Hong Kong functions as a semi-autonomous city-state, a condition imposed when the United Kingdom ceded control to Beijing. Hong Kong’s special status has allowed its independent bookstores to sell two kinds of books banned in mainland China: political books and smut.
But late last year, four associates of Causeway Bay Books, an independent bookseller specializing in controversial books, disappeared. Gui Minhai, a Swedish national, has not been heard from since October 22, 2015, while three other associates disappeared on October 26.
Other booksellers became convinced their peers were facing punitive actions.
Booksellers are not the only business people who disappear from Hong Kong. A number of high profile executives have gone missing, or in some cases, have committed suicide.
A fifth bookstore associate, Lee Bo, disappeared on December 30, 2015. His wife initially filed a police complaint, but withdrew it five days later after claiming she received a letter from her husband who assured her he was safe on the mainland assisting the investigation into his missing colleagues.
Mainland police must, within fourteen days, inform Hong Kong police if they are holding the city’s citizens. That deadline was Tuesday.
The abductions have lead to protests in the streets of Hong Kong, with thousands marching over the weekend. The disappearances have also hinted at the stronger influence of Beijing in the independent governing of Hong Kong.
One student activist has spoken out, claiming that Hong Kong is no longer a place for citizens to enjoy personal safety or human rights protections theoretically guaranteed by the British agreement to withdraw from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong officials have denied Beijing is actively involved in the case. On the other hand, Leung Chun-ying, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, has expressed concern over the disappeared booksellers.
A source is now saying the abductions are the result of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attempts to quash dissent. The source described that dissent as a ‘smear campaign.’
Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has suggested a link between the disappearances and a new train station. A new high-speed rail station within Hong Kong will include checkpoints from both Hong Kong police and Beijing officials, essentially allowing the mainland a foothold into policing Hong Kong. The agreement bypasses the Basic Law, the document allowing Hong Kong autonomy from Beijing.
Bo is a British Passport holder and Minhai is Swedish, complicating matters for China. While foreign nationals are subject to laws of the jurisdiction they are in, Britain and Sweden will likely at least hold China to follow the law, which includes a trial in Hong Kong should charges be brought against the men.
A Hong Kong publishing house has suspended plans to publish a book, written by an American author, critical of Chinese president Xi Jinping, citing changing circumstances that many interpret to mean the disappearance of the five booksellers.
For now, it appears Hong Kong officials are simply waiting for Beijing to respond, although officials have set up a hotline for tips on the missing men.