Four of the missing Hong Kong booksellers who have been detained in China, have confessed on television to illegally smuggling books into the mainland.
In individual interviews broadcast on Phoenix TV channel late on Sunday, the sombre foursome – who are under criminal investigation on the mainland – admitted to what they said was a banned trade.
“This way [of publishing] is not permitted by relevant Chinese authorities,” said bookseller Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, who failed to return to Hong Kong from a holiday in Thailand in October.
He said the booksellers had “explored ways to circumvent official inspections in China”, including changing book covers or concealing books in bags.
The men all worked for the Mighty Current publishing house, which produced salacious titles about political intrigue and love affairs at the highest levels of Chinese politics.
Gui had already appeared on television in China in January confessing to a fatal driving accident.
In their first appearance since they were detained, fellow booksellers Cheung Chi-ping, Lui Por and Lam Wing-kee blamed the company’s illegal book trade on Gui.
A tearful Cheung added that he was “willing to face punishment in accordance to the law”.
Cheung, Lui and Lam were last seen in southern mainland cities before disappearing in October.
Chinese authorities confirmed they were under investigation earlier this month.
Mainland Chinese news outlet Thepaper.cn said Cheung, Lui and Lam may “return to Hong Kong in the near future” on bail pending trial because they “confessed with good attitudes”.
The report added that since October 2014, 4,000 illegal books had been mailed to 380 mainland buyers by the company.
There is no news on the fate of a fifth bookseller from the company, Lee Po, whose case sparked the biggest backlash as he was the only one to have disappeared from Hong Kong.
Letters purportedly written by Lee have said he is on the mainland “assisting” with investigations.
Lee is a British passport holder and was last seen at a book warehouse in Hong Kong in December.
Britain said earlier this month it believed Lee had been “involuntarily removed to the mainland” in what it called a “serious breach” of an agreement signed with Beijing before the city was handed back to China in 1997.
That agreement safeguards freedoms in the city for 50 years but there are fears they are under threat as Beijing seeks to stamp its authority on the territory.
The booksellers case is the latest in a string of incidents that have raised fears that Hong Kong’s cherished way of life is disappearing.
Accusations of Beijing’s interference are wide-ranging, stretching across politics, education, media and the arts.