Hong Kong authorities say Chinese officials have confirmed the whereabouts of the chief editor of a publisher specialising in books banned in mainland China three weeks after he went missing and have requested a meeting with him.
The disappearances of Lee Bo, a British citizen, and four other men linked to Hong Kong publishing company Mighty Current and its Causeway Bay Bookshop who went missing last year have intensified fears that Beijing is clamping down on the semiautonomous Chinese city's freedom of speech.
Hong Kong police said late Monday that they received notice from Guangdong province's public security department that it "understood that Lee Po is in the mainland," using an alternate spelling.
The circumstances of Lee's case led many to suspect Chinese security agents crossed into Hong Kong to abduct him, in breach of the "one country, two systems" principle Beijing promised to uphold after taking control of the city from Britain in 1997. According to local news reports, he was last seen at his company's warehouse and didn't have his mainland travel permit, but days after he went missing he called his wife to say he was in Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong.
Mighty Current specialized in racy but thinly sourced titles on Chinese political intrigue and scandals and other topics Beijing deemed off limits for mainland Chinese publishers, making them popular with mainland visitors to Hong Kong.
Police said in a brief statement that they wrote to Guangdong officials to request a meeting with Lee and to "further understand the situation of the incident." They said Guangdong officials also forwarded to them a letter from Lee to the Hong Kong government, with handwriting that Lee's wife confirmed was his. Police said the letter was similar to one Hong Kong media reported on Monday, which he purportedly wrote to his wife to tell her he "voluntarily" went to the mainland to assist authorities with an unspecified investigation.
The news came a day after another of the five missing men, Swedish national Gui Minhai, was shown on state TV tearfully confessing that he turned himself in to mainland authorities over a hit and run accident that he was involved in more than a decade ago. The official Xinhua news agency said Gui struck and killed a female college student in 2003, was convicted of drunk driving and given probation but fled the country. Gui, one of Mighty Current's owners, was last seen in Thailand in mid-October.
However, similarities between the statements led some to believe they were coerced.
"We can't rule out that it was made under duress, especially since both Lee Bo and Gui Minhai used very similar language in their communications," said William Nee, Amnesty International's China researcher. He noted that both men asked for privacy, said they didn't want their cases hyped up and stressed they were voluntarily cooperating with investigations.
"This seems to be a way for the government to relieve itself of its obligations to follow due process," Nee said.