by Joy Zhu
Below is a full translation of previously missing bookseller Lam Wing-kee’s own account of his disappearance from Hong Kong and detention in China. Lam, the founder and later manager of Causeway Bay Books, was one of the five booksellers who went missing last year.
As I drew apart the curtains, light spilled abruptly into the room. The clouds curled flatly against the horizon, pressing Lei Yue Mun into a small lump. The sky and the sea merge. There are a few boats on the sea. The elegant coastline is adorned by a few dark green hills. What used to be a beautiful landscape was destroyed by the landfills across the shore. Through the corner of my eye, the slopes of the hills resembled torn wounds, revealing lakes of sludge. The dozen warehouses or so and the two or three car factories beneath it seemed to wall the bay up into a typhoon shelter. The cranes of the pontoons seemed to stretch through each of the weatherproof plastic green tarps towards the sky. Next to the barges were small boats and jetties. A few trawling ships were parked across the narrow aqueducts, their sides striped in black and white; the sun was setting, but they were still glimmering.
As I gazed at the scenery, I couldn’t help but recall that experience. It sunk and resurfaced, and didn’t seem real at all.
When I was on bail, I was assigned to work as a volunteer in the library. The work was easy. I only had to place the books on the shelves according to their call numbers, which was easier than organizing them according to subject matter. Since I worked in the children’s section, there was little work as the children were at school. I always got off work earlier and to kill time, I went to a nearby café, or took walks around the riverside. Every day, there was always too much time.
Shaoguan city is a small town with three rivers and six shores. At the beginning of the journey, I asked the special investigations officers who were detaining me: how big is Shaoguan? The two of them shook their heads and said that they had never been. Around 30 years ago, I had been there on a guided tour. We passed through Caifeng Pavilion, went to Lan Hua Temple, then stayed outside of the city. On the next day we went to Danxia mountain then headed back. We never stayed in Shaoguan city.
When we got there, I asked the labour officer who was supposed to supervise me. He drove without answering, a cryptic smile on his face. The days are long. Why don’t we take it one day at a time?
Compared to solitary confinement in Ningbo, where I was not allowed leave my room and could only look up and divine what the signs in the sky mean, Shaoguan was much less confining. After I settled at the hotel, I read the map of Shaoguan in the evening, but didn’t really understand it. In the end, I only made sense of my surroundings using a phone that Mr Shi, the man who escorted me there, gave me.
The whole of Shaoguan city was divided into three districts: Qu River, Yan River, and Wu River. It was no bigger than Kowloon. I lived in Dian River District, which only had a population of 310,000. That wasn’t half of Kwun Tong’s population. Since I was always submissive during the five months that I spent there, the Central Special Investigations Team that interrogated me was confident that I would not do anything suspicious. After the transfer was completed, they came with me to re-visit the places I went to on my last trip — we went to the Danxia Mountains, and went back to Ningbo three days later.
Thereafter, my routine was like this: I had holidays on Sundays and Mondays. I went to work at the library the rest of the week, checking in every nightfall at the police station. When I later publicized the incident, the mainland started rumours about me. Anyone with a conscience knew that they were trying to hide the truth. Apart from a few colleagues and my girlfriend, what surprised me was that someone actually forced Director Chan to go on TV. Why do I say that he was forced? The library director himself had told me in private that he knew long beforehand how things would play out. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him when I saw his exaggerated facial expressions on TV that day. He was an upright man of culture, but was forced to commit public acts of injustice – of course he felt ashamed. I wish he knew how I understood him.
As it was unnecessary for the municipal unit to be involved in my case, with me being only a petty bail criminal, I was transferred to the local police station and handed over to Officer Zhou. Shaoguan is located in the north of Guangdong, which counts as the south of the country. Anyone who has flipped through a book knows the difference between north and south China, which is that northerners are generally considered to be more conservative than southerners. Such a difference is apparent in modern Chinese history. Didn’t all the revolutions take place in Guangdong, the hub of foreign trade? That’s because foreign trade came early to the south, and the liberal hand of the foreigners in conducting trade was spread to the north by trade. So so-called revolutions, too, in the end, are social change caused by new ideological trends. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the south had always been relatively liberal.
Officer Zhou was not only more liberal but, sometimes I felt, even more worldly than I was. Apart from the time where I was taking care of paperwork at the police station, he never wore his uniform and always dressed casually when we met. If you didn’t know already, you couldn’t tell he was a policeman. On that day, when he sat before the enormous teak desk signing documents with my escorts, I couldn’t help but groan inwardly as he looked me up and down with a stern expression on his face when it was my turn to sign. What I saw before me was obviously a bad cop. Not only should he be avoided generally, even if he was a friend, one should still be wary of him. I would be wary of him even if we were acquaintances. But I had to spend time with him. As I was sitting there, anxious, they finished talking about business and left the room. Mr. Shi closed the door and turned to give me a smile. He looked much friendlier.
As he returned to his desk, he took out the documents for bail, reiterating that I had to abide by all clauses listed on them. Failure to comply with any one of them would result in rejecting the request for bail.
And then he checked his phone, taking a look at the room in which I would live.
Officer’s Zhou’s change of attitude was surprising to me. When I reported to the police station every day at the beginning, Officer Zhou would take notes and question me. Did you see anyone after work? Did you give your address to anyone? Did you receive calls from unknown numbers? Did you tell the media — especially from Hong Kong, about the situation? Et cetera. I responded truthfully, of course. If he knew I was lying, it would mean breaking the oath I signed at the beginning of my bail promising that I would abide by the clauses. If I lied, I would be taken into prison. Officer Zhou was responsible for community work, a bit like the public relations branch of the Hong Kong Police Force. Since he was frequently out, it was often too time-consuming for the interrogation to take place at police station, and so we started meeting in a hotel lobby instead. Shortly after we began meeting in the hotel lobby, our meetings became so informal that we started talking over the phone when he didn’t have time, during which he would take some notes. Soon after, his control over me slackened so much that, seeing that I had nothing to do on my holidays, he took me on his visits to residential areas, and even to see his friends.
Because we saw each other and went out together so often, there was nothing that Officer Zhou and I didn’t talk about, except for my case. He rarely spoke of my documents. I was able to tell from the way he spoke that he had a very good grasp of my alleged crimes. He appeared not to take them very seriously. I was only working as staff in the bookstore. What is mailing a few books, really? “It’s not like I had murdered someone or committed arson”, he suggested to me in private.
