Opinion Politics & Protest

All in it together: The bookseller’s ordeal in China could happen to any of us

It was supposed to be a slow news week. Chief Executive CY Leung was away on holiday and his deputy Carrie Lam had just returned from a nine-day trip to America. The front page story was meant to be the grand opening of Shanghai’s Disneyland Park and the bizarre sight of Mickey and Minnie dancing on stage in gold dresses. The headline? “Snow White spends new wealth on bling from Chow Tai Fook.”

Then, a bombshell.

Lam Wing-kee.

Lam Wing-kee. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

Lam Wing-kee, one of the five booksellers missing since last winter, came out of the woodwork on Thursday night with shocking revelations about his detention in the mainland. Like a POW who had escaped from enemy camps, Lam gave a blow-by-blow account of his eight-month ordeal in Ningbo, an industrial city south of Shanghai and 1,100 kilometers from Hong Kong.

Throughout his captivity, he was never told of the charges or allowed a phone call. He was put on suicide watch and forced to make a scripted confession before his release a few days ago. During the hastily-held press conference, Lam fought back tears and thanked Hong Kongers for their support. He also called on the city to “say no to tyranny.”

To the viewers watching on television or online, Lam’s testimony confirmed a few things about the city’s grim political reality – none of which they didn’t already fear and know.

lam wing-kee albert ho

Lam speaking at the press conference on Thursday. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

First, much of the crime and punishment in China is overseen not by the gong’an (mainland law enforcement) but by an extrajudicial body called the “Central Special Unit”. It answers only to the Communist Party and allows operatives to bypass whatever limited due process that exists in the law books, such as access to legal representation and a maximum detention period. The unit is so secretive and powerful that Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok nicknamed it the “Mighty Division”.

Second, in the event of an arrest in the mainland, citizens cannot expect the SAR government or the Hong Kong police to be of much help. The arrestee will have to either wait it out or agree to a false confession and a lifetime gag order in exchange for release. During his involuntary confinement in Ningbo, Lam was all on his own.

bookseller protest

Protests on Saturday in support of Lam. Photo: HKFP.

On the Legco floor, bureaucrats paid lip service by “expressing concern” and promising to “reach out” to their Chinese counterparts. But like that snooty girl at the bar who fakes a phone call to look busy, they probably never picked up the phone or even knew what number to dial.

Third, any remaining pretense that the “one country, two systems” framework is intact has been shattered. At the press conference, Lam confirmed that Lee Bo, one of his fellow abductees, had been taken away by force while he was in Hong Kong, suggesting that mainland agents are not afraid to make a cross-border arrest if they so choose.

No matter how vehemently Lee himself tries to deny that claim, he still hasn’t been able to explain how he managed to enter China without proper travel documents. Any sensible person can figure out which man is telling the truth and which man is telling forgivable lies to protect himself and his family.

bookseller disappearance protest lee bo

File photo: HKFP.

Brave as it is, Lam’s decision to go public is fraught with enormous peril. Openly defying the Communist Party invites harassment and even physical assault by hired thugs or secret operatives – just ask Next Media’s Jimmy Lai or Ming Pao’s Kevin Lau. Surely enough, Lam has now become a fugitive in his own city. While traveling to China to visit his girlfriend is clearly out of the question, he has to look over his shoulder – whether at home or in countries like Thailand – for assailants and kidnappers.

Then there is the psychological warfare to wrestle with. Since the press conference on Thursday, local news media like Sing Tao Daily and HK01 have already published a slew of damning stories attacking his credibility. Three other previously kidnapped booksellers, including Lee Bo, have gone on record to discredit his testimony. To avoid reprisals in the Mainland, Lam’s girlfriend in Shenzhen has called him a selfish lover and a con man. Every trick in the communist playbook, from character assassination to actual death threats, will be hurled at Lam in the coming weeks and months. It will take a heart of flint and nerves of steel to endure it all.

Lam’s courage in coming forward when so many others have stayed silent is not lost on his fellow Hong Kongers. Thousands braved the summer heat in a march this weekend to show their solidarity. Even the ever-cynical localist groups, who normally have a bone to pick with just about anyone, have been relatively muted (instead, they ridiculed citizens for attending a “feel-good” rally and berated the pan-dems for turning it into another fundraising event). For a few days, it seems, Hong Kong people have set aside their differences and united to commend Lam’s heroism.

Lam Wing-kee and lawmaker Albert Ho

Lam Wing-kee and lawmaker Albert Ho. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

What’s more, the Democratic Party – the bane of voters since then-chairman Albert Ho’s Faustian handshake with the Liaison Office sealed the fate of the 2010 electoral reform – appears to have found redemption. In his most desperate hour, Lam sought the help of neither Long Hair nor Joshua Wong. Instead, he went straight to Ho and clung to him like an exhausted child at the press conference.

In so doing, he reaffirmed Ho’s status as the elder statesman within the pro-democracy camp. If the Legco election were to be held this week, the Democratic Party would have easily turned those brownie points into votes. It is a pity that election day is still 11 weeks away and by then much of that aura will probably have dissipated.

The incident of the missing booksellers has been a game-changer for Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland. It has triggered not only widespread anxiety but also a new wave of mass emigrations. Equally significant, Lam’s revelations have exposed the Communist Party’s blatant lies and dirty tricks.

Half a century after the Cultural Revolution and nearly 20 years into the handover, little seems to have changed in the communist leadership’s strategy or mindset. This past week has made clear that no amount of gold or bling can mask the party’s stench or cover up its filth. In the meantime, Hong Kongers have learned to trust no one but themselves. Lam is right: what happened to him can happen to any of us. We are all in it together.

All in it together: The bookseller's ordeal in China could happen to any of us