Five booksellers, belonging to a single publication, disappear over a span of few months.
The government seems unable to guarantee safety and there is genuine fear of freedom of speech eroding in publishing circles. The disappearances themselves can possibly be traced to the ruling party of one of the most powerful nations in the world.
And no, this is not part of a movie script.
Lee Bo is the latest in a series of 'disappearances' of booksellers based in Hong Kong, all working for a publication critical of the Communist Party of China and its leadership.
On Monday, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he was "very concerned" over the disappearance of five booksellers known for publications critical of the Chinese government after a prominent lawmaker accused mainland security officers of kidnapping the men. The booksellers all worked for the same Hong Kong-based publishing house Mighty Current and its Causeway Bay Bookstore, and are feared to have been detained by Chinese authorities, adding to growing unease that freedoms in the semi-autonomous region are being eroded.
Under its mini-constitution, Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech and Chinese law enforcers have no right to operate in the city. But the disappearances have raised fears that Beijing is tightening its grip on the region. "I and related government departments are very concerned. The government cares very much about Hong Kong residents' rights and safety," Leung told reporters, saying it would be 'unacceptable' if mainland law enforcers were operating in Hong Kong.
"Only legal enforcement agencies in Hong Kong have the legal authority to enforce laws in Hong Kong," Leung said. "If mainland law enforcement personnel enforce the law in Hong Kong, it is unacceptable because it is against the Basic Law (the city's constitution)."
Although he added there there's no evidence so far to support suspicions that mainland security agents were involved, he appealed for anyone with information to come forward.
Democratic legislator Albert Ho said Sunday he believed the men had been kidnapped by Chinese security officers.
At a regular briefing Monday, Beijing's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: "I'm not aware of the situation; I have nothing to offer," when asked about the latest bookseller to disappear, Lee Bo, who went missing last week. But an editorial in the Global Times newspaper, close to China's Communist Party, accused the bookstore run by the missing men of selling publications containing "maliciously fabricated content". These books spread to the mainland by various means, becoming a source of political rumours, and creating negative effects, it said.
The editorial, signed by Shan Renping, a pen name for the newspaper's editor Hu Xijin, said a "handful" of Hong Kongers were launching "political attacks". "In the era of the internet, their impact is not limited to Hong Kong, but also leaks into the mainland, and becomes a genuine problem facing the country," it said.
Opponents also criticised unpopular Leung, who is considered close to Beijing and a hate figure for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. "The Hong Kong government and Leung Chun-ying should express to the top level on the mainland Hong Kong people's concern, instead of awaiting a reply," said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan. Acting secretary for security John Lee said Sunday that Hong Kong police had made enquiries to their mainland counterparts and were yet to hear back, according to local media. Lawmakers including Hong Kong's pro-Beijing former security chief Regina Ip have urged the government to investigate.
All missing five men worked for the same publishing firm, which is rumoured to have been on the verge of releasing a book on Chinese President Xi Jinping's former girlfriend.
The Mighty Current 'disappearances'
The latest employee to disappear was 65-year-old Lee, last seen in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
His wife said he had told her he was "assisting in an investigation" in a call made after he failed to come home for dinner Wednesday night. The number indicated the call came from Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city next door to Hong Kong, reports USA Today.
She reported him missing to police on Friday. But late on Monday, the police issued a statement saying the missing person's report involving Lee had been withdrawn, but that police would continue to investigate.
Hong Kong Police is investigating the disappearance of Lee and of three of his co-workers who are believed to have gone missing in Shenzhen.
Meanwhile, the fifth, Gui Minhai — the high-profile publisher of the magazine and a China-born Swedish national — was reported to have 'disappeared' sometime between October and November, 2015. But unlike his colleagues, who were abducted in China, Gui vanished in Thailand, reports The Guardian.
Since his suspected abduction, Gui too has been in on-off contact with his family, although he never reveals his location and calls from phone lines are diverted through foreign countries.
Sweden's embassies in Bangkok and Beijing are reportedly investigating his disappearance.
Lee had previously said, in an interview with the BBC, that he suspected the four of his colleagues were detained by Chinese authorities.
Clampdown on publishers
Since 2014, the mainland Chinese authorities have been cracking down on publishers of banned books in Hong Kong.
In May 2014, another Hong Kong publisher Yiu Mantin (also spelled Yao Wentian) was sentenced to 10 years for smuggling. His publishing house was about to release a book critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I’m pretty familiar with the Chinese legal system in China and how they produce fake criminal charges against political prisoners,” Edmond Yiu, Yiu’s son said in an interview with The New York Times. “There is no question that they are trying to punish him for his publishing activities through normal criminal charges.”
The ruling was also condemned by The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In the same month, two Hong Kong Chinese political magazine publishers Wang Jianmin and Guo Zhongjiao were prosecuted for illegal distribution of Hong Kong publications, reports PRI.
Local publishers are increasingly concerned that the disappearances will loom large on publishing strategy and might rattle the city’s tradition of publishing books critical of the Chinese Communist Party, reports South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland.
With inputs from agencies