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Hong Kong’s missing booksellers confessed to selling banned books in China

Late last year, a Hong Kong book publisher and four of his associates went missing one by one, after selling books banned in mainland China. Their disappearances sparked concerns about a crackdown on freedom of speech and judicial independence in Hong Kong, and even helped fuel riots over the Lunar New Year holidays against Beijing’s creeping control.

The status of the booksellers has been in question, but yesterday state-controlled media offered an update of sorts, in the form of a report published in the Paper, a state-backed online publication. It cites an official investigation into the booksellers by the mainland police.

According to the report, four of five involved have now confessed to the crime of “illegal business operations” in China. Those four include Gui Minhai, owner of Hong Kong publisher Mighty Current.

Gui is a China-born Swedish citizen. Known for publishing books critical of the Chinese Communist Party, he appeared for the first time after his disappearance on China’s state television in mid-January, confessing to a drunk-driving accident that killed a woman 12 years ago. (Internet users noted discrepancies in shots of Gui during the confession, raising suspicions it was a staged confession.) State media said at the time Gui is also under investigation for other suspected crimes.

Three of Gui’s employees have also confessed to operating an illegal business, according to yesterday’s article in the Paper. That’s the first time they have reportedly confessed. They reported to be in the custody of Guangdong police earlier this month (paywall).

The Paper’s report says that Gui’s publishing company has sold over 4,000 banned titles to 380 customers in 28 provinces on the mainland since October 2014. According to the report, Gui’s bookstore employees carried books through immigration using disguised covers, then mailed them to customers. The company set up a mainland bank account to do business and transferred money back to Hong Kong using cash, employees reportedly told police investigators.

Gui also confessed to a forgery, according to the Paper’s report: After he was arrested for a hit-and-run accident in late 2003, he forged a document from Swedish police to cover a driving license that had been issued under a fake identity card.

The three bookstore employees, who all testified about Gui’s crimes, will likely return to Hong Kong on bail soon, investigators told the Paper.

Gui and his three associates also appeared on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV to confess the same crimes yesterday evening.

Another Gui associate still missing is Lee Bo, a UK citizen and co-owner of Mighty Current. The last to go missing, he reportedly sent a fax early last month to say he was assisting in an investigation on the mainland. There is so far no report of him confessing to a crime.

As for Gui, he remains in custody in Guangzhou, where the Swedish embassy has visited him, the Paper reported. Quartz has reached out to the embassy, but has not yet received a reply.

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