A prominent pan-democratic politician in Hong Kong on Monday called on the city's chief executive to travel to Beijing to seek clarification over the "disappearance" of five men connected to a bookstore selling political books banned in mainland China.
Labour Party lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, said the the city's leader Leung Chun-ying should go to Beijing and speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping over the apparent detentions, which have sent shockwaves through the semiautonomous city.
"The Chief Executive has the responsibility to protect the people of Hong Kong from any cross-border arrests and so he should go to Beijing and demand for an answer," Lee told Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK.
"It's really, really a blow to one country, two systems if there can be cross-border arrests and [if] we are not safe in Hong Kong from China's public security authorities", he said, in a reference to Hong Kong's maintenance of a separate political system and legal jurisdiction since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
Causeway Bay Books store manager Lee Bo, 65, was last seen at work on Dec. 30, while four of his associates, publisher Gui Minhai, general manager Lui Bo, and colleagues Cheung Jiping and Lam Wing-kei have gone missing since October.
There is no record of Lee Bo leaving Hong Kong, prompting fears that he was spirited across the internal immigration border by Chinese police, while Gui holds a Swedish passport and was apparently detained while on vacation in Thailand.
Gui was paraded on state-run CCTV earlier this month, "confessing" to having killed a woman in a hit-and-run car accident some years earlier.
Meanwhile, Lee Bo's wife Sophie Choi met with him on Saturday in mainland China, reporting him to be "healthy and in good spirits," Hong Kong police said on Saturday.
Lee has repeatedly said he is "assisting in an investigation" as a witness, and Choi has declined to reveal his location, but many fear the couple are being manipulated by police to avoid harsher reprisals.
Lee wrote a letter to Hong Kong police, which was quoted by The Standard newspaper in English after being seen by a sister publication.
"First of all, I thank Hong Kong police for paying attention and spending effort on my case," he wrote. "I was not abducted, nor was I arrested by mainland authorities for vice-related activities ... It involves my privacy and internal affairs of my company."
Veteran political commentator Poon Siu-to said Beijing had likely run into more public opposition over the booksellers than it expected, and had probably responded by orchestrating Gui's TV appearance and Lee Bo's meeting with his wife.
"Actually, there are also three more Hong Kong residents who are missing, apart from Gui Minhai and Lee Bo," Poon said. "Why are they not being treated in the same way?"
Concerns for Hong Kong's once-freewheeling publishing industry have been growing following a report in London's Sunday Times newspaper that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is explicitly targeting "forbidden books" from Hong Kong, which has traditionally enjoyed freedom of the press and of publication.
The report cited a leaked Communist Party document as saying that officials should aim to "wipe out banned publications at source." It said banned publications included pornographic material and "illegal" books.
Extermination hit list
Citing a leaked copy of a "Guangdong Action Plan," the article said China had identified 14 publishing houses and 21 publications in Hong Kong as targets for "extermination," apparently authorizing cross-border operations.
According to Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post, none of the legislators or publishers it had interviewed had seen the document, nor heard of the "Guangdong Action Plan," however.
Jin Zhong, editor of Hong Kong's Open Magazine and a veteran publisher of books on China, said he hadn't heard of the document.
"We have no way of confirming the existence of this document at the moment," said Jin, who also confirmed he is moving his entire family to the United States soon.
"I made the arrangements to go to the U.S. a while ago, so it has nothing to do with these latest developments," Jin said.
Some lawmakers said they already believe that Beijing fully intends to suppress "banned books" coming out of the city insofar as it can, however.
"[The disappearances] ... show to other publication houses a warning that 'you are not safe in Hong Kong. We can get at you, even though you try to hide away from China and stay in Hong Kong,'" Lee Cheuk-yan told RTHK.
And Democratic Party legislator, James To told the station that the document could explain why Chinese law enforcement officers felt able to detain someone in Hong Kong and take them back to China.
According to veteran journalist and political commentator Ching Cheong, the document, if verified, shows a much more aggressive approach from Beijing.
"If the central government has designated as targets 14 publishing houses and 21 publications, then that is very clearly a target [for law enforcement]," Ching said.
"And if they are calling on governments at every level to take responsibility for meeting these targets, saying they are subversive, then they are more likely to act on them," he said. "And when they do act, they won't care about the consequences; they will just want to get the job done."
Hong Kong-based Bao Pu, the son of a top former party official who now runs the New Century publishing house, said he had never heard of the Guangdong Action Plan, however.
He said he didn't expect to make any changes to his life or work, even if it is verified.
"I knew about the risks involved when I started this publishing company," Bao told RFA. "So I won't bother myself with it, as long as I'm in Hong Kong, and I'm not breaking Hong Kong law."
Chinese officials on Monday declined to comment when asked by Hong Kong media how Lee Bo could have got to mainland China in spite of leaving his entry permit at home.
Reported by Hai Nan and Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.