And then there were none—missing Hong Kong booksellers, that is.

The re-emergence of five men associated with Causeway Bay Books, the now-shuttered store from which they sold racy titles about the private lives of Chinese leaders such a President Xi Jinping, has proved just as disturbing as their disappearance, however.

Moreover, each day that passes without a full and honest inquiry into their case makes a further farce of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and the “one country, two systems” principle that has dictated the special administrative region’s relationship with China since the handover from British rule in 1997.

missing booksellers
Photo: William Outcast Chan, via Facebook.

The Hong Kong government and police say their hands are tied because the booksellers have not requested any assistance; indeed, they have rather pointedly asked to be left alone.

But no one is buying their televised confessions and requests for unimpeded privacy. That’s why their plight—and China’s bleak human rights record in general—was brought to the attention of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in Geneva last week in a strongly worded joint statement issued by 12 nations.

un lee bo
Photo: HKFP remix.

Presenting that statement, United States Ambassador Keith Harper referred to “recent reports of abductions” in China that included lawyers and human rights activists as well as the booksellers, saying:

“These extraterritorial actions are unacceptable, out of step with the expectations of the international community, and a challenge to the rules-based international order. The actions involving individuals in Hong Kong represent a violation of the high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong under its Basic Law.”

Besides the US, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom also signed on to the statement—which, predictably, drew an angry denunciation from China’s representative to the UN Office in Geneva, Fu Cong.

Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, through their silence and clumsy avoidance of the obvious, officials are aiding and abetting Beijing’s deception and creating a dangerous “new normal” in Hong Kong-mainland relations.

banned books
Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

All five men who mysteriously vanished at different times over the past five months have now assured us they are happily residing on the mainland while willingly assisting Chinese investigators.

Twelve countries may be lodging a protest against their treatment in Geneva, but the Leung Chun-ying administration is taking the booksellers at their word.

Two of them—Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping–even returned to Hong Kong earlier this month, but only long enough to tell police to quash their missing person files before they once again slipped across the border into investigative obscurity.

Technically, Lee Po, the only one of the five who was physically in Hong Kong at the time of his disappearance, remains a missing person as, unlike his two colleagues, he has not yet returned to the city.

See also: Ministry of Truth: A brief history of televised ‘confessions’ in China.

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Nevertheless, through a meeting with a Hong Kong police officer and immigration official at an undisclosed location on the mainland—as well through video and other messages, not to mention a 20-minute interview with Phoenix TV—Lee has also made it abundantly clear that he, too, is “voluntarily” assisting in an investigation of another colleague, Gui Minhai, and does not welcome questions or concern about his well-being.

Gui—a mainland-born, naturalised Swedish citizen—disappeared last October from his apartment in Pattaya, Thailand, and has since made a tearful televised confession to a 2003 drink-driving incident in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo in which a woman was killed. He now stands accused of selling some 4,000 illegal books on the mainland since October of 2014.

Lee so far has not been charged in relation to Gui’s case; Lui, Cheung and another associate, Lam Wing-kee, have admitted their complicity with Gui.

bookseller disappearance protest lee bo
Photo: HKFP.

Publicly, all four of Gui’s associates have thrown him under the bus, with Lee reportedly calling him “a morally unacceptable person” and the other booksellers apparently purchasing their freedom through testimony against him.

In the end, expect Gui to be jailed for up to five years while the four others at some point slink back to Hong Kong, hiding their shame and keeping their mouths shut.

They have been caught in a trap that sets a frightening precedent for this city, which prides itself on the rule of law and freedom of expression.

The cases of Gui (who disappeared from Thailand) and Lui, Cheung and Lam (who appear to have been snatched up on the mainland) are unsettling enough. But Lee’s predicament is especially alarming as he was last seen 10 weeks ago in his bookstore’s warehouse in Chai Wan, and there is no record of him passing through immigration to the mainland.

Although Lee maintains that he was not abducted and found his way across the border by his own means, there is much evidence suggesting otherwise, including an e-mail that surfaced recently written by him last November to Gui’s daughter in England. In it, Lee expresses his fear that Gui—his business partner in the Mighty Current publishing house, then owner of Causeway Bay Books—had been “taken by special agents from China for political reasons” and offers to help in any way he can.

Lee has since renounced his British citizenship and completely changed his tune.

Hong Kong bookstore.
A Hong Kong bookstore. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

At this sorry point, much to Hong Kong’s loss, mainland authorities seem to have achieved all their cloak-and-dagger aims.

Not only is Causeway Bay Books no more, while five purveyors of banned materials have somehow landed in custody on the mainland, but Chinese security forces also appear to have gotten off scot-free with an extra-judicial abduction from Hong Kong that should serve sufficient warning to anyone else in the city who might consider joining what was once a lucrative trade in illegal books in China.

Sure, Beijing received a dressing down in far-off Geneva, but that is a small price to pay for bringing truculent Hong Kong to heel.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.