Unanswered questions about the missing booksellers

January 05, 2016 14:52
Statements so far made fail to explain what exactly happened to Lee Bo (right) and the other missing colleagues. Photo: Reuters

The disappearance of five men connected with a Causeway Bay bookstore critical of the Communist Party leadership has taken surprising twists.

First, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying expressed extreme concern over the case, stressing that mainland law enforcers cannot perform their duties in the territory as that would violate the "one country, two systems" principle under the Basic Law.

Coming from the city's top Beijing loyalist and enforcer himself, his statement was meant to squelch speculation that the bookseller, Lee Bo, could have been abducted by mainland security agents and taken to the mainland in relation to his critical stance against the Chinese leadership.

Hours after CY Leung voiced his concern, Lee's wife, who had divulged her husband's disapperance to local media, withdrew her report to the police and said he got in touch with her through a letter faxed to a staff member of the bookstore.

These latest developments leave many Hong Kong people with the impression that things are being controlled by the authorities behind the scene.

But it seems too early to conclude that Lee is safe now.

On Monday night, Taiwan's Central News Agency came out with an exclusive story about Lee's letter to his bookstore associate, Mr. Chan.

The letter said Lee needed to return to China on his own way to settle an urgent issue which could not be known by others.

He needed to present himself to assist in the investigation of related parties, which may take time.

He asked Mr. Chan to continue running the bookstore as usual, adding that he was fine and everything was normal.

Mrs. Lee said on Monday night she felt relieved after reading the faxed letter and learning that her husband was safe.

That's the reason, she said, why she asked Hong Kong police to cancel the case.

In response to media inquiries, the police said they would pursue the investigation and combine cases involving the disappearance of other staff of the bookstore into one.

Lee's purported letter raises more questions than answers:

* How was he able to go to China on his own way without a Chinese entry permit?

* What exactly is the issue that Lee needs to settle urgently?

* Why is he needed – why is his physical presence needed – to assist in the investigation?

* Why didn't Lee tell his wife that he was going to China beforehand?

* Why is he now saying that everything is normal and the situation is fine?

* Was the letter really written by Lee?

* Where is Lee right now?

* How was a Taiwan-based news agency able to get Lee's letter?

Right now, it is quite difficult to find satisfactory answers to these questions.

Mr. Chan, to whom the letter was addressed, is in the best position to elaborate on his boss's situation.

Also, Mrs. Lee's actions and reactions to the whole affair may provide some hints to the case.

Last Friday, Apple Daily broke the story about Lee's disappearance based on sources provided by Independent Chinese PEN Center director Bei Ling.

The newspaper got in touch with Mrs. Lee, who replied, "I am busy, I'm not willing to respond."

But a day later, Mrs. Lee broke her silence and reported the case to the police.

She also revealed details about her husband's disappearance to reporters, adding that the Basic Law protects his right to engage in his publishing business.

"My husband publishes books that touch on China's political taboo and now he disappeared," she said then. "Hong Kong is terrible."

If Mrs. Lee truly believed that her husband disappeared because of his publishing business, there should be no reason for her to change her view even after reading a letter from him.

The question remains: Why and how Lee got into trouble in connection with his publishing business?

But based on the letter, especially that part that says he needs to settle an urgent matter with related parties, it appears that Lee himself didn't know exactly what trouble he got himself into.

Meanwhile, there appears to be an effort to divert public attention away from the incident.

First, CY Leung called a news conference on Lee's disappearance to stress that there is no indication that Lee was abducted by mainland law enforcers, contrary to rumors.

Then Lee's letter was leaked in an effort to prove that he went to China on his own, thus vindicating CY Leung's statement that Chinese law enforcers cannot carry out their duties in Hong Kong.

Despite all these assurances, despite all the efforts to tell us that everything is normal, the case of five people connected to a bookshop disappearing one after the other is simply outside anyone's definition of normal.

It is far from normal for Lee, a Hong Kong permanent resident, to go to the mainland on his own without leaving any records at the immigration checkpoint.

It is far from normal for his wife, who earlier claimed that his disappearance had something to do with his publishing business, to ask the police to withdraw her report and say that everything is normal.

And all of these developments happened within 24 hours.

From the media coverage on Tuesday, one could get the impression that pro-Beijing media are relieved there is no sign that mainland authorities exercised their powers in Hong Kong to arrest Lee and spirit him away into the mainland, and that Lee's letter confirms the notion that the case is a personal matter.

However, for many Hong Kong-based media, the story still appears as a badly mangled script with too many loose ends.

It is possible, Apple Daily suggests, that Beijing and Mrs. Lee have reached a deal to prevent the case from getting out of hand.

Lee himself said as much in his letter, that the matter he needs to deal with must not be known by outsiders.

In the meantime, all we can do is wait and see. 

We hope Lee and his four colleagues are all safe and sound, but the case has truly jolted many Hong Kong citizens. 

It has cast doubts on Beijing's commitment to the "one country, two systems" principle, and has fueled worries that despite the Basic Law, the freedoms we enjoy and cherish in Hong Kong are at risk.

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EJ Insight writer