Hong Kong’s returned bookseller answers only to a higher authority – the Chinese government

Yonden Lhatoo says it’s sadly clear that after returning home, Lee Po is dealing directly with the mainland because he has no confidence in his own government

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 6:20pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 10:50pm

Have you ever had a small piece of food stuck in your teeth, wedged somewhere in the back, that you just can’t get out? It doesn’t constitute a medical emergency, and you can mostly tolerate it as you go about your business, though it’s a constant bother.

That’s how I feel about the far-from-solved mystery of Hong Kong’s no-longer-missing booksellers, even though the storm is fizzling out and the man at the centre of it, Lee Po, is back home, safe and sound, claiming nothing happened to him.

Look at the facts so far. Five men in Hong Kong in the business of selling cheap, gossipy books about China’s leaders that are banned on the mainland disappeared last year. One of them vanished while in Pattaya, Thailand; three on the mainland; and the fifth – Lee – in Hong Kong, where he ran a bookstore.

While many suspected they were kidnapped by mainland agents operating beyond their jurisdiction, the booksellers eventually turned up one after another across the border, all of them claiming they had gone there voluntarily and denying any abduction or coercion. The official story from Chinese authorities is that one of them, Gui Minhai (桂民海), is being investigated for smuggling banned books into the mainland while the others are “assisting” with the case.

Now Lee is back home with a big smile, begging everyone to leave him alone, and sticking to the story that he voluntarily sneaked out of Hong Kong, without using his travel documents or telling anyone.

He was not kidnapped, detained, mistreated, or forced to do anything, he told Hong Kong police, and could they please cancel his missing-person case because he didn’t need their or the local government’s help.

While he still refuses to tell his full story – or the truth – to police, he’s been back to Hong Kong twice from the mainland since his initial disappearance.

Lee’s curious metamorphosis from a man who once shunned the mainland for fear of landing in trouble over his book business into a regular cross-border traveller is actually a stunning indictment of the system – he answers to a higher authority than the Hong Kong government.

He has obviously decided that he’s better off bypassing his own government and dealing directly with the powers that be on the mainland, the logical corollary being that he knows who is really calling the shots.

For all the talk about Hong Kong’s rule of law, judicial independence, autonomy under the “one country, two systems” policy, fearless media, and effective police force, here is a man who no longer has confidence in any of it. Whatever may have happened to him across the border, it has manifested into a total lack of trust in our government to protect him.

“So happy!” Lee wrote in a Facebook post this week, now that he’s “free” and “not being disturbed by anyone”.

It’s sad, actually. Who knows what was done or said to him that he would insult our intelligence with such an obviously incomplete and dubious account.

What bothers me is this government’s inability to get a straight answer from mainland authorities and how it’s using Lee’s reticence as an excuse to essentially give up.

This town has a historically short attention span when it comes to seeking evasive answers. I can see the collective amnesia and apathy kicking in already, starting with how Lee’s story is no longer big news and it will soon be like nothing ever happened.

Anybody got a toothpick?

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post