Officer Zhou had a meaty face, thick brows and angular eyes, and was slightly bucktoothed. He was born with a menacing face, which I got used to later on. His nature is actually different. He looks kind of dumb when he is silent, as if he was wistful. I was deceived by his demeanour in the beginning. Only as I observed his interactions with others did I gradually understand that Officer Zhou was easygoing. In a few weeks, the Central Special Investigations Team came again to ask me a few questions. Officer Zhou sat behind his teak desk, unsmiling, and occasionally added a few words about my behaviour. In the evening, Officer Zhou invited them to dinner. It wasn’t appropriate for me to be present. Officer Zhou did not mention what they spoke of secretively, but it was probably something about how a sheep held captive should be handled.
When I was held captive in Shaoguan, they gave me a phone — to my surprise —which they really shouldn’t have done. It was really a double-edged sword. They gave me a Xiaomi phone as a tracking device and ordered me to always be on standby. That was hardly a small oversight. In November when I was in Ningbo, because my ex-wife reported my disappearance, the media found out and publicized the fact that four booksellers had disappeared from their bookshop. Not only did this cause an uproar among the Hong Kong public, it also caught the attention of foreign media, who in pages after pages of special reports reported endlessly and repeatedly reported: The Chinese government has allegedly damaged the policy of “One Country Two Systems”. In order to quell the crisis, they had me report my safety. My interrogator, Mr. Shi, was from Ningbo. He felt uneasy because he didn’t know Cantonese and had someone write what I had to say in Cantonese on a piece of paper. Because he was still worried, he later found a security guard who knew Cantonese to verify that I did not reveal my whereabouts by listening to the recording. At that time, I was in isolation. I knew nothing of what was happening in Hong Kong.
I used the phone I had unexpectedly acquired phone to browse the map of Shaoguan and desperately read news reports related to my arrest. Around 5 or 6am, I was standing against the window of the third floor of Haojing Hotel in room 8315. The sky was beginning to brighten. Through the leaves and branches of the huge camphor tree, as I looked at the vehicles soaring beneath the ring-shaped overpass, I began to contemplate the information that I received. Although it was all communist rhetoric, I knew that things had blown up from the statements issued by Ministry of Foreign Affairs to rebut the US State Department and the EU Parliament.
I didn’t understand many of the details. Why were Cheung Chi-ping, Lui Por and Lee Bo also prosecuted and imprisoned? When I was in Ningbo, the man named Shi showed me information about Gui Minhai. He said that because he killed a female university student 13 years ago in a car crash while drunk driving, he fled across the Thai-Myanmar border using a fake passport. At the moment he was detained and awaiting trial. The man named Shi demanded that I write a report on how I felt about Gui, to see what my stance on this incident was. If I had the correct attitude, I would have a greater chance of getting a more lenient sentence for my case in the future. I was of course greatly surprised. I never knew that my boss had a criminal record in the mainland. Vehicular manslaughter and absconding on bail would be condemned in any civilised society, let alone in the mainland.
As I handed in a few hundred words, Shi gave me another article. That was an old article written by a mainland reporter criticizing Gui, a Chinese citizen, for escaping without taking responsibility for what he had done. As I read closely, I became suspicious. The article wrote that Gui was granted bail on probation. Why would a person abscond when already granted probation? He had already avoided a prison sentence; the most he would have to do was pay a fine. Only an idiot would try to escape. This article was clearly written by someone retrospectively. Only after Gui escaped did the mainland authorities grant him probation so that it would look as if Gui wasn’t even willing to accept probation. And this made one feel that because he wouldn’t even accept probation, he deserved to be severely punished. That Shi had deliberately given me that article to read made it difficult to discern the truth. And yet the article was obviously fake.
I had many thoughts but couldn’t make sense of them. They only issued the charge sheet in early 2016, two months after my interrogation in Ningbo. They accused me of violating Chinese law by mailing a huge volume of books to the mainland from Hong Kong. The name of my crime was “illegal operation of book sales.”
Besides the fact that I was an employee, and that I was at most an accomplice, trading books is completely legal in Hong Kong. The so-called accusation of “illegal operation of book sales” is utterly untenable. This accusation lacks any legal basis. Not to mention that I was the one doing the mailing, so just detain and interrogate me. If we say Lui Por and Lee Bo are the principal criminals as they are the shareholders, then what about Cheung Chi-ping? There is no reason to detain him – he’s just an employee. Isn’t this equally as absurd as the following scenario: an employer speaks out against the Chinese regime; not only is he detained upon stepping foot on the mainland, but his staff is detained on charges of Inciting Subversion against State Power as well? Or say that the bookshop sold its books to mainlanders through the internet and held financial transactions through a bank. This is just the same as running business operations in mainland. Let’s not argue about whether Chinese Law contains this provision. Should they have it, the mainland could send someone to Hong Kong and prosecute the offender through the judicial process. How could they do this, as soundlessly and surreptitiously as if they were the Triads, as they waited for the staff and the stockholders of the bookshop to first cross the border, then cuffing and blindfolding us without any warning and detaining us until we got to Ningbo?
In the three months in Shaoguan, I was from the start unclear of how our imprisonment had anything to do with undermining “One Country, Two Systems.” I didn’t even know then that Lee Bo had been forced to go to the mainland at the end of December, unlike the three of us who were seized and detained at the border. I tried to discern traces of what was happening from the CCP’s official media reports, and yet I found nothing. At the end of March, I was suddenly transferred to Shenzhen’s Qi Lin Estates three days before I was taken to Shaoguan to meet with them. At a sumptuously prepared dinner, we discussed our situation living under surveillance in Ningbo. Only then did I know that Cheung Chi-ping and Lee Bo were released on bail three months after they were arrested. The two of them were sent respectively to Dongguang and Northeast China. They were even allowed to return to Hong Kong in a few days to take care of some private matters before going back to the Mainland. Lee Bo seemed relaxed and carefree, carrying a smile, saying that he came back voluntarily to tie up loose ends, and said he was sorry that such bad things had happened. To express his sincere condolences, he gave each person 10,000 RMB for compensation. On the morning of the third day, which was five months into my detention, I was taken from Shenzhen to Shaoguan. There I began my life on bail.
