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A demonstrator burns a letter next to pictures of missing Causeway Bay Books staff members in Hong Kong earlier this month.Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Lee Bo had reason to be suspicious when he got a phone call just before 6 p.m. on Dec. 30 from someone who wanted to place an order for 10 copies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. The bookseller didn't know the caller, a potential red flag at a fraught time. Four of Mr. Lee's colleagues had vanished months earlier, shocking Hong Kong and raising worry that China is abducting people it wants to silence.

Three of those men had been working in China. Security footage showed the fourth man being taken away from his beach condominium in Thailand. He had been researching a book that promised to reveal The Lovers of Xi Jinping, one of the working titles of a purported exposé about the Chinese President.

While anxious over the disappearances, Mr. Lee had stayed in Hong Kong. A book publisher as well as a bookseller, he was part-owner of Causeway Bay Books, a small second-floor shop near the city's Times Square whose illicit offerings provided conspiracy theories and political pot-boilers far more compelling than the empty policy pronouncements in the heavily censored Chinese state press. His customers included mainland Chinese, curious academics and spies.

Mr. Lee thought he was safe. He was wrong.

Soon after the call arrived, Mr. Lee left for his warehouse to pick up the requested books. He planned to meet Hu Zhiwei, a long-time friend, for dinner at 8 p.m.

By 8:15, he had not arrived. "I could feel that something was wrong," recalled Mr. Hu, a prolific author of banned books who had helped run the bookstore after other staff disappeared. He called Mr. Lee's wife, who rushed to the warehouse to look for her husband.

Mr. Lee was not there, Mr. Hu said in an interview.

His disappearance brought to five the number of people gone from Causeway Bay Books and its parent company, Mighty Current Media. Three of them remain unaccounted for.

In the past two weeks, Mr. Lee and Gui Minhai, the man seized from Thailand, have both reappeared – Mr. Lee through a series of bizarre faxed handwritten letters that said he had gone to China voluntarily and asked his wife not to intervene; Mr. Gui through a 10-minute interview on Chinese state television where he said he had returned to the mainlaid to turn himself in and confessed to a fatal drunk-driving accident 12 years ago. Both remain in custody in China.

Those close to the men said the letters and televised confession bore the hallmarks of coercion, as Hong Kong shuddered from a new fear that China, in contravention of the city's laws and the borders of sovereign countries, has begun sending its authorities to pluck people away.

It is a fear that has spread far beyond Chinese territory. Human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom Now have documented how Beijing uses torture and disappearances to quell dissent inside its borders. Now it appears to be is exercising its rising political and operational muscle to do the same elsewhere.

Last year, China swept a dragnet across Thailand, extraditing Muslim Uyghurs and veteran dissidents who thought they had found safety there, including two men already approved to come to Canada.

The country of citizenship doesn't seem to matter: Mr. Lee holds a British passport; Mr. Gui, Swedish documents, though they were both born in China.

The U.S. State Department has said it is "disturbed" by what has happened, while British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the involvement of Chinese securities in Mr. Lee's abduction would constitute an "egregious breach" of Hong Kong's independent status. Sweden, too, has called for more "openness" from China.

"This time the international community shouldn't just pretend, 'Oh, it's just little Hong Kong, we don't need to bother,'" said democracy activist and former Hong Kong chief secretary Anson Chan. "Because now their own nationals' safety [is] at stake."

The nationalist Global Times, a Communist Party-run tabloid, has offered the clearest defence of China's conduct. In an editorial this week, it said China had a "different interpretation" of Hong Kong's ability to conduct its own affairs, and criticized the city for seeking to make itself a bastion of "extreme or illegal actions that would shake the mainland's political systems."

On Wednesday, Hong Kong Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said the city's government "is concerned about the rights and personal safety of Hong Kong residents in or outside of Hong Kong." Any law enforcement inside the city by outside authorities, he said, "will contravene Hong Kong laws and is unacceptable."

But, Ms. Chan said, this is no mere disagreement in principle. Ms. Chan cannot recall an instance where Chinese authorities took someone from Hong Kong. The widespread belief that Mr. Lee was abducted has shaken a city whose freedom of expression has already come under heavy attack.

"It's made everybody very concerned about personal safety," she said. "Today it may be about something political. Tomorrow if a business deal goes sour, what's going to happen to that person? Is he also going to just simply disappear?"

Erasing history

The "closed" note that hangs on the steel door to Causeway Bay Books is covered in notes of encouragement. "Not afraid," says one. "Never closed," says another. The chain and padlock say otherwise.

Causeway Bay Books used to sit among dozens of Hong Kong shops where buyers could purchase books and tabloids banned by China. They offered lurid tales of the alleged sexual exploits of Bo Xilai, the reformist Communist Party head in Chongqing, and of the thrilling factional in-fighting among China's most powerful. One recently printed book, The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai, argues that Communist China's first premier was gay.

It was printed by by New Century Press, whose founder, Bao Pu, is the son of Bao Tong, a famous dissident evicted from the Communist Party after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The younger Mr. Bao began publishing in 2002, the first book about Hu Shih, an early 20th-century intellectual who became a symbol of Chinese liberal thought. More than 60 other books followed, publications that explored history and thinking Beijing has sought to block from its people.

"What's sad are the decades of erasing history from the public consciousness," Mr. Bao said. "Censorship works in the long run. It shapes people's minds."

Hong Kong offered a place to fight back, a space to "counter the systemic induced memory loss, and the sheer lies and half-truths taught in history books," he said. Now, he worries that space has vanished with Mr. Lee and the others.

New Century's sales were down 60 per cent last year compared to 2014 as readers turned away from the printed page. Mr. Bao expects 2016 to be far worse, after fear prompted local booksellers to pull his books.

