Four people linked to a Hong Kong bookstore which has stocked titles highly critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party have been "delayed," believed detained by Chinese authorities, while on a visit to Thailand.
Owner Gui Minhai, general manager Lu Bo, store manager Lin Rongji, and staff member Zhang Zhiping of publisher and bookstore company Sage Communications are believed to be in China after having been detained there or in Thailand, their associates told RFA.
Gui and Lin called their wives to reassure them on Friday, but little information about their whereabouts was forthcoming, according to a fellow Sage shareholder surnamed Li.
"They said they were OK, but they're not OK," Li said. "They just told their loved ones they would be coming back a bit later than expected, and told them not to worry."
"But they didn't answer any questions about where they were or what they were doing," he said.
Gui, who holds a Swedish passport, went missing in mid-October while on a trip to Thailand, where he owns a holiday home, while Lu and Zhang stopped communicating around Oct. 22-24 after trips back to their family homes in mainland China, Li said.
Li only discovered that Gui, whose company publishes 3-4 books a month on Chinese politics and current affairs, was incommunicado after being contacted by the printers of the next book.
"Usually, he would get back to the printers by the following day if it was urgent, but the printers had been looking for him for a week," he said.
It is unclear where Lin was when he lost contact with friends and family.
"He used to sleep over at the bookstore a lot, so his wife didn't know he was missing," Li said.
Gui has previously published titles critical of the administration of President Xi Jinping, including The Great Depression of 2017, and The Collapse of Xi Jinping in 2017.
Calls to Lu Bo's and Zhang Zhiping's cell phones rang unanswered on Friday, while Lin reportedly owns no cell phone.
Repeated calls to the Shenzhen municipal police department, just across the internal border from Hong Kong, also rang unanswered.
An employee who answered the phone at the Swedish consulate in Hong Kong said the consulate was unaware of the reports.
Gui and his colleagues wouldn't be the first in their profession to be targeted by Beijing.
In May 2014, a court in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Wednesday handed a 10-year jail term to 79-year-old Hong Kong publisher Yiu Man-tin after he edited a book highly critical of President Xi Jinping.
Earlier this year, Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong bought up a key publishing house in the city, sparking fears of a widening ideological assault on freedom of expression in the former British colony.
The Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, which formally represents Beijing in the semiautonomous city, recently acquired control of Sino United Publishing.
The liaison office already owns a number of Chinese-language media, including the Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily newspapers, as well as the online Orange News.
The move gave Beijing control of more than 80 percent of the publishing industry in Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy and the continuation of its existing freedoms under the terms of the city's 1997 handover to China, media reports said.
The three booksellers owned by Sino United are now banned from selling any publications related to "Hong Kong independence," an oblique reference to last year's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.
Critics said the deal runs counter to the principle of "one country, two systems," under which Beijing negotiated the return of Hong Kong from British rule.
Beijing officials have already publicly hit out at any writings that suggest a "Hong Kong city state" mentality, or even discuss a "Hong Kong identity."
However, recent opinion surveys have shown that a relatively small proportion of Hong Kong residents—just 17 percent in 2012—identify themselves as "Chinese," with a larger proportion describing themselves as "Hong Kong people," or "Hong Kong Chinese."
Liu Dawen, former editor of the Hong Kong-based political magazine Outpost, said the "disappearance" of Gui and his colleagues is part of a long-running assault on the city's freedoms waged by Beijing since 2003.
"This started back in 2003, since when they have been determined to wipe out any dissenting voices in Hong Kong," Liu said.
Popular anger over proposed Article 23 legislation on national security and subversion-related crimes culminated in mass demonstrations on the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1, 2003.
"Back then, when they wanted to legislate for Article 23, there was a clause in there about wiping out organizations and groups unfriendly to the Chinese Communist Party," Liu said. "It stressed in particular any groups that had been infiltrated by foreign forces."
"A lot of trade unions in Hong Kong were getting funding from the International Labor Organization, while some NGOs were in receipt of overseas funding, which they saw as overseas interference in Hong Kong," he said.
According to Chen Ping, director of Hong Kong Sun TV, self-censorship is a far more pervasive problem in Hong Kong's once-freewheeling media industry than direct control, however.
"Self-censorship plays a big part in this, and China hasn't got to the point of panic about this yet," Chen told RFA.
"Sometimes people in the media will exaggerate [the threat] in their own minds, and censor themselves; this is a very serious problem," he said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.