The UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said he believes Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo was taken to the mainland under duress when he disappeared last year.

“It remains our view on the basis of all the evidence available to us, our clear view, that he was taken to the mainland, under duress originally,” Hammond said.

Speaking to journalists at the British consulate on Friday, he said that the incident undermined the rule of law.

Philip Hammond
Philip Hammond. Photo: HKFP.

Lee has maintained that he voluntarily went to China to assist in an investigation. He returned to Hong Kong last month.

“We are obviously pleased that he has returned to Hong Kong, we are not convinced that he is free of any duress or constraints in his behaviour and his words,” Hammond told reporters.

lee bo
Lee Bo. Photo: Stand News remix.

Lee still a UK citizen

Hammond said the British government had “an obligation to secure his freedom from any duress and his permanent return to Hong Kong” as a consular objective. “But we also have a political objective, to ensure this incident does not undermine Hong Kong’s success,” he added.

“[W]e need our partners in Beijing to be very clear – whatever happened in this case – [that] this is an isolated case, that there will not be further incidents of this nature, that the business community can be confident about the arrangements for Hong Kong’s judicial and legal autonomy.”

Lee had said he would renounce his British citizenship. But Hammond said that he is still a UK citizen and “no action has been taken to terminate or change his status.”

Philip Hammond
Photo: HKFP.

Rule of law undermined

When asked if Lee’s incident would undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong, he said: “Yes, yes it does.”

“The removal of anybody from a territory by extrajudicial means undermines the rule of law, and the rule of law is central to Hong Kong’s success. Hong Kong’s economic success is central to Hong Kong’s value to China, as part of China’s economic development plan.”

“So long as we can come to understand that this is an isolated incident that has been satisfactorily resolved – that hasn’t happened yet – and we can be confident that it won’t happen again, that this is not a systemic issue, it’s an one-off issue, then I think people will be keen to get back to focusing on the benefits of One Country, Two Systems and ensuring that the special arrangements in Hong Kong can continue in a robust way.”

Hammond is on a tour in East Asia, including the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Japan this weekend. He is the first British foreign secretary to visit Hong Kong in five years.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.