Five officials with a Hong Kong publisher have now disappeared after that company printed books critical of China’s Communist Party, raising concerns that Beijing has escalated its efforts to crack down on opponents in the territory.
Lee Bo, a major shareholder in the Mighty Current publishing company, was the latest to vanish when he disappeared on Wednesday in Hong Kong. The company has published thinly sourced and tabloid-like books that assail some of China’s top leaders.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that, in a fax to a subsidiary of Mighty Current, Lee said he went to China "by my own means, to cooperate with an investigation carried out by relevant department." However, Hong Kong police said Lee did not pass through immigration to exit the city, leading some officials to speculate that he was abducted by Chinese officials and forced to transmit the fax.
Critics of Beijing say the potential kidnapping of Hong Kong publishers would be a significant blow to the autonomy of Hong Kong, which Britain transferred to Chinese rule in 1997. The financial center has traditionally enjoyed more civil liberties and freedom of expression than the mainland under the "one country, two systems" guidelines.
"This is a serious concern to all Hong Kong people," said Dennis Kwok, a lawmaker with the pro-democracy Civic Party, in an interview with the Post. "This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in Hong Kong."
Agnes Chow, an activist with the pro-democracy student group Scholarism, said in a video published Saturday that China is not supposed to restrict political speech in Hong Kong under the Sino-British agreement. Scholarism was one of the main organizers of mass protests in 2014 against Chinese control of Hong Kong’s elections.
"Citizens who sell politically sensitive books were not supposed to be suppressed by any threats of ‘disappearance’ or imprisonment with the existence of freedom of press and speech," she said.
"We feel that Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore," she added.
At a press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had "no information" about Lee’s case.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Gui Minhai, another major shareholder in Mighty Current, disappeared in October from his beachfront home in Thailand. Three other company employees also vanished at the time, all while traveling in China.
The disappearances could be an attempt by Beijing to coerce Mighty Current and prevent it from publishing The Lovers of Xi Jinping, which was reported to be a future project of the company. The book was said to allege that Xi, the Chinese president and Communist Party leader, formerly had a "girlfriend or mistress."
While Xi has launched a broad campaign to repress dissidents, human rights lawyers, minorities, and labor activists at home, he has also sought to punish government opponents outside of China’s borders. Beijing worked with Thailand to repatriate five Chinese dissidents—including some who were United Nations-designated refugees—in November. That followed the abduction from Burma of Bao Zhuoxuan, the 16-year-old son of a detained Chinese rights lawyer who had attempted to escape to the United States.
Additionally, experts say China has engaged in "media warfare" by pressuring Western companies to censor sensitive content that could be critical of the Communist Party.