Officer Zhou loved taking walks and hiking, and I do too. Once we went on a walk together, starting from his building and walked along the north of the river to Beiwang Bridge. As we were in the proximity of the viewing pavilion, I asked him, “Why did such a trivial matter of mailing books make international headlines?” Officer Zhou pretended that he didn’t hear me. He pointed to somewhere beyond the embankment and said, “Look, the rain was torrential in Jiangxi yesterday. Today there is a flood in the Northern River.” I looked at the rolling, murky waves and understood that he didn’t want to talk about it.
Officer Zhou was good enough to me. He didn’t treat me like a criminal, but rather as a friend. He was sympathetic to my circumstances, but he didn’t want to get involved. He was going to retire in a few years and had a wife and a daughter who was getting married soon, and wanted to spend his old age in peace. He was born under this system, and he had to live under this system. Can you please not say any more? As we kept our pace, Officer Zhou kept silent, but I heard what he was saying in his heart.
In the middle of one night in April, someone knocked on my door. I was surprised, because I didn’t have any friends in Shaoguan apart from Officer Zhou. Was this the labour officer? He came to visit sometimes. But like Officer Zhou, he lived in Wujiang district. What could be so urgent? I paused the music and opened the door. Two ladies stood outside. The one in front was slightly shorter than the one behind, and looked plain. The other one was prettier and was of similar height to me. Neither of them spoke. As my gaze traced the contours of these strange faces, understanding overwhelmed me abruptly. “You have the wrong door,” I said, moving to close it. And yet one of them stuck her foot in the door to stop me from doing so. “Why?” The one in front asked. It turns out they don’t know Cantonese. “You’ve got the wrong person,” I said again. They looked at me with no intention of leaving. I glanced at the side of the door, signalling to her. When she finally understood, I immediately closed the door.
After I came back to Hong Kong, as I was resting at the lounge in the Legislative Council, Albert Ho, who was accompanying me, received a Whatsapp message. He opened it, and said the smearing had begun before we met the press. I took a look at the video in the message. What could be seen outside the door bore resemblance to my former residence, while the woman’s voice sounded like my ex-wife. I remember this happening. As I recalled what had happened, shivers ran up my spine. If I was sleeping around and someone took footage of it and made it public, wouldn’t this be evidence against my character? These kinds of amorous encounters seem deliberately arranged. Those people all seem to be guarding themselves from me, holding back a trick at every turn.
In May, the people from the Central Special Investigations Team came back. Apart from observing and notifying me that Beijing gave me permission to visit my family in Hong Kong, they told me I should bring my computer back from the bookshop. I was confused. There was only information about customers’ book orders in there. Don’t you have soft copies of them? I asked. The Central Special Investigations Team had the soft copies for me to identify the names while I was held captive in Ningbo. I was boggled when they did it. How did they get their hands on these files? Did someone sneak into the bookshop, or did they get help from someone who worked there? I was later told by Mr. Shi, who interrogated me, that it was Lee Bo. He then explained to me — that soft copies did not suffice as admissible evidence. “You mailed the books and typed in the customer information. You should bring the computer so you could have hard, material evidence as reliable proof. This is the most reliable way of providing evidence.” I was imprisoned for five months, and was forced to stay in Shaoguan for two. When I left in June, I had already been away from Hong Kong for eight months. I missed my family and my teacher. My teacher was old and ill. He was dying. I had to go back.
In June, the people from the Central Special Investigations Team came back again. This time they were different people. Mr Shi’s assistant had disappeared and someone of higher rank came instead. Mr Shi said that he was Department Director Chan, who sat on the sofa, glanced at me and didn’t speak much. Between us stood a coffee table. When Officer Zhou finished steeping the tea, he said “Please enjoy, Director Chan,” and threw me a look before leaving the room. “So,” on the other side of the table, the man named Shi broke the ice, choosing his words with circumspection. “About your two-day trip to Hong Kong that will take place soon —we have thought about this carefully — it’s better that your stay be shortened. You will only be there for one day.” He stopped and looked at the director, who sat still. And so he continued, “What do you think?” “Didn’t we agree to two days?” I asked, feeling that they were being completely unreasonable. “It’s been changed now,” Mr Shi looked at me. I looked at the director. “Think this over,” he said, and sipped his tea.
As we were approaching Guangzhou station, a few passengers were preparing to get off. I glanced at my watch. I would get to Shenzhen North around 10. The man named Shi rose slightly from his chair and looked behind him. The director was leaning against his seat and looking out the window. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and read for a little bit. My eyes were slightly tired. Then the high speed train started to rumble into life. As my body trembled along with the train in the darkness, it felt like last time, as if I was cuffed and blindfolded again, except this time we were headed in the opposite direction…
On the 24th of October, 2015, I was taken away at the border by a dozen people to a police station in Shenzhen, where I waited into the night, until two men came in and cross-examined me. “Are you Lam Wing-kee?” One of them asked across the prisoner bars, as he sat down. Another one looked really familiar. I forgot where I had seen him before. “Do you know what offence you committed?” the one who looked familiar and whose last name was Lam asked without sitting down. I shook my head. I could only sit because I was fastened down in the prisoner’s chair. That was him, with that familiar, slightly frenzied smirk which betrayed the excitement of a predator having caught his prey. Then I recognized him. A few years ago he discovered me carrying books across the border, which were to be mailed to readers there. I was detained for six hours that time. My interrogator was a northerner and was around 50 in age. He spoke Cantonese like a native, claiming that he was from the National Security Department and that he went by Li. This familiar-looking young man, who said that his last name was Li too, was the court reporter. After three hours of questioning, the northerner discovered that I really was working for a small bookseller, was only mailing books for them, and that I harbored no other intentions. He then left the room to arrange my release. As we waited for him to come back, we started to chat, and didn’t expect to meet again after so many years.
“You were promoted”, I thought he recognized me and could prove that I wasn’t selling books. I was rather happy, feeling that I could leave soon. But this was not the case, as my words unexpectedly provoked his anger. All of a sudden, he started to slam the table and yelled at me. “Do you know who you are? Your book-mailing business betrays a veiled attempt to overthrow the Chinese government. We are the Central Special Investigations Team. We subjugate your kind of Hong Kong people.” I was surprised and could barely believe it.
I knew that the Central Special Investigations Team was a tool in the Cultural Revolution used against class enemies. Many have lost their lives to them.
I realized that things were getting serious, but at the same time I was a bit confused. I wanted him to say it again to make sure. And yet he seemed to have realized that he spoke too much. Still angry, he glared at me. The man by his side opened his notebook, gestured for his colleague to sit, and started to interrogate me. He was around thirty—not too old either.
