Commentary / World

A courageous bookseller's return to Hong Kong

by Frank Ching

Lam Wing-kee. Lam Wing-kee. Lam Wing-kee. Remember that name. That is a name that should go down in history — Hong Kong’s history and China’s history as well.

This is because Lam Wing-kee, a 61-year-old bookseller who vanished in October, returned to Hong Kong last week from mainland China and refused to obey Chinese orders to take to the mainland a hard drive from Causeway Bay Books, where he was manager, with information on customers who bought banned books.

Instead, he held an explosive news conference, where he disclosed that after crossing into Shenzhen on Oct. 24 to visit his girlfriend, he was detained, his papers confiscated and, the next day, blindfolded and handcuffed. He was put aboard a train for a 13-hour ride to Ningbo, in Zhejiang province, where he was kept in a small cell and watched day and night — to the extent that he could not brush his teeth in peace because the guards attached a string to the toothbrush and held on to the other end because they were afraid he might swallow it in an attempt to kill himself.

Asked how he felt during this period, Lam responded, “As a Hong Konger, I am a free man. I did not commit any crimes, but I was locked up for no reason for five months.”

He was told to sign a piece of paper giving up his right to meet with relatives or to hire a lawyer. Given his circumstances, he said, he signed.

He was interrogated about the books he had sold, the authors, the buyers of the books and their distribution in China. He said he insisted that he had done no wrong and that in Hong Kong it was perfectly legal to publish any books and to mail them anywhere.

All this culminated in a televised confession last spring where he admitted to having committed various “crimes.” At the press conference, however, he said the confession had been scripted and the proceedings filmed under the supervision of a director.

He also said those who kept him prisoner were not from the Ministry of State Security or the police but were members of a central special investigation task force. Such task forces in the past were only established in very high-level cases, such as those involving former Politburo standing committee member Zhou Yongkang and Politburo member and Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. They bypass the normal bureaucracy and report directly to party headquarters.

If true, this would mean that the whole operation, including the abduction of booksellers from Hong Kong and Thailand, was not the result of lower-level people acting without authorization but was decided by people at the very top of the party leadership.

Asked at the press conference if there was anything he would like to say to the people of Hong Kong, Lam replied: “I hope Hong Kongers will say no to an authoritarian regime.” When the reporter continued, “Do you think that in the circumstances Hong Kong finds itself, we can really say no to an authoritarian regime?” Lam answered: “I can do it, so why can’t you?”

Lam’s disclosures led to renewed protests in Hong Kong, with Lam personally leading one on Saturday attended by 1,800 people, according to the police, and 6,000, according to the organizers.

The Hong Kong government, unfortunately, has been revealed as impotent. When Lam was asked if he had anything to say to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, he responded: “I have nothing to say to him. He can’t do anything, so what is there to say?”

Lam has put his life on the line. He says now that he lives in fear of “being suicided” — being murdered with the death being made to look like a suicide.

Whatever his shortcomings, whatever mainland laws he made have violated, Lam is a man of great courage. As he says, “If we don’t speak up, if I don’t speak up, then there is no hope for Hong Kong.”

Frank Ching is a veteran journalist who focuses on Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. He can be contacted by email at Frank.ching@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1 .