Hong Kong Booksellers Detained in China on 'Illegal Business' Charge

hong-kong-poster-missing-booksellers-feb12-2016.jpg A woman passes a poster showing five booksellers, believed to be detained in China, outside the closed Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong, Feb. 12, 2016.

Five Hong Kong booksellers missing since last October have appeared in television interviews, 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.

Causeway Bay Books store manager Lee Bo, 65, was last seen at work in Hong Kong on Dec. 30, while four of his associates, publisher Gui Minhai, general manager Lui Bo, and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kei have gone missing since October.

There is no record of Lee leaving Hong Kong, prompting fears that he was spirited across the internal immigration border by Chinese police, while Gui, who holds a Swedish passport, was apparently detained while on vacation in Thailand.

Lee appeared in a recorded interview with Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing broadcaster Phoenix Television on Monday, claiming that he had deliberately "smuggled" himself across the border, for fear of reprisals from unknown quarters.

"After what happened [with the bookstore], I wanted to sneak across the border to mainland China, to resolve whatever issues there were with the company and then secretly go back to Hong Kong," Lee said in the interview.

Lee said he had given incriminating evidence on "some people" to Chinese police and feared reprisals if they knew he had left.

"I didn’t want anyone to know, and I didn’t want to leave any immigration records," he said.

Breach of treaty

Earlier this month, Britain accused China of a "serious breach" of a 1984 bilateral treaty governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong in its treatment of Lee.

While Lee has repeatedly said through his wife that he is assisting in an investigation at an unknown location in mainland China, there are fears that all of the men are being manipulated by police to avoid harsher reprisals.

Phoenix TV had earlier aired interviews with Gui, Lui, Cheung, and Lam on Sunday, in which they also admitted to the alleged offenses.

"I have reflected deeply on what I have done, and I very much regret the illegal book sales I made, along with Gui Minhai," Lui said.

All four "confessed" to selling around 4,000 unauthorized books to 380 customers in mainland China, using an online bookstore, since October 2014.

Gui was the alleged mastermind of the scheme, which included wrapping the books in special covers to disguise them from customs inspectors, the report said.

It was unclear whether the authorities intend to pursue charges linked to a fatal drunk-driving incident more than a decade ago, to which Gui has previously "confessed" on Chinese state television.

The report said that Lui, Cheung and Lee were detained in Shenzhen and Dongguan, side-stepping concerns that they may have been illegally taken from Hong Kong by representatives of the Chinese government.

'Bad influence'

Lam said the books published by the group were "fabricated," and nothing but a compilation of online sources and magazine articles.

"They have given rise to many rumors and had a bad influence on society... I admit to my mistakes and am willing to pay the price," he told the TV station.

The Phoenix TV report said Lui, Lam and Cheung had shown a cooperative attitude in their confessions and could be released on bail soon.

But Hong Kong activist Richard Choi, of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, said the Phoenix TV interviews had done little to allay fears for the five booksellers' well-being.

"We are extremely concerned about Gui Minhai and the others," Choi said. "We still know nothing about their actual situation, whether they are being held under criminal detention, and at what location."

Choi said the media footage of the men doesn't prove that they really did commit the crimes described in the report.

"[This could] all have been dictated to them by the authorities," he said. "In my view, their rights have been completely violated, and I believe they have no lawyers to represent them."

Forbidden books

Choi said the Alliance doesn't accept the accounts of the men's activities given in the Phoenix TV report.

"None of this is in keeping with legal principles, and the mainland authorities are breaking even their own laws," he said.

Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy in the Joint Declaration and its miniconstitution, the Basic Law, along with the maintenance of separate law enforcement, immigration and judicial systems, as well as freedom of expression and association for 50 years after the handover.

But the Causeway Bay Books "disappearances" have fueled concerns that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is already extending its political influence far across the internal border.

Political commentators say that Beijing is targeting what it sees as a thriving industry in "forbidden books" emanating from Hong Kong, fueled by strong demand for political gossip in the tightly controlled mainland market.

One insider who declined to be named said the case has sent shock waves through the city's once-freewheeling publishing industry, which is now reeling under a chilling effect.

"The thing we fear most is a lack of freedom to speak out," the source said. "It would be great to stand up and speak out on behalf of Hong Kong people, but that doesn't solve the problem of the government."

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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