On the evening of October 25th. I was cuffed, blindfolded and wearing a baseball cap. After ten hours of being on a train, I was taken to a seven-seater car —the type of vehicle used to take me to the location for filming footage when I was living under surveillance — where I probably sat at the back. In the car, I was tucked between two people inside of them. After 45 minutes of a bumpy car ride, I was helped up onto the second floor of a building, into a room. Someone took off my cuffs and my baseball cap. Before I could get a good look at my surroundings, my escort told me to stand in the corner. There was a transparent glass screen six feet high that served as a wall between the squat toilet and the room. I was stripped, then ordered to crouch for an examination. Afterwards I changed into orange prisoner garments and concrete-coloured cotton sweatpants. What crime did I commit? Before I was blindfolded, my glasses were taken away from me. Facing the bright lights, I could only squint. I asked again, but no one answered.
I was woken up at seven thirty. After I combed and washed myself until eight, I ate breakfast consisting of corn porridge pulverized to the texture of sesame, a steamed bun, preserved vegetables and fried eggs. When I was preparing to eat, the guard standing against the glass screen came close to me, worried that I was going to do something suspicious, but I just ate and observed my surroundings. I was in Shenzhen the night before yesterday tied to a metallic chair, not being able to sleep after I was interrogated; although I was blindfolded on the locomotive, I tried to stay awake to keep a lookout for the stops. I was anxious the whole journey and urgently wanted to know where I was being taken to. I was too tired yesterday. When they pointed to a bed on which I could lay down, I immediately fell over it and fell asleep. Immediately after I finished my breakfast, the guards took away the plastic lunchbox and the plastic spoon and gave them to another guard to look after. The one who was guarding the door folded his arms and glared at me constantly.
I know I would be interrogated later again. So I tried to take advantage of this short pause to clear my thoughts and figure out what was going on. It had only been one day and I had already been taken away thousands of miles away. As I got off the train yesterday, I looked through the side of my blindfolds secretly and caught a glimpse of the bright station sign of Ningbo. The last station we got past was Yandang Mountains. “Is this Ningbo?” I gave the guards my slippers for safekeeping. Both of them had childish appearances and didn’t look like they had been trained enough to become angry youth (Fenqing) yet. Like before, I asked persistently what it was I had done; there came no reply. I looked behind me — that guard was glaring at me too. At this time, two people came in.
I stood up. I was removed from them by a distance of two grids. The officers first stood waiting for the guard at the back to leave and letting the ones on the front to bring chairs to them, before they sat. The tall one looked at me for a while, turned around to make sure the guard had left, before he sat down and flipped open the laptop that he brought with him. The other one flipped opened a notebook. They also asked my name, address in Hong Kong, my job, position, why we let our bookstore be taken over by Mighty Current and et cetera, the same I had been asked in Shenzhen. They then started to ask about the book mailing — when it started, what books, how many, by what means…et cetera. I told them the truth and he recorded my answers with the computer, his face blank. I tried to ask again—what crime did I commit? The tall one continued typing expressionlessly, ignoring me. I glanced at the other one, who was leaning back in his chair and looking at me with a strange expression, as if I had done something catastrophic but had no idea about what I had done. The tall one then gave me a piece of paper to sign. On it were two clauses: the first was the promise to voluntarily give up the option of notifying my family, the other one was to voluntarily give up the option of hiring lawyers.
My interrogation continued. In November, these sessions took place four to five times a week, but at the end of the year they only took place two to three times per week. Then they started to ask about our colleagues. Lui Por, Lee Bo and Cheung Chi-ping — how did you get to know each other? I recounted everything to him to the last detail. The tall one asked again whether I had Lui Por’s mobile phone number. Among the three, I was closer to Lui Por. Not only did we work one after the other at Greenfield Bookstore, I was even colleagues with his mom there. Not long after I left Greenfield, his mother died suddenly in her sleep. As a colleague, I was obligated to attend her funeral. Therefore, you can say that I had a deeper connection with Lui Por. There was a name card with his mobile phone number in my confiscated wallet. Since they asked for his number, I had the feeling that Lui Por was fine and was probably still in Hong Kong. Instead of worrying about him, I was more worried about his wife, who was in still in Northeast China. I thought Lui Por would be fine as long as I pretended not to know and since his name was not written on the name card, but I was too naive to think that.
“Do you really not know?” I shook my head. I realized later that they were playing a trick on me. Lui Por was actually detained earlier than I was and this was only a test of my honesty. I was puzzled as the tall one gave me a smile at the end.
The young guards were divided to six groups and took turns guarding me for two hours each time in the course of the whole day. Because we saw each other every day, two or three of them didn’t keep their distance and were willing to talk to me. One of the young men was a good-looking local. Once as I was combing and washing myself, he squatted down and whispered to me, clinging onto the string that was attached to my toothbrush, “there is a big guy next door who seems to be your colleague.” I had asked him beforehand to help me keep an eye on my surroundings. He nodded lightly and didn’t dare say much, because the 300 square foot room was watched by three surveillance cameras. As I stopped to brush my teeth, I came to realize that the smile of the interrogator meant that Lui Por was being detained as well. He knew that I was lying. It was this young man who later did me a huge favor. “Is your girlfriend from Hunan, and loves Lao Ganma chilli sauce?”. “Did she cry?” I asked immediately. She was really timid, and it was my fault that she was going through so much pain for me this time. He nodded briefly. “Please do me another favour”, I begged him quietly, “Please tell her not to cry and that I’m close by.” Yet this time he gave me a look. Through the camera, someone was watching us. He couldn’t help me this time.
In this short interval of these three months, I felt lonely and helpless. I didn’t know whether my vulnerability was caused by this endless interrogation, or the crimeless, interminable imprisonment, but I began to contemplate suicide. As I looked closely at the soft padded walls, I came to the realization that I can’t even break the bones in my neck against it. I thought of hanging myself too, but the flat was twenty feet high and there was no way for me to twist my pants into a piece of rope and hang it up there. That unreachable glass window was originally fitted with an iron fence but that was then sealed off by a wire mesh, so I could not reach through and wrench it open. As for the showerhead that was installed at an elevated position, it was curved and couldn’t have things hung on it. The arrangement of the whole room looked increasingly frightening as I contemplated it because it was obvious that someone else had been confined here alone before me. It was apparent that the long-term isolation had made him lose his mind and try to kill himself. The room was evidently designed in a way to prevent suicide. It was probably my isolation that provoked my suicidal thoughts. As for death itself, I was not afraid. We all die anyway. What I was afraid of was the fear of death. I suddenly felt like I understood why someone would seek death.
