Author linked to missing Hong Kong publishers calls on Beijing to free them

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Tom Phillips in Beijing, Friday 5 February 2016 04.32 GMT

Writer Xi Nuo says five men should not be punished for his book about China’s president, which prompted a crackdown on publishers in Hong Kong

HK Books

These books about the Chinese president Xi Jinping are banned on the mainland but on sale in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

The author of a provocative book about the private life of Chinese president Xi Jinping that some blame for Beijing’s decision to seize five Hong Kong booksellers has urged China to release the men.

Xi Nuo, a Chinese writer who is based in the United States, told the BBC he was one of two authors behind what is reportedly a largely fictitious work about the president’s romantic life called Xi Jinping and His Lovers.

Some believe the detention of the group – which includes Lee Bo, a British citizen, and Swedish passport-holder Gui Minhai – was designed to stop that book’s publication and halt what the Communist party saw as a smear campaign against president Xi.

Gui and Lee’s Mighty Current publishing house had specialised in salacious but often thinly sourced exposés about China’s political elite.

Speaking to the BBC, Xi Nuo, who is no relation to the Chinese president, said: “I’m responsible for this so I want to publish this book and tell the Chinese government: the five booksellers, they are innocent.

“They are not responsible for this. I’m responsible for this. I want to … tell the Chinese government: let the five guys go home,” he added.

On Thursday, Chinese police confirmed for the first time that three of the five booksellers were being investigated for “illegal activities” in China, in a letter sent to Hong Kong police.

The three men – Lui Por, Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kee, who were linked to the Causeway Bay Books shop – had had “criminal compulsory measures” imposed on them, Chinese police in the southern province of Guangdong said in the letter.

Xi Nuo said he had completed his book on the president for Gui’s company in 2014. However, he claimed Gui decided not to publish after receiving a visit from a Chinese government agent.

Last year Gui appears to have changed his mind.

Before he was detained in December, Lee Bo told the Guardian he suspected his friend’s disappearance was connected to imminent plans to publish a mysterious and highly sensitive book.

Those plans never materialised, with Gui vanishing from his holiday home in Thailand in mid-October, before the book could be released.

However, a version of the salacious tome appeared online last month.

Xi Nuo said he decided to publish the book online in order to challenge Beijing, adding: “Why doesn’t the government come to New York and sue us?”

The apparent abductions of Lee and Gui, from Hong Kong and Thailand respectively, have infuriated Beijing’s critics and the international community, who accuse the Chinese government of trampling on international law and Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy in order to hunt down its foes.

Last month Gui was paraded on television to make a televised “confession” that his daughter suggested he had been forced to make.

British and Swedish officials have been refused access to Lee and Gui, who are understood to be in the custody of Chinese security services.

This week the US said it was “deeply concerned” about the fate of the booksellers and urged China to allow the men to return home.

The scandal has sent a chill through Hong Kong’s supposedly free publishing world, which has traditionally been able to produce books outlawed in the authoritarian mainland thanks to the “one country, two systems” model introduced on its return to China in 1997.

Bao Pu, one of the former British colony’s most prominent publishers of political literature, told the New York Times he was considering quitting the industry in the wake of recent events.

“I think pretty much we’re done,” he said.