BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday its law enforcement officials would never do anything illegal, especially not overseas, after the United States called on China to clarify the status of five missing Hong Kong booksellers.
The booksellers, including Lee Bo, 65, a dual British and Chinese national and owner of a publisher and bookstore specializing in books critical of China's Communist Party leaders, are believed by many to have been abducted by mainland agents.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing on Monday the United States was "deeply concerned", and the cases raised questions about China's commitment to Hong Kong's autonomy under a one country, two systems framework as well as about its respect for rights.
"We urge China to clarify the current status of all five individuals and the circumstances surrounding their disappearances and to allow them to return to their homes," Kirby said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Hong Kong's autonomy was fully respected, and that as the territory was China's, no foreign officials had the right to interfere or offer "not really appropriate" comments about the place.
The British government is waiting for responses to its diplomatic requests for information and access to Lee, who disappeared from Hong Kong on Dec. 30.
Lee's wife visited him in a mainland guesthouse on Jan. 23 and issued a statement saying he was healthy and in good spirits, and that he was a witness in an investigation.
Four other booksellers are believed to be in mainland detention, including Swedish national Gui Minhai, who disappeared from the Thai resort town of Pattaya last October.
Gui surfaced on Chinese state television last month, stating he had turned himself into Chinese authorities over a fatal drunken driving case more than a decade ago.
Asked whether China had kidnapped Gui in Thailand, Lu said Chinese law enforcers always abided by the law.
"If we need to have certain law enforcement cooperation with other countries' governments - this is done in agreement with both sides in accordance with the law," he said.
Gui's case was "being handled", he added.
The disappearances have prompted fears that mainland authorities may be using shadowy tactics that erode the one country, two systems formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its return to China from British rule in 1997.
Britain handed Hong Kong back under agreements that its broad freedoms, way of life and legal system would remain unchanged for 50 years.
Chinese authorities have not made any substantial statements explaining their role in the disappearances or the fate of the men.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel