Hong Kong Protesters Seek Answers From China on Bookseller

  • Thousands rally despite missing man's video plea to stay home
  • Recorded message to wife says he visited mainland voluntarily

Hong Kong protesters fearful of greater Chinese interference in local affairs rallied Sunday to demand answers about a missing bookseller, even after the man’s wife said he urged people stay home.

Thousands marched from Hong Kong’s government center to the Beijing government’s liaison office, where they called on authorities to provide information about Lee Bo and four other missing people who published and sold books critical of the ruling Communist Party. Lee’s disappearance, which was reported Jan. 1, has reignited debate about party influence in Hong Kong, a former British colony that enjoys independent courts and freedom of expression under the terms of its return to China.

"People are feeling increasingly vulnerable and this latest episode involves abducting somebody from Hong Kong soil and spiriting that person into the mainland," former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan said in an interview while participating in the rally. "That must send the shivers down everybody’s spine."

While the protest was far smaller than the pro-democracy rallies that paralyzed large swaths of the city for months in 2014, it was motivated by similar concerns about encroachment under Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Sunday protest -- organized by Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China -- was held despite a report in the Sing Tao newspaper, saying Lee sent a video message and a letter to his wife in which he asked people to respect his privacy and stay off the streets.

Chinese Affair

China hasn’t confirmed whether Lee is on the mainland. When asked about the case, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that foreign powers should not interfere in the country’s internal affairs.

About 6,000 people turned out for the march, said lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, the alliance’s secretary. The Hong Kong police estimated that about 3,500 people attended the event at its peak, according to a spokesman.

The disappearances prompted Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to express concern and reaffirm that only local authorities could enforce the law. Hong Kong police are investigating and have not disclosed if mainland authorities have told them anything about the case.

Prompt Response

"The police have already sought assistance from relevant mainland authorities and will urge for their prompt response," the government said in a statement released after the rally Sunday.

Lee’s case has drawn particular interest because he was last seen in Hong Kong, where mainland police don’t have jurisdiction under the so-called One Country, Two Systems framework. Lee’s bookstore, Causeway Bay Books, was popular among tourists from China as a source of often salacious books about the country’s elite that are banned on the mainland. He was last seen leaving a warehouse on Hong Kong Island used by the company.

"Freedom of speech is no longer applied in Hong Kong," Fung Ming Yuen, 31, said during the rally. "The Chinese government is acting sneakily and that worries me."

In the 46-second video message to his wife on Saturday, Lee said he traveled to the mainland on voluntary, Sing Tao reported, citing an interview with the wife. While Lee’s associates in Hong Kong have received several communications from him or people purported to be him, his whereabouts remain unknown.

‘Such Propaganda’

Taiwan’s Central News Agency last Monday published a handwritten letter said to be faxed from Lee to a bookstore colleague. In it, he said he made his “own way” to China to assist in an investigation that might take some time. Lee’s wife approached local police on Monday and withdrew a request for help, but Hong Kong police have continued their investigation.

The assertion that Lee would travel to the mainland on his own conflicts with remarks to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post before his disappearance. In an interview about his missing colleagues, he said he wasn’t worried about his safety because he had avoided traveling to the mainland, the newspaper reported on Thursday.

Chan, who held the No. 2 post in Hong Kong government from 1993 to 2001, questioned the credibility of the video message saying that Lee left on his own. "Absolutely, they must take us as fools to think that we would believe such propaganda," Chan said.

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