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Missing Bookseller Raises Doubts About Free Speech In Hong Kong


Another surprising twist in the case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers. It started when five men involved in selling books critical of Chinese Communist Party leaders began disappearing last fall.


Last night, one of the missing men suddenly appeared in mainland China on government-run television, where he made a videotaped confession to an unrelated crime.

MONTAGNE: Which has only raised more doubts in the former British colony of Hong Kong about the future of free speech there. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Gui Minhai made his living selling politically-sensitive books in Hong Kong, detailing the corruption, power struggles and even the alleged affairs of Communist Party leaders. The court market was mainland tourists, and business was brisk. Then while visiting his apartment in a Thai beach resort last October, Gui simply vanished. Last night, on China Central television, he insisted his three-month disappearance was all his own doing.


GUI MINHAI: (Through interpreter) Turning myself in is a voluntary choice of my own and has nothing to do with anybody else.

LANGFITT: Gui said he decided to return to China to make amends after receiving a suspended sentence for killing a woman in a drunk driving accident back in 2003. The terms of the sentence required he not leave the country, according to Chinese state media. In what seemed an attempt to prevent this from becoming an even bigger international story, Gui said he would face the charges on his own.


MINHAI: (Through interpreter) I also don't want any individual or institutions, including the Swedish government, to intervene or interfere. Although I know hold Swedish citizenship, deep down I still think of myself as Chinese. I hope the Swedish authorities would respect my personal choices, my rights and my privacy.

LANGFITT: Gui was also returning to China after more than a decade so he could see his aging mother. The taped confession was tearful, but few people in Hong Kong are buying it.

CLAUDIA MO: The whole thing is so fake.

LANGFITT: Claudia Mo is an opposition, democratic lawmaker in the former British colony.

MO: We find it completely and that Beijing would want to think that Hong Kongers are just a pack of fools, that we're all gullible.

LANGFITT: Mo says people there think Gui was targeted for political reasons along with his fellow missing booksellers and that any past crimes he may have committed are incidental.

MO: If he had felt any remorse all these years, it would have been easier for him to just turn himself in to the mainland in Hong Kong through all kinds of official Chinese channels here. He was abducted.

LANGFITT: Unlike the authoritarian mainland, Hong Kong enjoys a free press and free speech. Many there think that the Chinese government is trying to strip away those rights and reduce the vibrant financial hub into just another mainland city. Maya Wang, who works for Human Rights Watch, says people wonder what the case of the disappearing booksellers means for their own freedoms.

MAYA WANG: What worries people in Hong Kong is not just that this is taking place in Hong Kong, but also that the Hong Kong government seems to be kind of so far rather weak in making a protest or taking actions to protect people in Hong Kong. So who can people in Hong Kong depend on for their personal safety?

LANGFITT: When China took back Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997, it promised the city it could continue its way of life for 50 years. But many there now are concerned their unique freedoms are eroding much faster. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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