The saga of the missing Hong Kong booksellers has taken a dramatic turn. On March 24, Lee Po, the bookseller forcibly disappeared on December 30, 2015, and taken to mainland China, returned to Hong Kong. There, he asked police to drop the investigation into the “missing person” case lodged by his wife, and said he did not need assistance from the Hong Kong authorities. Less than 24 hours later, he got into a car with two unidentified men and was driven back to mainland China.

Members of student group Scholarism hold up placards during a protest about the disappearances of booksellers outside China's liaison office in Hong Kong, China January 6, 2016.

Lee is one of five booksellers affiliated with the Hong Kong-based Mighty Current Media, known for publishing books critical of senior Chinese leaders.

This repeated the pattern of Lee’s colleagues, Lui Por and Cheung Chi Ping. They were forcibly disappeared in mid-October, 2015 while in the southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan, respectively, and were allowed to return to Hong Kong in early March. They, too, told Hong Kong police to cancel their “missing persons” status, and went back to the mainland within a day of returning to Hong Kong. Both told Hong Kong media later that they were “safe” and “free.”

But are they really safe and free?

After Lee returned to Hong Kong, he gave an interview to pro-Beijing media. He said he had gone to China voluntarily, promised to never again publish books that “fabricate rumors,” and had been impressed with the “prosperity and strength” of the motherland. Following his colleagues’ mid-October disappearances, Lee had said he would not go to the mainland, yet in this interview he said he would go back often to “assist with ongoing investigations.”

The following morning, Lee told journalists he had not been pressured into saying what he told the media. He declined to say who took him to China in December and wouldn’t answer questions about the identity of the man escorting him. He then got into a car, which journalists followed until it crossed the border into the mainland.

The pathologies seen across these cases – disappearances and arbitrary detention in China, sudden returns to Hong Kong, rejection of assistance by Hong Kong authorities, and subsequent returns to the mainland – raise many questions. Why couldn’t or wouldn’t they provide details regarding their status, given the intense international scrutiny of the case? Why not ask for protection from Hong Kong authorities? And what has become of the other two booksellers – Lam Wing-kee and Gui Minhai – who remain detained in China?

It seems that all five are far from safe or truly free.