Chinese-born book publisher Gui Minhai was seen leaving his apartment in Thailand for the last time on Oct. 17. Then, he disappeared mysteriously.
Within a week, three of his colleagues at the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current book distributor also disappeared while traveling in China.
Their whereabouts remain unknown. But their business partner Lee Bo believed he was safe living in Hong Kong. He continued to operate the Causeway Bay Bookstore owned by Mighty Current, which specializes in sensational books about the private lives of China's Communist Party leaders.
Then on Dec. 30, after a customer requested more than 10 books on Chinese politics – some dealing with President Xi Jinping's private life – Mr. Lee went to a warehouse to find the books. But he never returned.
The mysterious disappearance of the five men has shocked the Hong Kong public, raising concern that China's government is reaching beyond its border to detain and repatriate people it sees as “trouble-makers.”
Asked about Lee's disappearance during a press conference with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond last week, Chinese foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted that Lee, despite being a British passport holder, was “first and foremost a Chinese citizens” and urged others not to make “groundless accusations” on the case.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 under a separate legal system in a “one country- two systems” formula. That formula allows the former colony to govern itself for 50 years in areas including free expression and civil and criminal law. And Chinese law enforcement agencies are not supposed to carry out operations here without official agreement.
The case of Lee Bo suggests that these civil freedoms are evaporating as Chinese authorities are starting to arbitrarily disregard the territory's legal autonomy.
In the past, Hong Kong residents have reportedly been the subject of attempted arrest by Chinese police, mostly over business disputes. But none have attracted the attention of the disappearance of the five booksellers.
Lured from abroad
Cases of Chinese authorities abducting and repatriating Chinese citizens from abroad – particularly government critics – are documented. But China watchers say the volume has increased in recent years.
• Peng Ming, a dissident granted refugee status in the US, was lured in 2004 from Thailand into Myanmar by Chinese security agents and sent back to China. He was sentenced to life in prison.
• Wang Bingzhang, a pro-democracy activist, was abducted by Chinese secret agents in Vietnam in 2002 and given a life sentence on charges of espionage and terrorism the following year.
• Last July, the Thai government returned 109 Uighur refugees to China, despite concerns from rights groups that they may face persecution by the Chinese government.
• Last October, 16-year-old Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of a detained human rights lawyer, was repatriated to China from Myanmar, along with two activists who had helped the boy to leave the country.
• In November, Thai authorities repatriated Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping, two Chinese dissidents that had been granted UN refugee status.
In the case of the five missing booksellers, friends worry that they have suffered a similar fate. Sources in the industry say Mr. Gui, a Swedish national, was preparing to publish a book on Xi's former lovers before he disappeared.
His friend, exiled writer Bei Ling, could not confirm the book topic. But he told the Monitor that the printing company never received the text that Gui promised to send.
Mr. Bei visited Thailand to investigate Gui's disappearance. He said that security-camera footage from Gui's apartment building in Pattaya, a popular beach resort, showed Gui leaving the building for the last time and getting into a car with an unidentified man. In footage recorded more than two weeks later, four men were seen entering his apartment where they tried to take a desktop computer away. One of them signed a Chinese name at the management office.
Bei said Gui had long expressed awareness of the risks involved in publishing books on elite Chinese politics.
Don't 'make a fuss'
Similarly in the case of Lee, the most recent partner of Mighty Currents to disappear, circumstances have led his wife and others to believe he was abducted.
After Lee failed to go home, his wife received a call from mainland China saying he was “assisting with an investigation.” Lee spoke to her in Mandarin, rather than his native Cantonese – suggesting that his abductors wanted to hear what he said. He asked his wife to stay low profile and not to “make a fuss.”
China's state-run Global Times newspaper last week acknowledged in a report that Lee is now in China. It argued that authorities had the right to investigate the bookshop for publishing and selling political books that have “created a disturbance.”
Rights groups and analysts say China has been showing a new assertiveness in extending its crackdown on dissent beyond its borders. “I think Beijing is increasingly confident that it can do what it wants beyond its borders and not pay a price for it,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
She noted that a new counterterrorism law passed last month stated China's intentions to carry out missions abroad. She also cited China's intimidation of activists at international forums such as the UN's Human Rights Council.
Turning a blind eye?
Chinese legal scholar and rights lawyer Teng Biao, who now lives in the US, said China's economic might means Western nations are increasingly turning a blind eye to such abuses.
“This phenomenon illustrates that China's dictatorial rule is expanding. With its economic prowess, it can increasingly ignore the international community and international law,” says Teng, who had been held in extralegal detention several times in China. “This kind of thing will just happen more and more."
Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the book that Gui planned to publish could have damaged Xi's reputation and added that the Chinese government has also started intimidating other publishers in Hong Kong.
Page One, a Singapore-owned bookstore chain, has now stopped selling politically sensitive books in its Hong Kong stores.
“Their purpose is to close down all these publishers,” says Mr. Lam. “The Communist Party might appear to be a muscle-flexing giant; but at the same time it feels very insecure because its economic growth, its one key pillar of legitimacy, is under threat."