British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Friday that a Hong Kong bookseller who disappeared from the city under mysterious circumstances late last year had been removed under duress, and that the business community was “unnerved.”
Lee Bo, one of the five missing Hong Kong booksellers and owner of a publisher and bookstore specialising in books critical to China’s Communist Party leaders, disappeared from Hong Kong on Dec. 30, only to surface in China almost three months later.
According to the UK, Lee Bo had likely been "involuntarily removed" from Hong Kong to China, constituting a "serious breach" on the agreement signed with Beijing in 1984, before the city was handed back to China in 1997.
Lee, a 65-year-old dual citizen of Britain and China, has since returned to Hong Kong and said he had not been kidnapped by Chinese authorities as many suspect.
He has also said that he would renounce his British citizenship, but Hammond disputed Lee's explanation.
"On the basis of the evidence available to us, we are clear that he was removed from Hong Kong under duress," Hammond told a small group of reporters in Hong Kong, first visit by a British foreign secretary in nearly five years.
"He is a British citizen. We have a consular duty towards him and our principal concern now is to ensure that he is returned to Hong Kong free of any duress, to carry on his life here without any constraints or impositions on him.”
The disappearances have prompted fears that mainland Chinese authorities may be using shadowy tactics that erode the "one country, two systems" formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its return to China from British rule in 1997.
Chinese authorities have repeatedly said they would never do anything illegal and that Hong Kong's autonomy was fully respected.
There was no immediate response to a fax and email seeking comment from China's Foreign Ministry regarding Hammond's remarks.
Hammond also said that the incident had rattled the business community and undermined confidence in the city's rule of law that has long been one of the pillars of the international investment and financial hub.
"There are people in the business community who are unnerved by this incident and we need everybody to make very clear that this is not going to happen again ... that this can be regarded as an isolated incident, not any kind of systemic issue."
However, despite repeated requests, Hammond said British diplomats hadn't yet met with Lee, nor had they received a formal request from Lee to renounce his British citizenship.