Hong Kong's government said on Wednesday that there is currently "no legal way" to send back outspoken bookseller Lam Wing-kei to Chinese police as requested, amid widespread anger over his detention for selling "banned books" to mainland Chinese customers.
The city's Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok spoke to reporters after a meeting with ruling Chinese Communist Party officials in Beijing following a public outcry over the detention of Lam and four of his colleagues at the now-closed Causeway Bay Books store.
"There is no legal arrangement for the transfer of a person to the mainland authorities, and the Hong Kong government will handle all cases in accordance with the law of Hong Kong," Lai said.
Hong Kong currently has no formal extradition arrangements in place with mainland China, which has pledged to respect the city's status as a separate legal jurisdiction following its 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Hong Kong police met with Lam for two-and-a-half hours on Wednesday, taking fresh statements from him.
But while they offered him protection, they have also brushed aside Lam's repeated claims that he is being followed by Chinese state security agents operating within Hong Kong's borders.
"Mr. Lam's account of events is different from our findings," deputy police commissioner Wong Chi-hung told reporters.
But he added: "We will contact Mr. Lam and assess the risk he is facing, if any. Suitable measures will be provided to counter those so-called risks."
Little protection offered
Lam had previously hit out at the Hong Kong authorities for doing little to protect him, amid widespread concerns that the city's legal system is now being undermined by Chinese law enforcement.
"They made a verbal promise to me that they would protect me ... but we didn't go into the details," Lam told government broadcaster RTHK. "They are following me from a distance, not close up, but I think it's enough that there is someone watching me."
He said he is considering leaving Hong Kong to live elsewhere.
He had earlier told the city's Ming Pao newspaper: "Police have not offered any protection to me ... I used to enjoy freedom from fear in Hong Kong, but now it’s lost."
Wong said police hadn't offered Lam protection because a car he said was following him turned out to have been hired by a media organization, and an investigation of his claims had yielded "nothing unusual."
Lam's case has prompted Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying to review the existing notification mechanism between law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Police in China's eastern city of Ningbo on Tuesday called on Lam, whose explosive revelations of eight months in Chinese detention rocked his native Hong Kong, to return to the mainland to cooperate with an investigation.
The Ningbo Public Security Bureau said in a statement that Lam, 61, had violated bail laws in speaking about his detention and would face "criminal compulsory measures in accordance with the law" if he failed to return.
A media commentator who asked to remain anonymous said the Chinese authorities had "blatantly trampled" their own promises of "one country, two systems" on which Hong Kong's handover from British colonial rule was based.
"At the very least, the authorities in Ningbo should go through the Hong Kong judicial authorities, not directly issue threats against a resident of Hong Kong," the commentator said.
"Hong Kong is a separate jurisdiction and enforces its own laws, so mainland China has no business using such a threatening tone ... They are doing it deliberately to scare Hong Kong people, and to create an atmosphere of fear."
Outspoken billionaire and Hong Kong media magnate Chen Ping, who was assaulted in 2013 by unidentified men, said such tactics were a "total breach" of promises made in a 1984 Sino-British treaty and the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
"They are in breach of one country, two systems, which they signed," Chen said. "How do we even deal with this? I'm not even sure what to call it."
"I have no words to describe it. I don't even see how this is in [China's] interest," he said.
"If they pay no heed to one country, two systems; to international law; or to their own promises ... then the outcome doesn't bear thinking about," Chen said.
Kidnapped, held in cell
Lam has said he was effectively kidnapped after crossing Hong Kong's border into the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, blindfolded, and taken to faraway Ningbo, where he was held in a cell without access to a lawyer for eight months.
His return and subsequent press conference sparked a protest of some 6,000 people to Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong last month.
Lam's colleagues Lee Bo, a British passport holder, Lui Por, and Cheung Chi-ping were detained by mainland authorities and then returned to Hong Kong without commenting on their detention.
The U.K. government has said Lee Bo was "involuntarily removed" from Hong Kong, raising concerns over China's compliance with the terms of the city's 1997 handover. His departure was never recorded by border officials.
A fifth colleague, Swedish national Gui Minhai, was abducted from Thailand and gave a confession on Chinese state television, but has yet to emerge from what his family say is an illegal detention at an unknown location.
The booksellers were accused of shipping gossipy books about China's political elite to customers in mainland China, where they are banned. However, the sale of the books broke no laws in Hong Kong.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.