Unable to kill myself, I could only continue to experience the pain of having lost freedom. Then came the perpetual trials, which lasted until the end of 2015. One day, the tall one opened his computer to let me read the mailing records. I was shocked, but pretended to be calm, answering his questions one after the other.
“This person lives in Xinjiang. Why did he tell someone from Guangdong to forward the books that he mailed?” “Because they would have been confiscated by the local customs in Xinjiang. I taught him that if he had friends in Guangdong, he should mail these books to them and have them forward the books.” “Why Guangdong?” “It’s easier to get through customs because a high volume of goods come in and out through the port. Who would notice a few packets of books? Customs would be too busy to notice.” “There are so many cities and provinces in China, but the easiest ways to receive a book mailing in each of these places are not at all unfamiliar to you.”
“Why are you so familiar with all this?”
“I am experienced.”
“The remarks written here, are these the important points to note?”
I leant forward for a closer look without my glasses. The words on the screen were more difficult to read than those on paper. These are the ways in which surface mail and express delivery function in different provinces. One of these terms indicate that, say, it is likely that books would be confiscated, if a person wants to mail them to Hangzhou through registered surface mail. Because registered surface mail is forwarded to Shanghai, almost all books are confiscated at the Shanghai customs. If they were express delivered to the post office, they would be forwarded to customs at Wenzhou for random inspection. And like Guangdong, Wenzhou is a busy port. In this case, it would therefore be better to use express delivery. I nodded again. I looked at the screen and pondered secretly—how on earth did they get their hands on the book orders? There was no other way but by taking my keys and to have someone steal it at the bookshop — but would they be so bold and presumptuous as to enforce order across the border?
They must be familiar with these cases. The tall one seemed to know that I had no other intentions, and yet he liked reading books. Although he was a deputy, he didn’t evade discussing books with me. “What books are worth reading from Taiwan and Hong Kong?” he asked. “Yellow Peril” I answered without thinking, which was also a banned book. “What is the book about?” He was interested. I gave him a brief synopsis of the book, saying that it was a dystopian political novel with a lot of character. It was also one of best written books in the genre of Chinese language dystopian political novels. “Which means that we must read it?” He laughed as he asked. The deputy beside him laughed with him. He closed his laptop and prepared to leave.” Could you please get me new books?” I asked. He looked at the few books which he had lent to me that laid on the side. He knew that I was bored to the end of my wits, under perpetual interrogation and indefinitely imprisoned. When a person doesn’t have anything to invest their thoughts, his imagination would run wild and he would go crazy.
“After a few days,” he said. He looked at me, took his laptop, turned around and left.
In all fairness, the tall one —he told us that he went by the last name Shi later — was not severe to me at all. He was unlike the angry teenager in Shenzhen who slammed the table and started yelling at me. At that time, I still didn’t know whether the man whose last name was Shi was criminal police from Ningbo, or whether he was from the Central Special Investigations Team. He never breathed a word of his own identity. After a few days, Shi came again. I was eager for him to come because I thought he brought me books. And yet he was only carrying his laptop and looked solemn and grave. After the guards left as usual, he flipped open his laptop while his deputy gave me a document to read. It was a document charging me with the crime of “Illegal sale of books.” The prosecutor was “the People’s Republic of China.” On the document were a list of months and dates. I looked up, and the deputy wanted me to sign it.
It was like the day on which I was imprisoned in Ningbo and was ordered to sign away my rights. I thought, since I signed last time, I can’t not sign this time, even though I knew that they had handled the case through illegal means.
Very good, As Shi saw that I had signed the document, he relaxed slightly. He then proceeded to flip open his laptop for me to identify a few people. I bent over to look at the screen — it was customer mailing information. I had never even seen many of them as their orders came by email. Some had been ordered in the bookstore, though. But I had not been aware of their backgrounds. He skimmed through a few records to see whether I knew any of them, but I kept shaking my head. He knew that I was cooperating. The only lie that I told was about Lui Por’s mobile number, which he clearly understood.
A few days later, I was told to write a statement of repentance. I had committed no crime, and so I had no idea how to write it. I could only begin like this: because I committed a crime, I am now expressing my sincere remorse to the Chinese government…I finally filled a piece of A4 paper with plausible hogwash after some effort. The deputy came the day after to take the piece of paper away from me, probably to show it to Shi. I thought my perfunctory efforts had done the job and so I went to sit under the window to gaze at the sky. On this side of the room, I could see the buildings facing us. Sometimes I made an excuse of having to relieve myself so I could squat at the toilet and look out. I counted that there were 20 huge windows in the building across, which was 5 stories tall. Its appearance probably mirrors the one that I am staying in. There were a few on the right as well. If there was no fog, a few hilltops would be visible. Later when I was taken away to film footage, I was moved to another room, where I saw small hills too beside the buildings that were behind us. Since the place was surrounded by hills and besieged day and night by fog, I was probably detained on a construction site. Moreover, we always returned from the right side at the back after filming footage, meaning that there was only one entrance, making me even more certain of the fact that this was a construction site. When later Hong Kong news reported on my detention, I was said to have been detained in Ningbo Qixi Police Station. By the look of the photograph, they seemed to have made a mistake. At least that place looked nothing like a construction site. Plus I peeped at the big front entrance. It was indiscriminable apart from an electric gate.
One day Shi came in and placed my statement of remorse on the table as well as a few pieces of plain A4 paper, demanding me to rewrite it. I felt confused; I didn’t know what I could write to make him happy. Across two tables, he started to consider me again; he gives me this look at every interrogation when I say something questionable. He was well built. And if he was a little bit more muscular, he would have been taller and sturdier than Lui Por. Every time I looked at him, I had no choice but to raise my head. His face was easily distinguishable, especially his nose, which resembled that of Chip Tsao of Hong Kong. His cheekbones were not pronounced, which made his face seem narrow. Under his short hair, he had clear, discerning eyes skilled at observing people. I could never precisely tell what he wanted from me. How does he want me to repent? Forcing someone innocent to write a statement of remorse was equivalently absurd as asking an innocent person to construct his own scene of crime. We looked at each other. Perhaps he understood how I felt, and probably wanting to ease things up and get things done, he stopped shooting me that ruminating look. Thoughts seem to rumble through his head as he finally sat down, took a piece of paper, and wrote down five to six main points to guide me through the composition, and told me that this was due tomorrow.
