Hong Kong's government has moved to play down fears that Chinese law enforcement agencies now operate freely within the city's separate jurisdiction as police in the neighboring province of Guangdong confirmed they are holding one of five Hong Kong booksellers missing since last October.
Speaking after Guangdong officials finally confirmed that Hong Kong resident Lee Bo is in mainland China, Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying dismissed criticisms that the case shows an inadequate level of communication with mainland Chinese authorities across the internal border.
Leung told reporters on Tuesday: "We shouldn't speculate. All comments made should be based on facts."
The uncertain status of Lee Bo, who manages the Causeway Bay bookstore which has seen four other employees and shareholders go missing, believed detained by Chinese police in recent weeks, sparked protests in the former British colony amid growing fears that traditional freedoms promised under the 1997 handover to China are now under threat.
Hong Kong officials have made an official request to meet with Lee to get more information, Leung said.
Lee, 65, was last seen at work on Dec. 30, the latest in a string of disappearances linked to Causeway Bay Books. He had no travel documents with him at the time, and there are no records of his having left Hong Kong.
Four of his associates, publisher Gui Minhai, general manager Lui Bo, and colleagues Cheung Jiping and Lam Wing-kei have gone missing under similar circumstances since October.
Some of the detainees have called to let their families know they are alive and well, and are now widely believed to be in detention in China, amid huge public concern that they were taken there unofficially by Chinese police.
Earlier this month, thousands of people marched to Beijing's central government liaison office in Hong Kong from government headquarters in protest at the disappearances.
On Sunday, China confirmed it had detained Lee's business associate Gui Minhai, who disappeared from a Thai beach resort in October, saying he had returned to China to hand himself over to the authorities in connection with a road accident 10 years ago.
Gui, who holds a Swedish passport, was seen on state-run television CCTV's news programme "confessing" to causing the death of a college student while driving drunk.
Gui's U.K.-based daughter, who gave only a nickname Angela, said she had never heard that her father had been involved in a road accident that killed someone.
"I don't know about this, so I have no way to comment, but I don't think that my father went willingly back to mainland China," she said. "That doesn't make any sense."
She said the family has yet to receive any formal notification of Gui's detention from Chinese authorities.
In Hong Kong, pan-democratic lawmaker and rights activist Leung Kwok-hung said he doesn't believe the "car accident" story.
"It depends how much trust we place in the Chinese government," Leung said. "All five of them were part of Causeway Bay books, and all five of them disappeared without a trace, and now they're saying he turned himself in."
"I think that's highly dubious."
Hong Kong political affairs commentator Camoes Tam agreed. "The only thing I can say about this is that I am highly suspicious," he said. "It's similar to a kidnapped person telling everyone they're OK, and what they have to do to secure their release."
"We just need to look at the fact that he is now in mainland China, and at what their human rights record is," Tam said.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong documentary filmmaker Han Yan said the taped "confession" was likely edited from more than one recording session, pointing out via her Twitter account that Gui's T-shirt had changed color from one shot to the next.
"T-shirt inconsistent in Gui Minhai interview," Han tweeted. "In film we call these goofs. Oh wait, it's not film, it's CCTV 'news'."
Meanwhile, official Chinese media denied that the one country, two systems promise made to Hong Kong, which runs a separate legal and administrative jurisdiction with its own laws and immigration controls, is under threat.
"Hong Kong and the mainland should not confront each other," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial.
"The difference of judiciary systems in the two parts should not be highlighted and distorted as a crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong," it said, adding: "Mainland society is willing to see Hong Kong exercise its independent judiciary."
Pan-democratic politicians have hit out at the Hong Kong government's handling of the case.
"The sequence of events indicates that this government seems powerless to act," Anson Chan, former second-in-command to the last colonial governor Chris Patten.
"If Mr CY Leung is not getting a satisfactory answer from his counterpart in the mainland, he needs to take this up at the highest level of authority in Beijing," Chan told Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK.
And pan-democratic lawmaker Kenneth Chan said Hong Kong's Legislative Council should carry out its own investigation into the case of the five booksellers.
"I think a chain of enquiries and investigations must now begin, as to why any Hong Kong citizen ... [can be] 'disappeared', kidnapped, abducted by [a] mainland Chinese enforcement authority," Chan told RTHK.
Link to planned book
Fellow publisher and independent writer Meng Lang said many of Gui's friends and fellow authors are very worried.
"A lot of us are worried about Gui Minhai and about all five of the Causeway Bay Books guys," Meng told RFA. "But we have no other sources of information. All we can do is hope that the Chinese authorities tell us the truth about what really happened."
"But it seems they are making it up and editing the script as they go along."
Commentators say the men's disappearances could be linked to plans to publish a political book containing a story about an old love interest of President Xi Jinping's.
Official Chinese media commentaries have accused the store of peddling "forbidden books" deliberately targeting mainland Chinese tourists with their "malicious content."
But a Causeway Bay Books customer surnamed Hui said he sees the disappearances as part of a broader crackdown on dissent launched by President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
"They crack down on anything that doesn't suit them," Hui said. "But it's unreasonable, because readers are curious, and there are some books you can only get in Hong Kong, that can give them knowledge they didn't have."
"Some people just want to get at the truth."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.