Kidnapped bookseller escapes Chinese captors

China | Dispute over free press sharpens criticism of Beijing in Hong Kong
by June Cheng
Posted 6/21/16, 08:48 am

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying vowed action after one of the five missing Hong Kong booksellers revealed Chinese authorities kidnapped him and secretly detained him for months, violating the “one country, two systems” principle that promised autonomy to the former British colony.

Lam Wing-kee, who went missing in October, said Chinese authorities allowed him to return to Hong Kong last week to retrieve a hard drive with the names of his mainland customers. As he stood outside a convenience store in Hong Kong smoking a cigarette, he instead decided to stay and make his ordeal public.

“It wasn’t just about the bookstore. It was about Hong Kong,” Lam told CNN.

Lam and the four other booksellers who went missing are all connected with Mighty Current, a publishing house that specializes in gossipy books about China’s top leaders. Such books are banned in mainland China, making their publication a booming industry in Hong Kong and a concern to China’s elite. Since the booksellers’ disappearances, Hong Kong bookstores have stopped selling sensitive books, a shackle on the area’s once-robust free press.

In February, the booksellers “confessed” on Chinese television that they voluntarily turned themselves in for illegally distributing banned books in mainland China. Publisher Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, said in his televised confession that he returned to China to deal with a hit-and-run accident from 12 years ago. Testifying in front of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Gui’s daughter, Angela, said she believed the confession was staged and urged international leaders to push for her father’s release. Gui remains in detention in China.

Lam said Chinese special forces kidnapped him as he crossed the border into China on Oct. 24. After they blindfolded and handcuffed him, they drove to a detention center in Ningbo, where they held him in solitary confinement and interrogated him about his company’s authors and customers. Lam said he was not physically tortured, but the psychological torture made him consider suicide. Five months later, officials transferred him to a room in Guangdong where they kept him under house arrest.

“I am a Hongkonger, I am a free man, I did not break any law in Hong Kong, but I was arrested without any reason,” Lam told Hong Kong reporters. He also said the televised confessions were all scripted.

But Lam’s colleagues accused him of lying, claiming in an article in the pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Tao Daily they returned to China and confessed of their own volition. The article also quoted Lam’s mainland girlfriend, who said Lam lied to her about the legality of the books she helped him mail to mainland clients.

Lam’s revelations brought more than 1,000 protesters into Hong Kong’s streets last weekend as China continues its encroachment into Hong Kong. In an effort to assuage the public, Leung said he would write to Beijing concerning Lam’s case and review a notification system for when residents are detained by mainland authorities in mainland China.

Albert Ho, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told CNN he was disappointed by Leung’s meager response.

“This is utterly disappointing,” he said. “What Hong Kong people need is not a letter.”

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

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