Between January to February, I signed statements pleading guilty and of remorse. Thinking that these cases were similar and that all procedures had been conducted, I thought that I was waiting for trial in court. Shi gave me a case in which someone had committed the same crime as I did as reference. In 2011, someone from Dongbei also committed the crime of “The Illegal Sale of Books” and was fined 30,000 RMB. He was finally sentenced to five years in jail. He told me, that if the Chinese government only decided to look into the crimes I committed after the takeover in 2014, it is likely that I would only have to pay a fine of a few hundred thousand RMB and granted a sentence of two years as fewer books were mailed. I had already submitted myself to the whims of destiny at that time, knowing that the court was just a stage where I had to go perform predetermined motions. In Mainland, courts were only responsible for sentencing, as all criminals who were brought before the court were already determined to be guilty. What a lawyer does is to appeal for lighter sentences. Then, things became more complicated than I imagined they could.
He started questioning me about books. The first time he took around eight to nine publications of Mighty Current and asked me about them. Why did you recommend this book to others? We were waiting in a room along the hallway, where we were to shoot footage later on during the day. That was “Internal Dialogues With Xi Jinping” I explained that it was because this book was more reliable.
“Why? Are the other ones less reliable then?” He picked up other books. I said that this book mainly describes Xi ideas on ideological government. “The Seven Nos of public discourse about universal values and the separation of powers. Have you not read this, Mr. Shi?” I asked nonchalantly, thinking it was weird. “This book is hard to find in the mainland. A person who loves to read is often more curious than others, not to mention banned books.” Shi looked at me and didn’t say anything. He probably thinks these works of political gossip were all fake and made up, or what is considered in the mainland rhetoric not “Kao Pu” — reliable — and worth a mention. When he didn’t make any signs to interrupt, I continued.“The “Seven Noes” have actually been spread like crazy on the internet two years ago. There was a female reporter from Beijing called Gao Yu, who submitted the “Seven Noes” to Mingjing news for publication, but it was used against her as evidence to charge her with the crime of “Alleged Disclosure Of National Secrets”, with which she was sentenced to jail for six years.” “And so this proves that everything inside the book was real?” He asked, still failing to be convinced by what I had said. Of course I couldn’t prove that it was real, but the Chinese officials had never denied that it was untrue—at this moment, the photographers gestured at me to sit down for probably the filming. Then we already had footage. The previous confessions had been based off of the script that I had been given, of which I read off mechanically word by word. Shi was also the director. One of the strangest times was when I was transferred to another place, which was a half an hour car ride from us. Because we had to go up and down the stairs, they took the blindfolds off of me at the carpark so I could walk up myself, probably because it was too inconvenient to guide me up the stairs. As we were on the bottom floor in the passageway, a policewoman walked directly past us with a police badge on her shoulder that said “The Police Station of Ningbo.” When I, as I did last time, walked into the same room and sat on the prisoner’s chair to prepare for the shoot, the policewoman changed and sat at the wall. “Is this Miss Fang?” Shi sat at the interrogation stand like that in Court and asked. Miss Fang nodded. He opened the files on his desk, briefly verifying them, and started speaking again, “Please nod to the other party when you are seated, Miss Fang.” His deputy turned on the recorder at the back, as the two sat adjacent to each other. They began a rehearsed Q&A session.
When the recording was done, I felt curious and asked Shi, “what was that lady sitting there doing?” As he packed up his filming equipment, he said, “she is the witness.” I couldn’t help being surprised. She was clearly a policewoman who had nothing to do with my case. Were so-called witnesses supposed to found randomly like this? Not only did they handle my case illegally, it’s difficult to believe that they have stooped to this level.
I couldn’t help but be worried about what was going to happen afterwards. In order to apply for bail, we shot footage and sent it off to Beijing with my statement of remorse. As I was waiting for news, Shi unexpectedly told me that Beijing was not satisfied with my statements. Then what should we do? I was anxious. If I wasn’t granted bail, I would probably have to spend a year behind bars. After a few days, I heard that Beijing was going to send someone here to observe me. I had the ominous feeling that something bad was going to happen. One afternoon, two people came in. I was squatting beside the toilet washing my clothes then and had to scuttle back on my chair. I was going to sit too after they sat down before one of them slammed the desk and yelled at me, prohibiting me from doing so. I was startled, and remained standing. The other opened his mouth and said, “Do you know who we are?” I shook my head, not having recovered from shock. The other started slamming the desk too, saying, “We are from the Central Special Investigations Team of Beijing. Your publication of these books is slander against the leaders of our country. You diabolic, damnable, fiendish sinners — believe it or not but we can subjugate you for ten and twenty years, until you die of it. No one will know about this in Hong Kong, even if we crush you flat like a useless gnat!” Hurled by this unexpected tsunami of abuse, I was scared shitless and did not know what to do. I let myself be cursed alternately by them, abjectedly. I wasn’t sure of how long this went on until two guards came in, which made me realize that they had already left. It was obvious that there was no hope that I would be granted bail.
“Let’s shoot the video again and rewrite the statement of remorse.” The man named Shi said eventually. We were shooting again. I had to write a new statement of remorse, so I could hand them in again to Beijing. It was almost Chinese New Year and Shi knew that I was constantly sleepless with anxiety. His unapprehended kindness was maybe a sign that he wanted to help. I wasn’t sure whether he was being congenial or whether it was due to some other reason, that I knew that he interrogated me because his superiors told him to, and because he had a bit of pity for me, hoping that I would be bailed. He even suggested to me that he could write me a plea bargain and be my guarantor, as long as I coordinated with him in the future. Then I could only believe him, because I really had no other choice. You could jump bail and escape, but you will kill me by doing this. I was then reassured, breathing a sigh of relief. I was without a doubt sincerely grateful for the help that Mr Shi had given me and was definitely going to coordinate with him in the future. And yet as a pawn, it seemed that us stuck on the same boat was only an illusion.
