The case of five missing Hong Kong residents connected to a Hong Kong publisher and bookshop took a strange turn Monday when the wife of one of the missing individuals withdrew her request for police assistance. Choi Ka Ping said she had heard from her husband that day and no longer needed help.
The police, however, said they would continue the investigation into the disappearance of the husband, Lee Bo.
The first to disappear was Gui Minhai, owner of Mighty Current, a publishing house that since 2012 has released about 80 books highly critical of China’s Communist Party. The last known contact from him was an e-mail message sent on October 15 to a printer from the Thai resort of Pattaya.
A few weeks later, on November 5, three of Gui’s colleagues were reported to have vanished while in Shenzhen, across the border in what people in Hong Kong call “the mainland.” The missing are: Lui Bo, the general manager of Mighty Current; Cheung Jiping, Mighty Current’s business manager; and Lam Wing-kei, the manager of Causeway Bay Books, a shop partially owned by Mighty Current. The store, opened in 1994, has been popular with Chinese tourists looking for political books unavailable in China.
And most recently, on December 30, Lee Bo, a shareholder in Causeway Bay Books, also disappeared. He was last seen near Mighty Current’s warehouse in an outlying district of Hong Kong. Ms. Choi reported him missing January 1.
Ms. Choi said her husband had called her the night he went missing. “He said he will not be coming back anytime soon,” Choi told a cable station. “He said he was assisting an investigation. I asked him if it was about the previous cases, he said yes.”
Lee phoned Choi again, on Saturday, January 2. During that conversation she heard a voice in the background say “there would be no problem if you cooperate.” Lee spoke to her in Putonghua, the national language of China, not Cantonese, the dialect of Hong Kong. Ms. Choi said his choice of language was unusual.
Tellingly, the caller ID of the phone Lee used showed the call was made from Shenzhen. If Lee in fact called from China, there is good reason to believe he was abducted. Hong Kong authorities report that there is no immigration record of Lee leaving Hong Kong. Lee did not take his home-return permit, which he would have needed to enter the mainland.
Indeed, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday that Lee’s wife thought Chinese agents had abducted him.
On the same day Lee faxed a handwritten letter to his bookstore. “I had to handle the issue concerned urgently and cannot let outsiders know it,” he wrote. He also said he “returned to mainland my own way and am working with the concerned parties in an investigation which may take a while.” Lee also noted: “I am now very good and everything is normal.”
Nothing about this case is “normal.” On Monday, in this whirlwind of activity, Ms. Choi said she no longer required police assistance to resolve the sudden and mysterious disappearance of her husband. What happened? Her husband’s fax seems highly likely to have been sent under duress. In all probability, the Chinese convinced Ms. Choi that she would see her husband sooner if she cooperated.
Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China, but mainland law enforcement personnel have no jurisdiction in that city. That hasn’t stopped Chinese agents from engaging in covert activity in Hong Kong, which began when the British Union Jack was lowered over Hong Kong and China’s five-star flag replaced it in 1997. For years Hong Kong people remained silent about these violations of their autonomy. As Chinese espionage has become bolder and more visible, however, residents began talking. Kidnapping two people connected to a high-profile business, after all, marks a new arrogance and an increased threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Beijing’s ongoing efforts to smother Hong Kong’s haven status have prompted a response. In the Mighty Current matter, there have been, for instance, demonstrations outside Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong over the missing residents on Sunday and Monday. The matter has consumed Hong Kong’s media in the past week.
In the end, Beijing has the power to do whatever it wants—the city’s political establishment represents China and not the people of Hong Kong and the People’s Liberation Army has a large garrison there—but Chinese officials are having an increasingly difficult time controlling popular backlash.
Xi Jinping, who has handled the Hong Kong portfolio for the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee in recent years, has apparently chosen to confront rather than charm the city’s population. There is, for Beijing, likely to be a price.