A Hong Kong bookseller missing for two months has reappeared in an interview with Chinese media, insisting he wasn't abducted and instead crossed illegally into mainland China to help authorities with an investigation.
The interview with Lee Bo, broadcast late Monday, came a day after another man that he worked with, Gui Minhai, purportedly confessed to illegally selling thousands of books by mail to mainland Chinese buyers.
The 16-minute interview shown on Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing Phoenix TV appears to be an attempt to quell growing concern over the fates of Lee, Gui and three other missing men linked to a publishing company that specialized in books on sensitive political topics banned in mainland China.
Lee went missing Dec. 30 and the four others disappeared in October. The five worked for Mighty Current Media or its Causeway Bay Bookstore, whose books were popular with mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong.
The case drew international concern over fears Beijing was eroding the "one country, two systems" principle that allows Hong Kong to maintain civil liberties such as freedom of the press and a high degree of control over its own affairs.
Lee's case in particular rang alarm bells because of suspicions he was snatched by mainland Chinese security agents who crossed into Hong Kong. Britain's Foreign Office said in a report in February that Lee, a British citizen, was "involuntarily removed" to the mainland. However, Lee said the claims were false and were being used by unnamed groups to hype up his case.
"After the Mighty Current affair emerged, I wanted to secretly go back to the mainland as soon as possible to resolve the company's affairs, then secretly return to Hong Kong," Lee said. He added that because he was going to "give evidence" against some people whom he didn't name, he didn't want anyone to know and didn't want to leave any record of his journey at immigration checkpoints so he chose to use "illegal immigration," but did not give further details.
Lee also said he planned to renounce his British right of abode, or residency rights, though it's not clear why he used that term rather than citizenship.
Lee made similar comments to Hong Kong police and immigration officials, the government said Monday, suggesting he is sticking closely to a script aimed at deflecting scrutiny of the case.
"It looks like he's just reading rehearsed paragraphs, that he's almost been given a command to act very positive," said William Nee, China researcher at the human rights group Amnesty International. He added that the reporter's questions and Lee's formulated answers resembled the talking points in state media coverage of the case, which gives the impression Lee is "not actually free and that in fact he's been coerced into making this kind of interview."