meeting he had received a message from a friend in Hong Kong's business sector saying Lee had been detained after sneaking into the mainland to see sex workers. Ng, though, provided no evidence. Opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo criticized Ng on her Facebook page, saying, "Didn't know a person can go as low as this."
In a commentary published Tuesday, Global Times, a nationalistic state-run newspaper, said the coverage of Lee's whereabouts was "hyped up" by Hong Kong and international media. Global Times also attacked Lee and the bookstore where he is a major shareholder.
"Causeway Bay Books almost only publishes and sells mainland-related political books, many of which contain maliciously fabricated content," the commentary said. "Those books have through various channels entered into the mainland and have become a source of certain political rumors, which have caused some evil influence."
Many in Hong Kong worry the Communist Party is slowly trying to strip them of their unique freedoms. Last year, thousands of protesters occupied areas downtown to demand democratic elections, which infuriated leaders in Beijing.
Lee Cheuk-yan, the pro-democracy legislator, says the booksellers' disappearance has sent chills across the city.
"This case shows that if they want to enforce their law, they can come over suddenly and grab the concerned person back to China," said Lee. "Then, the whole security — personal security — of the people in Hong Kong is at stake."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.