Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has said that missing publisher Lee Bo is unlikely to face legal trouble for leaving Hong Kong without travel documents because “illegal exit is not a crime.”

“How he left [Hong Kong] would not be a problem… there is no ‘permanent resident unauthorised exit and entry ordinance’, there is none,” Ip said on Commercial Radio on Tuesday morning.

regina ip
Regina Ip.

Lee disappeared from a warehouse in Chai Wan on December 30. He later wrote letters home to explain he had “returned to the mainland by his own means” to “assist in an investigation.” The Hong Kong Immigration service has no record of him crossing the border. Four of the 65-year-old bookseller’s colleagues at the Mighty Current publishing house and Causeway Bay Bookstore disappeared in the weeks before he himself also vanished.

Ip said Lee’s undocumented exit does not constitute an offence. Director of Immigration Chan Kwok-ki has also said that Hong Kong permanent residents are unlikely to be charged for crossing the border without proper papers, but they may be breaking other laws.

Ip’s comments are an interesting diversion from most of the discussion regarding Lee’s disappearance, which has focused on how mainland authorities may have violated “One Country Two Systems” enshrined in the Basic Law, by operating in Hong Kong.

The Causeway Bay Bookstore
The Causeway Bay Bookstore remains close. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

The New People’s Party chairwoman and other pro-Beijing figures have made some eyebrow-raising comments during the missing publishers saga. After Lee made a phone call home using a Shenzhen number, sparking speculations that he was abducted and sent to Shenzhen, Ip said “calling from a mainland phone number does not mean the person is physically in the mainland.”

Lawmaker Ng Leung-sing, a former researcher for state news agency Xinhua’s Hong Kong bureau, alleged in a Legislative Council meeting that the five booksellers, who went missing from at least three different places and on different dates, were arrested after they were “caught in the mainland hiring prostitutes.” Ng said he “heard this from a friend.”

The Guangdong police have confirmed to Hong Kong police that Lee Bo is in mainland China. But they have not disclosed his exact whereabouts or agreed to let Hong Kong authorities meet with him.

See also: Seven books published in Hong Kong and banned in mainland China

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.