The Mystery Of The Disappearing Book Publishers

CREDIT: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

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

“Due to some urgent matters that I need to handle and that aren’t to be revealed to the public, I have made way own way back to the mainland…” read a handwritten letter faxed into a bookstore in Hong Kong last Wednesday. “It might take a bit of time. My current situation is very well. All is normal.”

But all does not appear to be normal.

The bookstore owner who sent the letter has not been heard from since his sudden disappearance. He is the fifth person who works at Causeway Bay Bookstore, a bookstore and publishing company critical of China, to go missing since October.

Even though Lee Bo had raised the alarm about his missing colleagues, his wife felt reassured about her husband’s sudden departure.

The letter moved her to ask Hong Kong authorities to call off their search for him, even though he left under suspicious circumstances

For one, Lee didn’t have his travel permit for mainland China with him when he went missing, triggering speculation that he did not travel there willingly.

If Chinese authorities kidnapped Lee from Hong Kong, they will have encroached on its independence. Since 1997, Hong Kong and China have been ruled by a “one country, two systems” principle which affords those in Hong Kong civil liberties that those in China do not enjoy. Chief among them is the freedom of expression, which is why many Chinese tourists stocked up on Causeway Bay Bookstore’s scandalous titles while on the island.

Human rights’ advocates have suggested that Chinese authorities might be behind Lee’s abduction. The case bears similarities to their efforts to silence dissent on the mainland, according to William Nee of Amnesty International

“If he did indeed write the letter, it was almost certainly written under duress,” he said. “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.”

They might have gone after Lee because it was he who led a campaign to investigate the disappearances of three of his colleagues from China and one from Thailand.

Some have speculated that the abductions are retaliation from Chinese authorities upset about the depiction of Community Party officials in books printed by Causeway Bay Bookstore. While it’s unclear what prompted the sudden spate of disappearances, some, including a local legislator, believe that they’re connected with a forthcoming book about a former lover of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Chinese authorities have denied the claim.

At a recent press briefing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against making “assumptions or meaningless speculations” about Lee.

“Above all, he is a Chinese citizen,” Wang said, seemingly suggesting that the mainland powers could exercise authority over him.

An opinion piece in the Global Times, a Chinese nationalist newspaper, went one step further, claiming that the accusations of abducting the booksellers are jeopardizing the unique relationship between Hong Kong and China.

But in the year after Hong Kong’s sweeping “Umbrella Revolution” for increased rights, China seems to be playing a bigger and bigger part in the island’s affairs.

“The invisible hand of Beijing is not only squeezing freedom of the press and publishers, it is also gripping power on university campuses” where last year’s protests were first sparked, Noah Sin wrote in the Independent, referring to a pro-Beijing figure who was just installed as the chair of Hong Kong University.

“If Chinese authorities truly masterminded the abduction of Mr. Lee and his colleagues,” Sim added, “Hong Kong’s free society may have come to an end.”