Two of the five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared from their shop that sold racy titles about China’s political elite returned to mainland China this month after briefly visiting the former British colony while they were on bail, local media reported.
Cheung Chi Ping, business manager of Causeway Bay Books, entered Hong Kong on March 6, two days after his colleague Lui Bo, the bookstore’s general manager, but they apparently stayed only a few hours in the city before going back to China.
Both were granted bail by Chinese authorities, allowing them to travel to Hong Kong, according to a statement from Hong Kong police.
Causeway Bay Books store manager Lee Bo, 65, went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong on Dec. 30, while four of his associates, publisher Gui Minhai, general manager Lui Bo (also spelled Lui Por), and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kei have all been detained under opaque circumstances since.
Hong Kong politicians and rights activists say they are highly skeptical that any of the men are acting from their own free will, however.
"Of course this tale has been concocted by the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party," League of Social Democrats deputy chairman Raphael Wong told RFA's Chinese Service. "They are still spinning yarns ... and they are twisting words to fill in the holes in their story."
The five managers and staff of the now-closed store have all appeared in television interviews filmed in China in recent weeks, with four confessing to running an 'illegal' bookselling business, and a fifth, a British passport holder, saying he is willing to sever all ties with the UK.
Chinese authorities are thought to have targeted Causeway Bay Books because it sold gossipy political books about Chinese leaders. A U.S.-based Chinese writer who uses the pen name Xi Nuo told the BBC that one of his books “Xi Jinping and His Lovers” might have triggered the booksellers’ disappearance.
While their reappearance is comforting, it doesn’t mean their case should be forgotten, Wong said.
"They are safe, and we are not supposed to worry about them, nor to put them under any pressure," Wong said. "Something of the sort has happened to business people in the past."
"The whole point is to make it clear to the people of Hong Kong that mainland police are entirely capable of carrying out illegal law enforcement activities in Hong Kong," he added. "This is unacceptable."
Bei Ling, chairman of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN Center, told Hong Kong's Apple Daily that Cheung and Lui's only purpose in returning to Hong Kong was to get their missing persons cases dropped.
Bei said both men's families are currently in Shenzhen.
On Feb. 29, Hong Kong police working through Interpol met with Lee Bo after the British foreign secretary Philip Hammond said U.K. intelligence showed he had been "involuntarily removed" from Hong Kong, which is a separate jurisdiction under the terms of its 1997 handover to China.
Lee, whose departure from the city didn't show up in official records, told Hong Kong officers he was “assisting mainland police with an investigation,” and that he hadn't been abducted.
He also requested that police drop the missing person case filed by his relatives.
Lee's U.K.-based daughter Angela said she had had no fresh news of her father, but that she is "extremely worried" after seeing his televised "confession."
She told RFA she didn't believe the account given by her father, saying that he is likely under duress, because he previously sent her regular e-mails and often gave media interviews before his detention.
Gui, Lee and Lam have remained in China since the missing person’s cases were filed.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.