The curious case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers has really heated up in the last few days with yet more televised confessions and with the main character once again surprising audiences by renouncing his British passport and declaring that he had entered the mainland voluntarily and illegally in order to help sort out an investigation.
Lee Bo is one of the five owners and staff of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books, known for publishing material and gossip critical of the central government in Beijing, to have gone missing in the last couple of months, only to pop back up in Chinese custody. On Sunday, four out of the five missing booksellers were shown on state media confessing to the crime of running an “illegal book trading” business on the mainland.
However, Lee, who disappeared back in late December, was notably absent from the TV report, leading to rampant speculation. But, it seems to have all been in the interest of suspense, because on Monday night China’s Phoenix TV held an “exclusive interview” with Lee.
In the 20-minute-long interview, Lee explained the circumstances around his abrupt and mysterious disappearance, via SCMP: “I sneaked into the mainland with the help of a friend so I didn’t use my home return permit.” However, he declined to reveal any details about how exactly that covert operation went down.
Speaking in Cantonese, Lee explained that he did so in order to protect himself and his family from harm as he aided in the investigation of fellow bookstore owner Gui Minhai. “I wanted to secretly visit the mainland and solve my own matters as soon as possible, and then return home secretly,” he said.
He admitted that all of the books that Gui had published about the mainland had been compiled carelessly and some even included material that was totally fabricated. However, Lee didn’t put all the blame on Gui. “I was to blame too. And I took this opportunity to confess my wrongdoing,” he said.
Wearing a near-constant smile, Lee also took the time to dismiss some of the more lurid speculation about his disappearance, stamping out rumors that he was in trouble for blackmailing important public figures or for patronizing prostitutes.
Finally, Lee reiterated his stance that he needs no help from either Hong Kong or the UK in this matter.
A British citizen, Lee even went so far as to renounce his right to reside in the UK. “Neither myself nor my wife want to become a political tool. I hope those people will stop making a big deal out of this,” he said.
The British Embassy has yet to respond to Lee’s request. However, advocates have argued that when considering a person’s application to renounce their citizenship, officials will look at whether the request was made under distress. Earlier this month, the UK announced that it believed Lee had been “involuntarily removed” to the mainland.
For his part, Lee says he will be able to return to Hong Kong just as soon as his help is no longer needed with the investigation, it’s currently unclear when that will be.
Earlier in the day, Hong Kong police finally were allowed to meet with Lee, six weeks after first requesting to do, at an undisclosed guesthouse in the mainland. He repeated his stance to them that he had arrived voluntarily and needed no help.
This latest surprising turn of events continues to make the situation not look great for Gui Minhai, who made a tearful televised confession in January to killing a student while drunk driving on the mainland more than a decade ago. This was his first public appearance since disappearing from his apartment in Bangkok in October.
Gui was back on television once again on Sunday, along with three of his colleagues — Lui Por, Lam Wing-kee and Cheung Chi-ping — who all admitted to their involvement in an “illegal book trading” operation in the mainland, involving 4,000 books and 380 customers, and fingered Gui as the mastermind behind the whole thing.
“I have deeply reflected on what I have done and very much regret the illegal book trading I have carried out with Gui Minhai,” said Lui Por.
“I know that Gui Minhai’s books are fabricated. They were downloaded from the Internet and were pieced together from magazines,” said Lam. “They have generated lots of rumors in society and brought a bad influence … I deeply acknowledge my mistakes and am willing to be penalized.”
While Lui, Lam and Cheung may be allowed to return to Hong Kong “soon” after showing a “good attitude” in the investigation, the fate of Gui and Lee remains unclear.
You can watch the state media interview with Lee here (in Cantonese):