I have no proof when I say this. And yet why did Beijing send people here to hurl abuse at me? Someone must have had known that Mr Shi would help me out of chivalry, and that person is probably his superior. He knows Mr Shi, and Mr Shi, though a cop, was a scholar too. Not only did scholars have a sense of justice, they also had empathy—more empathy than the normal person. If I was tied up together with Mr. Shi on the same boat, there would be less of a risk that I would jump bail and escape, because I wouldn’t do things that would harm those who have helped me. In comparison to the other three, all of whom had relatives in the Mainland, I only had a girlfriend. It was in this context that it made sense for me to cherish even more the support that I have. That was how I saw Shi at the time. Apart from this, according to the reality that I later saw, even more fearsome arrangements lay beneath the whole incident.
In the beginning of the Chinese calendar year, it snowed. As I gazed at the soft, floating snow, I couldn’t help but feel uplifted. Before Shi left to spend his Chinese New Year holidays, he handed me a notice granting me bail. I would be able to leave soon. And yet the terms were that I could not leave China. I was happy, because I would be outside. This was way better than being imprisoned. In the afternoon, the doctors measured my blood pressure. I asked whether Ningbo snowed every year. He shook his head and strapped the wristband around my arm. I said I had never seen snow before, and yet I could not touch it. “It is so beautiful,” I said again, “it is way more beautiful than the rain.” “What is so beautiful about it?” The doctor smiled as he looked at the blood pressure meter while controlling the rubber bulb. I said, “rain can only fall vertically, and yet snowflakes can dance. If you fix your gaze at them, it makes you feel like you’re inside a dream.” He probably felt that I was being childish. He glanced outside. Then the snow was still coming down heavily. Everything was white. As he took down the wristband, pressure lifted from my arm. You must have touched women. How can you have not touched snow before, if you had touched women? He smiled as he packed away his equipment and left.
Mr. Shi came early evening, his deputy carrying books in his arms. Noticing the colour of the covers, I knew that they were published by Mighty Current. Mr Gui seemed to have a strong affection for the color dark gray. Since many of the covers were this color, they were easily recognizable. As they sat down, the deputy handed me the book. Do you know these editors? Shi asked. I didn’t recognize the names. What about these other ones? I looked at the other books and shook my head, not being able to recognize these either; neither was I aware of what he wanted to know. What was there worthy of investigation since things were dying down, since I was granted bail? He stared fixedly at me, as if suspicious. I could only say that I was just a bookseller, as I did in the court trial. Mr. Gui was the one publishing them and I knew none of the authors. Who were more famous among them? The deputy asked. I thought about this, thinking that it would be easier to explain if I lined up the books. I said that all of these editors were different, because they all made things up. These publications are usually assembled as pastiches of information and it’s best not to take them seriously. I extracted the copy of “The Rebellion of the Chinese Army” and “The Sexual Affairs of the Chinese Communist Officials”. Li Ming, who edited the former, tried to ensure sales by changing the name of the editor to Zhang San, not knowing how popular they would be. It is therefore likely that the two books were compiled by the same person. “What about the content? Have you read them?” Mr. Shi asked again. “I haven’t and wouldn’t read them,” I said. “If you knew that they were unreliable, why would you spend time reading them in the first place?”
I still wasn’t sure of what they were trying to find out then. Then I read the news, which claimed someone was trying to stop Mr Gui from publishing Xi Jinping’s love history, which he was allegedly preparing to publish. Some said that the books betrayed military secrets, and wanted to investigate their sources of information, and this may have been one of the reasons that I was detained. I didn’t want to speculate on this. I only saw — that the Mainland government was acting violently to destroy a small bookstore in Hong Kong.
Days felt like years to me. As I waited week after week, I received no information that I would be released. One morning, as it was snowing heavily, the doctor came in with a piece of snow. I was overjoyed, feeling the warmth of our shared humanity. When I touched it, it turned to be cold, hard and rough, which was drastically different from the texture of a woman’s skin. “I picked it up on the side of the road,” the doctor said. The guard came over. It was originally prohibited to bring hard objects into the room. Yet he couldn’t interfere because the doctor had special rights. Knowing that, he withdrew to his spot. The doctor told me to sit down and felt my pulse. It was probably normal, as he left without saying anything afterwards. After I left the snow on the floor of the shower and went back to my seat, I peeled apart the plastic seat slightly to take out a few pieces of thread, and started to count the days again. It was the thread that I tore from my prisoner’s jumpsuit during the third day of my imprisonment in Ningbo. On it were 124 orange knots, meaning that I had been here for four months.
Mr Shi came in the afternoon, saying that he had to take a picture of me. The one who came was not the deputy, but rather an old acquaintance from Shenzhen. When I stood up, he was holding his camera with the other hand pushing me against the wall, telling me to stand properly. He raised the camera and started to snap pictures. Each time that he took a picture, the flashbulb would gleam. Against the flashing light, I couldn’t stop blinking. Checking the picture previews immediately afterwards and seeing that they were badly taken, with my eyes closed in every shot. When Mr. Shi took over, turning off the flashbulb and took a few ones of me again. Checking back, he nodded and indicated that the picture taking was done. I went back to my seat. Mr Shi walked to to the door, turned around and said, “you will be able to leave in a few days —but stay in Shaoguan.” Only as I watched him disappear, did I realize that he too was a member of the Central Special Investigations Team.
We took a cab to Lo Wu when we arrived at Shenzhen North,. It was exactly 11am, meaning that we could cross the customs then, but Department Director Chan said that we should eat before we did so. I didn’t mind. They were unfamiliar with Shenzhen, and so they got off at the Qiaoshe compound and picked a restaurant randomly in an alleyway. I didn’t eat much, and went out to have a smoke. Through the glass doors, Director Chan kept looking at me. I was aware then someone had been arranged to wait for me over the border. After I had crossed it, they would still send someone to spy on me. Then I was still intent and didn’t take their way of doing things into heart, and was obedient. In the afternoon I would eat with my sister, in the early evening I would find Lee Bo to retrieve the computer. On the next morning, I would go back to Shenzhen. Before I set out, The man named Shi told me that Gui Minhai would be sentenced from around September to December. After he was sentenced, we would be released back to Hong Kong. As long as we kept quiet, things will die down. After we passed the Lo Wu Bridge, we were intercepted by Immigration Department officers and taken into a small room, where we were interrogated by police officers. Like the three other people, I acted accordingly to the instructions that had been giving to me: I am coming to bring a case to a close. I am very safe and I do not need help.
