Three of five Hong Kong booksellers missing for months could be released from detention "in a few days", Hong Kong and Shanghai media are reporting, indicating for the first time that their disappearances were linked to their activities distributing "unlicensed" books in mainland China. 

Hong Kong daily, the South China Morning Post, reported on Monday that Lam Wing-kei, Lui Por and Cheung Ji-ping, of Causeway Bay Books, could be granted "bail" for "good attitude" while awaiting trial in Chinese jails.

It was unclear if China was planning to send them back to Hong Kong.

The report said Lam, Lui and Cheung were arrested in Shenzhen and Dongguan on October 17 and 24 last year, and had confessed to their "crimes".

Their arrests raised fears that Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on the press and the publishing industries, even among those living in the semi-autonomous former British colony.


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Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish national, and Lee Bo, a British citizen, co-owners of the Hong Kong book store involved in the book distribution, are also detained in China.

Gui went missing while in Thailand last October, while Lee disappeared while in Hong Kong in December.

They later turned up in jails in the Chinese mainland and issued videotaped confessions, prompting accusations that Beijing had snatched them from Hong Kong and forced them to issue confessions. 

In a video confession, Gui reportedly claimed to have killed one person while driving a car. Lee said he voluntarily returned to China to help in the investigation of Gui. 

Bookseller critic of China government goes missing in Hong Kong

Monday's report said Gui had ordered his three associates Lam, Lui and Cheung to mail 4,000 books to buyers from across different Chinese cities since 2014. 

The booksellers are also accused of altering book covers and mailing them through the regular postal service "to avoid customs inspections", the report said.

Critics said they were arrested for selling publications critical of Beijing and President Xi Jinping. 

On February 12, Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said that Lee was "involuntarily removed" from Hong Kong, and accused China of a "serious breach" of the treaty, under which it took control of the city.

The Joint Declaration is the treaty signed in 1984 between Britain and China safeguarding Hong Kong's rights and freedoms after Beijing took power in 1997.

Under the "one country, two systems" principle, Hong Kong retains a high degree of control over its own affairs, including law enforcement.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies