Twists in the Hong Kong booksellers' tale

Over the past three months, Hong Kongers have been the captive audience of a performance worthy of a TVB best drama series.

The Tale Of The Hong Kong Booksellers began last October when four of them disappeared - one in Phuket and three in mainland China. The mystery deepened on Dec 30 when a fifth, Mr Lee Bo, vanished from Hong Kong. Many believed Chinese security agents had spirited him away.

Then came letters, televised interviews and his climactic return to Hong Kong last week. Mr Lee declared that he had "voluntarily" slipped into the mainland to help in an investigation of his colleagues.

Praising the Chinese system, he said the police had acted "according to regulations and laws", and assured reporters that "all the rights I should have were protected".

And, rather conveniently, he added that he was leaving the book trade. No longer would he continue in the business in which he and his colleagues had published political gossip about Chinese leaders, including a book about President Xi Jinping's personal life which purportedly landed them in trouble.

Then Mr Lee quietly crossed back into the mainland. The other four men are also there.

Many Hong Kongers believe that Mr Lee's star turn was done under duress.

The question then is, why are the Chinese authorities foisting what many clearly see as a farce on Hong Kong and the rest of the world?

There are various schools of thought. One is that low-level officials messed up the initial abductions. Now, they are just mopping up as best as they can.

A more likely one is that this is a proxy show for the ongoing power play in Zhongnanhai. The booksellers, some believe, had received information from Mr Xi's rivals, which prompted the President to act, as a warning to those out to undermine him.

Meanwhile, Hong Kongers continue to follow the twists and turns of the Lee Bo drama.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2016, with the headline 'Twists in the booksellers' tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe