HONG KONG -- Mainland Chinese authorities say they're investigating three missing Hong Kong booksellers for unspecified criminal activity, shedding more light on a case that's gripped residents with fear that Beijing is tightening its hold on the city.

Hong Kong police said late Thursday they were told by police in neighbouring Guangdong province about the men, who are linked to a publishing house specializing in politically sensitive titles banned on the mainland.

It's the latest development in a case that's sparked concerns that Beijing is clamping down on freedom of expression in the semiautonomous Chinese city. News has been trickling out slowly from Chinese authorities about the mysterious disappearances of five people in total associated with the publishing firm, Mighty Current Media, and its retail outlet Causeway Bay Bookshop.

The letter from Guangdong's public security department is the first time that mainland authorities have acknowledged holding Lui Por, Cheung Chi Ping and Lam Wing Kee, who are shareholders or employees of the company.

It said the three are suspected of involvement with Mighty Current publisher Gui Minhai's case.

The four went missing months ago but Gui resurfaced in January, appearing on Chinese state TV to say he surrendered over a 12-year-old drunk driving case in which he killed a young woman.

The three are suspected of being "involved in illegal activities on the mainland," Hong Kong police said, citing a letter from Guangdong Provincial Security Department's Interpol liaison office.

"Criminal compulsory measures were imposed on them and they were under investigation," it said.

Gui, a Swedish national, disappeared from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand, while the three others went missing while in the mainland.

Hong Kong police also said they received a letter from the fifth missing person, editor Lee Bo, saying he did not wish to meet with them. Lee, a British citizen, disappeared on Dec. 30 and many suspect he was abducted by mainland Chinese security agents operating in Hong Kong, which would be a breach of the "one country, two systems" principle Beijing agreed to when it took control of the city from Britain in 1997.