China actions in Hong Kong cause concern: The China Post columnist

China has released a couple of the other booksellers, who were apparently detained after entering the mainland voluntarily. But both men have told the Hong Kong police that they don't want help and asked for the missing persons files to be closed.

By Frank Ching

The China Post/ Asia News Netwrok

The case of the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, who all turned up in China, has rocked Hong Kong society to its core, shaking confidence in the mainland's promises of "one country, two systems."

At the same time, it has placed China under a microscope with governments around the world accusing Beijing of rampant violation of human rights and international norms by abducting individuals and taking them to the mainland.

Britain, in an unprecedented move, has charged China with "a serious breach" of the Sino-British agreement that led to the handover of the British colony to China in 1997.

Other countries, including the US, the European Union and Japan, have condemned the abductions.

China, of course, has denied any wrongdoing, arranging for people it is believed to have abducted to appear on television to assert that they had gone to the mainland of their own free will.

Both Mr Lee Bo, a British national, and Mr Gui Minhai, a Swedish national, have publicly asked their governments not to intervene.

This flies in the face of all reason.

Why would anyone in the clutches of Chinese security officials say they don't want help from their embassies?

Such assertions only serve to affirm what were otherwise mere suspicions in the minds of people that Chinese authorities did, indeed, snatch them and spirit them into the mainland.

China's ability to pressure detainees into making televised confessions has been demonstrated to the world multiple times over the past year.

It is not surprising that Mr Gui - who disappeared last October from his home in Pattaya, Thailand and reappeared on Chinese television in January, without apparently having gone through Thai immigration procedures - "confessed" to having voluntarily returned to China because of a guilty conscience.

But Chinese officials outdid themselves in the way they handled Mr Lee Bo who, according to British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, most likely "was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong law."

Mr Lee Bo has met with the Hong Kong police and told them he doesn't want their help.

As long as he remains in mainland China, he is not a free agent, and the police have properly said they want to talk to him again after he returns to Hong Kong.

Mr Lee also met with the Hong Kong press and insisted that he had left Hong Kong of his own volition, although he did not describe how he was able to evade immigration control.

China has already released a couple of the other booksellers, who were apparently detained after entering the mainland voluntarily.

Both men have told the Hong Kong police that they don't want help and asked for the missing-persons files to be closed.

This demonstrates the power that the Chinese authorities wield, even with individuals no longer under custody, presumably through intimidation and threats against relatives in the mainland.

Mr Lee has told the media he will give up his British nationality.

To millions of people in Hong Kong, this is really scary since they had demanded British passports as an insurance policy for themselves for life in Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty.

Now, it appears, a foreign passport offers no protection.

The atmosphere in Hong Kong today is strikingly similar to that in the 1980s and 1990s, when 10 percent of the population fled abroad to avoid life under Communist rule.

Now, those who stayed as well as those who returned with foreign passports are again faced with a crucial decision: whether they should seek a safe haven overseas, since very few now believe in China's promises, even though China continues to make them.

China is in the midst of a vast effort to seek the return of fugitives who fled with ill-gotten gains, mostly to the US, Canada, Europe and Australia.

Some months ago, the US detected Chinese agents who had entered the country on tourist or business visas illicitly trying to strong-arm suspects to return to China and demanded that such activities stop.

If countries suspect that Chinese agents are violating their sovereignty through such action, these countries are likely to have second thoughts about signing extradition agreements.

China's actions will also undermine Hong Kong's efforts to sign extradition agreements with other jurisdictions.

If the perception grows that Chinese agents can spirit people from Hong Kong into the mainland, the region will no longer be considered an appropriate partner in such legal arrangements.

Despite Beijing's protests that it is doing everything it can to help Hong Kong, it will actually be dragging the territory down into the mud with it.