Only a minute's drive west from the downtown Central district of Asia's World City is a nondescript commercial pier. Ferries shuttle in and out to various destinations in the Pearl River Delta. Other non-scheduled vessels berth here too, their purposes less plain. The rigorously professional Hong Kong police and customs services have less supervision here than elsewhere in Hong Kong. The Sheung Wan dock is rumored to be a magical visa-free portal to the mainland, where dignitaries can be quietly spirited to and from China, and where other, less fortunate beings are said to vanish.

This may have happened to Lee Bo, a local publisher of controversial (and often outrageously inaccurate) books on Chinese elite politics that are popular with visiting tourists. Of course these titles cannot be found within China so their taboo topics — sex scandals, assassination attempts and so on — sell themselves. Lee, a British citizen, has seen four colleagues disappeared in China and Thailand in the last two months but he had imagined himself safe in Hong Kong and long pledged never to visit the mainland. Imagine his wife's surprise when, after several days incommunicado, Lee called, faxed and skyped her from Shenzhen assuring her elaborately (in formal Mandarin) that all is well and he is in the PRC on certain matters that need clearing up.

It must be said the full facts of Lee's unlikely adventure are still unknown, such as who accompanied him and whether he departed through that harbourside trapdoor or via another route. In any case, Hong Kong has no record of his exit. He appears cheery enough and his wife has withdrawn her missing-person case with the police. And Lee has issued a strange plea through the state media for concerned protesters to refrain from demonstrations. But Hong Kongers assume the worst: that the bookseller has been abducted by Chinese authorities in contravention of the One Country-Two Systems framework.

The Chinese foreign ministry hasn't denied this outright. In fact a spokesperson said that Lee, despite his UK passport (which he left at home), is effectively China's business. And a Global Times editorial column acknowledges that while this matter might be a technical breach of Hong Kong Basic Law protocols, sometimes, well, bad stuff happens when powerful countries feel the need.

The newspaper has also stated that Lee's publishing house, which dominates this salacious genre, seriously damages China's national interest. It is widely rumored that a forthcoming title, on the past lovelife of Xi Jinping, was particularly offensive to the leadership in Beijing. It is not hard to conjecture that Lee is now detained at a comfortable compound somewhere in Guangdong and being asked to disclose the author's sources, whereupon Lee will be free to return home. This is not a worst-case scenario, but one that alarms Hong Kongers nonetheless.

The local reaction has been shrill. Government and pro-establishment leaders have felt the need to voice their concern, while careful to explain that we can't be certain of what happened (it seems they too await clarification from the mainland). Their lawyerly poses probably unsettle the public all the more. One pro-Beijing legislator has distracted the debate by claiming Lee had ventured across the border to visit prostitutes. But many — including journalists, the legal profession and financiers — are rattled by this incident. Who, it is asked, could be next?

The contrast with Taiwan, which is holding a general election, is poignant for some locals. On reflection, Lee might have been much safer had he resided there. With the 2047 expiry of the Basic Law in mind, Hong Kong must contemplate how its laws will be merged with those of the People's Republic, which are very different. This incident will focus minds on whether 2047 will be a clear and formal transition, hopefully to a more mature Chinese system, or a systematic, ongoing fraying of the civil liberties Hong Kongers value so much.

Perhaps the hysteria has been overdone. The territory has long been a timeless netherworld between China and the outside world. Money, drugs and humans shuttled across its borders under British colonial rule and they are still to-ing and fro-ing now. There is nothing new here in the transit of dirty money and mysterious people. Perhaps it is also unsurprising, though hardly reassuring, that occasionally individuals can disappear and emerge through the many official and secret portals into the mainland. China is only a few kilometers distant in space but a universe away in circumstance. Hong Kong has always been a wormhole city.

Image courtesy of Flickr user hurtingbombz