According to the Associated Press, five men associated with Hong Kong publisher Mighty Current and its Causeway Bay Bookstore have vanished in recent months. The publisher is known for books critical of China’s leaders.
This has alarmed activists and created suspicion that Chinese mainland authorities are squeezing free expression in the enclave.
Lee Bo is a British citizen who vanished Dec. 30. His case has sparked fears that he was taken in Hong Kong by security agents from the mainland and brought there in violation of an agreement giving Hong Kong a high degree of control over its own affairs.
Lee and the other four missing men are associated with the publisher Mighty Current, which specializes in gossipy books on political scandals involving China’s Communist leaders and other sensitive topics that are banned in the mainland.
The disappearance of the five — all since October — has raised concerns that Beijing is eroding the “one country, two systems” principle that’s been in place since Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
The principle maintains civil liberties in Hong Kong that are nonexistent on the mainland, including freedom of the press.
When Lee vanished, he reportedly did not have a travel permit for mainland China with him, an indication he didn’t plan to go there that triggered speculation about Chinese security agents abducting him. The four others were last seen either in mainland China or Thailand.
Lee faxed a suspicious letter to the bookstore (The Causeway Way), in which he claimed he had come to the mainland of his own volition and was save, but gave little details as to his whereabouts.
Hong Kong police still have missing persons’ files open for three other staff members or shareholders of the publisher or the bookstore. One of the publishing company’s owners, Gui Minhai, is a Swedish national who disappeared in Thailand in October, according to Hong Kong media and human rights groups.
Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers and human rights activists were skeptical the letter proved Lee was safe.
“If he did indeed write the letter, it was almost certainly written under duress,” said William Nee, Amnesty International’s China researcher.
“What we see in mainland China all the time is that police and state security put enormous pressure on family members not to speak to media and not to raise a fuss on social media. If indeed it was state security that detained Lee Bo, one wonders whether the same tactics are being used to silence family members here in Hong Kong.”
China’s nationalist newspaper Global Times slammed the bookstore in an editorial Monday for “profiting on political rumors” and selling books with “trumped-up content.”
“Although the Causeway Bay Bookstore is located in Hong Kong, it actually stays in business by disrupting mainland society,” the paper said.