"The Lee Bo operation was quite successful. They wiped out the whole industry almost in one blow," he said. "It's over. They killed it."

Mr. Bao knows of only one Hong Kong store that still stocks his titles, People's Recreation Community, which advertises its downtown presence with a bright red Mao Zedong sign meant to draw in mainland tourists.

But manager and part-owner Paul Tang spent this week opening a caviar shop in Hong Kong. It's the beginning of a new business, after he and some partners gained distribution rights for the Swiss product in greater China. He hopes to move into the mainland soon, a step that will give him a direct business interest in the country his banned books have angered.

It's a matter of what's good for business, he said. "Books aren't a good industry any more."

His shop, meanwhile, is no longer the refuge it once was. On Tuesday, a woman and her teenage son fled when approached by a journalist. A man in his 50s sat in a corner next to two rolling suitcases. He refused to give his name, but described how he had fled Chinese spies after sparring with Communist officials.

Now he worries Hong Kong isn't safe, either.

"I feel Hong Kong is the same as China," he said.

Beijing's grip

In 1924, when China established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, the two sides signed a declaration that Beijing would get back lands taken under tsarist rule.

But Moscow did not keep its word and decades later, when the two sides struck a new treaty, the border remained unmoved. One of those who noticed was Ching Cheong, a journalist who, in 2004, wrote an article questioning the Communist Party's right to enter such a treaty. The border deal was tantamount "to forfeiting territories," he said in an interview.

"And of course this was a very grave charge in the minds of the Communist Party."

A few months later, Chinese authorities arrested him at the Hong Kong border. They interrogated him for six days, then tossed him in solitary confinement for 105 days. After a trial at which he was forced to defend himself, a court found him guilty of spying for Taiwan and, in 2006, sentenced him to five years in prison.

At one point during his interrogation, a guard warned that, "even if you were in Hong Kong, we would have been able to bring you over.

"That's what they told me. And now it has come true," Mr. Ching said. He was let out on parole in 2008 before serving his full term. But if his early release signalled a relaxing in Beijing, it didn't last. In 2013, publisher Yao Wentian was arrested in China on charges of smuggling industrial chemicals and, last year, sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2015, political-affairs journalists Wang Jianmin and Guo Zhongxiao were detained. Friends said their crime appears to have been mailing a magazine to eight people on the mainland. They have not yet been sentenced.

All three men lived in Hong Kong; Mr. Yao was preparing to publish China's Godfather, Xi Jinping, a highly critical account by Chinese essayist Yu Jie that likens the Communist Party to the mafia, with Mr. Xi at its head.

When Mr. Yao disappeared, the author struck a deal with another Hong Kong publisher. But after Mr. Lee vanished, that publisher also backed out.

Now, the only publisher left for China's Godfather is Taiwan-based Avanguard, which is still editing the title and hopes to print it soon. But Raymond Cheng, the book's editor, is not sure it will ever appear in Hong Kong. At the moment, "it is impossible to circulate banned books in Hong Kong," he said.

Ding Xikui, a lawyer who represented Mr. Yao, pointed out that China's own constitution guarantees freedom of both speech and press. "Limits on freedom of speech violate not only the law in Hong Kong but also on the mainland," he said. As he spoke, he heard an echo on the line that indicated he was under surveillance.

"No one is safe," he said.

Hundreds of lawyers have been rounded up too, in addition to labour activists.

At the same time, China is tightening its grip on foreign non-governmental organizations. Earlier this month it arrested a Swede, Peter Dahlin, who had trained lawyers and activists.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, Chinese corporations have exerted their own influence. Apple Daily, one of the city's few remaining independent media outlets, recently documented how the Chinese government, through a network of subsidiaries, owns controlling shares in a large number of local newspapers, magazines and book publishers. Two of Hong Kong's four major television stations now have major Chinese shareholders; and the English-language South China Morning Post, long one of the best independent windows into China, was recently bought by Alibaba.

Observers believe companies such as Alibaba are acting at Beijing's urging.

"Xi Jinping's public-relations people are building up a Mao Zedong personality cult around him," said Willy Lam, a former China editor at the South China Morning Post who is now an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

They want to prevent publishers from "putting out materials which they see as detrimental to Xi Jinping's image."

It's possible Beijing feels material gathered by publishers like Mr. Gui would hurt Chinese security interests. It's equally likely it wants to quash "embarrassing materials," Prof. Lam said.

He was told Mr. Gui was researching a book on Mr. Jinping's romantic affairs, provisionally titled either The Lovers of Xi Jinping or Xi Jinping's Six Women. When he was seized, Mr. Gui ordered a halt to the book's printing, Prof. Lam said, and "it's quite possible that the electronic version of the book is now destroyed. So the book will never see the light of day."

The attacks on expression in Hong Kong have raised worries that China has abandoned the "one country two systems" formulation that ensured the city could maintain its liberties following its handover from the United Kingdom.

Beijing has done little to allay those fears, publishing a white paper in 2014 that declared China's "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong.

But the city has remained free enough that Cai Yongmei was able to write and publish The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai, the exploration of the Communist leader's sexuality. It went on bookshelves in December and offers a new way to view one of the central figures in the creation of modern China.

"His emotional life had a large influence on his political life which also affected all of China," Ms. Cai said.

But the book has now grown much harder to buy in Hong Kong, amid a changed atmosphere in a city once unafraid of random arrests or an unfair judiciary.

"The Chinese government obviously wants to slowly merge the two systems," Ms. Cai said. She worries Hong Kong will increasingly resemble a China that under Mr. Xi has constrained the space for independent thought.

"I think during his term, the controls will be very strict, especially on the mind."