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Missing Hong Kong bookseller mysteriously resurfaces – briefly

His disappearance, along with others linked to books that Chinese officials disliked, has raised serious concerns about the strength of freedom of speech and the press in Hong Kong.

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Bookseller Lee Bo speaks to media near his home in Hong Kong on Friday, March 25, 2016. The book editor whose disappearance nearly three months ago rattled civil liberties advocates in Hong Kong and sparked international concern returned home from the Chinese mainland Thursday, police said. Lee Bo met with Hong Kong immigration and police officers as part of an investigation upon his return but "did not provide thorough information" about his undocumented departure from Hong Kong, a police statement said.

Chun Ping On/AP

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Police in Hong Kong have confirmed that bookseller Lee Bo, missing since last December and widely thought to have been taken from the territory by mainland Chinese operatives, has suddenly resurfaced, asking authorities to drop the missing person's report filed by his wife.

Mr. Lee, whose firm published titles that skewered China’s ruling elite and their lifestyles, stayed in Hong Kong for about a day, made a set of pro-China comments to local media, and was then driven back across the border to mainland China. 

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The strange circumstances surrounding Mr. Lee's disappearance late last year became an international story and triggered widespread concern here about China’s increasing reach into the politics and freedoms of the city of 7 million. Many in Hong Kong come from families that fled mainland China for the safety and liberties of the former British colony. 

Journalists’ groups here say the circumstance of the booksellers' disappearances raise ever-greater concerns about freedom of the press and free speech, rights that are guaranteed under Hong Kong law.

When Lee disappeared he left behind his British passport and what is known as a "home-return" permit, a China-issued document allowing the holder to enter the mainland freely. He did not inform his wife that he was leaving. Hong Kong border officials, for their part, have no record of Lee’s having left the city.

But on his return yesterday, Lee told police and immigration agents that he crossed the Hong Kong border of his own volition, aided by an unnamed “friend.” He gave no details, saying only that he has been assisting mainland police with an investigation. Police said he used his Hong Kong identity card to re-enter the territory.

Lee was among five men who are part of the Hong Kong publishing firm of sensationalist books that attracted senior mainland officials' ire. All five disappeared last last year. Four of them, including Lee, have reappeared here in recent weeks. Each has gone directly to police asking that their missing person’s case be closed, and each immediately returned back across the border.

It has been widely assumed that Lee was forcibly taken from Hong Kong since he left behind his travel documents. He subsequently appeared on mainland China television in what appeared to be scripted broadcasts, saying that he was assisting police with an investigation but providing no details.

Still missing among the booksellers is Gui Minhua, a Swedish citizen, last seen at his resort home in Pattaya, Thailand. He is thought to have also been spirited out of that country by Chinese agents. Like his colleague, Mr. Gui subsequently appeared on Chinese TV in a confessional mode, saying he returned to China on his own after experiencing remorse over his role in a fatal traffic accident in China more than a decade earlier.

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Thai immigration officials say there is no record of his departure. Gui's daughter, who lives in Britain, says her father never mentioned the accident he confessed to. 

For his part, Lee unexpectedly reappeared at the Lok Ma Chau border point between the mainland and Hong Kong. A day later, Lee found himself in front of a gaggle of waiting reporters. He told them that mainland officials, “did things according to regulations and laws, [and] all the rights that I should have were protected.”

For three months, he then said, “My wife and I have been to many places, seen many people and experienced the mainland’s advanced medical resources.” He said he was planning to bring their son there for medical care in the future.

“As a Hong Kong person,” Lee said, “my feeling is that Hong Kong’s development must rely on China.”

Lee then climbed into a car and was driven away. Journalists who followed Lee’s vehicle reported that he was chauffered directly to a Hong Kong border point and disappeared back into the mainland.