HONG KONG • Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo, who went missing three months ago and surfaced in China, is already back across the border after a brief return home, local media reported.
The 65-year-old British citizen returned to Hong Kong on Thursday after disappearing late last December, in a case that has raised alarm over Beijing's tightening grip. But he crossed back into the mainland yesterday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his arrival home.
"It is a release with Chinese characteristics," said China expert Willy Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "The fact of the matter is that he has not really been fully released... he needs to report back to China."
Mr Lee is one of five Hong Kong booksellers who went "missing" in recent months - the other four are now under criminal investigation in the mainland, linked to the trading of illegal books in China.
The men all worked for publishing house Mighty Current, which produced salacious titles about political intrigue and love affairs at the highest levels of Chinese politics.
Mr Lee's case caused the greatest outcry because he was the only bookseller to disappear from Hong Kong, prompting accusations that Chinese law enforcement agents were operating in the semi-autonomous city, illegal under its Constitution.
Three of the other booksellers went missing from southern China and one disappeared from Thailand last October.
Mr Lee had returned to Hong Kong on Thursday, where he insisted that a missing person case on him should be dropped and that he was a free man. He told Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Phoenix TV on Thursday that he "may need to return to the mainland multiple times to assist in the investigation".
Yesterday morning, he told reporters that he would go back to China with his wife to pay respects to his ancestors. He also said he may seek medical care for his autistic son in the mainland. "Before, there was a time I was afraid to go back to the mainland because I heard some people had got into trouble because of these books," he said outside his Hong Kong apartment block. "The problems have been solved."
When asked whether he had been taken to China by security agents, he answered: "It is not convenient for me to say."
After he left his apartment yesterday, smiling and laughing nervously, he was escorted into the back of a black vehicle. Soon after, he was spotted at the border.
"It is now becoming a pattern. It really just makes it even harder to believe that the so-called released booksellers actually have freedom," said Amnesty International's China researcher William Nee.
Mainland-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, one of the booksellers, confessed to trying to smuggle illegal books into China in a television interview last month.
The remaining booksellers, Mr Cheung Chi Ping, Mr Lui Por and Mr Lam Wing Kee, blamed the firm's illegal book trade on Mr Gui.
Mr Cheung and Mr Lui returned to Hong Kong earlier this month on bail, but are reported to have quickly gone back to the mainland.
The case has drawn international criticism, with Britain saying it believed Mr Lee had been "involuntarily removed" to the mainland, in a "serious breach" of an agreement signed before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 that protects the city's freedoms for 50 years.