I bought a copy of Apple Daily in a convenience store, waited for a while, but did not see the man named Shi and Director Chan. As I dragged my suitcase which my heavy computer, I looked into another room but did not either of them. Before we crossed the border, we had agreed to meet in the second room if we did not see each other on the first. But should I actually greet them or pretend that I don’t recognize them? The man named Shi didn’t elaborate further. Only later did I understood that they were worried about being photographed enforcing law across the border, as this would cause a brazen uproar. Afterwards, I publicized the incident to the press, made an oral statement in the Wanchai police station and watched the immigration surveillance videos at the border: I crossed the Lo Wu Bridge at 11:25am, whereas they appeared upon it at 11:55am. At 12:15:30am they were at the immigration exit of immigration. I thought they have already entered Hong Kong borders, and so I traveled by the MTR to the Caritas Bianchi Lodge. I knew that people were watching around me. I turned around a couple of times, but I never saw them. Afterwards I simply stopped caring. So what if they saw me? I had no way to prove it. In any case, after I went back for a few months, everyone would be able to come back to Hong Kong and lead their peaceful lives as they always have had.
And yet as I was in room 1207 of Caritas Bianchi Lodge scrolling through the news on my phone, I already read reports of my crossing of the border. Like the three of them, who were subject to police questioning, I was said to have been gone without a trace. This provoked my curiosity. Although I had already know that this incident was going to be blown up as international news, I had no idea what was clearly going on nor how serious it was. I urgently had to see my family, my teacher, and yet the phone in the Lodge wouldn’t function; neither did my phone. Since the caretaker told me that the incoming and outgoing calls would be recorded and appear on the bill, I could not make calls as the invoice had to be handed in for reimbursement and as proof of where I stayed. If the invoice shows that I didn’t obey their instructions, I would be severely punished. Plus I also suspect that the Xiaomi phone is tracked; this was a risk I couldn’t take. I wanted to make a call in the Yau Ma Tei MTR station, but I couldn’t find the booths. I asked the staff where they were, but they turned out to be cancelled by the telecommunications company, with everyone having a cell phone these days. Who would need them? I kept looking on the streets. There were two on Waterloo Road but both of them were broken. There was a small bookstore nearby. We were in the same trade and we had known each other for thirty years. I knew that he would lend me a phone. After I set up a time to eat with my sister, I called my teacher. His daughter picked up. I asked about his health, and it turns out that he was fine physically. Hearing that, I felt slightly more relieved. I was going to visit him after eating with my sister, but I didn’t have enough time. Going to Tuen Mun and back takes at least three hours.
After my meal with my sister, I went back to North Point to pick up my computer. Standing in the subway car were chattering students with smiles on their faces. Some passengers stared at their phones with their heads bowed. A pregnant woman got on the car. Someone gave her his seat. An express delivery worker puts down his bag, squatted down in a corner to sort them. Everyone was free of care and worries, unlike me, who was being followed and manipulated. What on earth did I do? I was in Hong Kong, and yet I still lost my freedom. They are such horrible bullies. I was locked up in solitary confinement for five months and constrained in Shaoguan. I couldn’t even stay for another day to visit my ailing teacher. They didn’t even let me call my girlfriend. I had no idea what she was doing. I was even preparing to live with her. I used my sister’s phone to call her, and yet her number was cancelled. They were lying to me. They want to isolate me from other people. They are such horrible bullies. What right did they have to follow me? What right did they have to take my freedom away from me? Not to mention the fact that they acted exactly like the Triads. I started to feel really angry. I was no longer a Hongkonger. What was even scarier afterwards then, as the man named Shi had told me, was that I had to continue working in the bookshop after I came back to Hong Kong. He would be in contact then so I could report what was happening, through text or photographs. They wanted to understand what was going on in Hong Kong, especially those who were buying books about political theories. I were to be his ears and his eyes in the future. Dear God, not only will I lose my freedom in the future, I will also have to betray other people; if I yielded today, I will become an accomplice tomorrow, bringing more people to surrender to this dark power; If I sold my soul today, I will have no choice but to force others to sell their souls; I have become one of them today, and tomorrow I will cause more people to become one of us.
What should I do?
Carrying a huge and bulky computer in the MTR, I couldn’t turn around. But I was happy. Everyone around me were Hongkongers. Hongkongers that were carefree.). Although I had lost a lot of freedom, and I knew I would be manipulated and kept under surveillance in the future, I was still happy because in the end, I would still be in Hong Kong. I loved being pushed in crowds of free Hongkongers, because they all had dignity. If a man was free, he would also be dignified. I know that my freedom and dignity were being stripped off by those people piece by piece, and yet I felt that, these free and dignified Hongkongers would lend me a helping hand when they know that my freedom and dignity was being stripped away by them. They would stop this. And then, they will help me find my lost freedom and dignity and place them back in my hands, so that I would be like them again — a Hongkonger.
I inspected the computer wrapped in newspaper and a plastic bag and realized that Lee Bo had taken the wrong computer. Or rather, someone had given him the wrong computer. My computer was not as heavy and cumbersome as this one. I was probably so weighed down with my anxieties, that I didn’t notice that it was the wrong computer on my way back. If I pretended not to know and took this computer back, which did not contain any customer information, they would look into this matter. I was discovered last time when I lied to the man named Shi. But if I changed my computer back and took it to them, I would become the betrayer. I could neither bring this computer back nor take mine back. I didn’t know what I should do. Like the proverb: slow and steady wins the race; a slow fire makes sweet malt. I thought if I delayed its course, and told them only at midnight, I would still be able to retrieve my computer tomorrow and stay for another day, giving me time to decide.
And so I sent them a text message, saying that I was going to eat dinner. (Before this, I sent them a text saying that I had already retrieved my computer). The man named Shi said I had his permission. (The man named Shi said that was fine.) Then he sent me another text, saying that he wasn’t particularly excited, despite it was his first time being in Hong Kong. I texted him back, joking with him, saying, “Dear brother, you’re not on an inspecting emperor’s on tour, you’re on business.” I already felt suspicious then. The man named Shi didn’t see me as a friend. The fact that he was helping me plead for leniency was to create the illusion that we were tied up together on the same boat. If I jumped bail and escaped, I would kill him. I can’t in the end betray my friends.
And yet if they were real friends, they wouldn’t make you betray someone.
I loved Hong Kong too much. When I finished my bowl of noodles, I went to Temple Street. I had not gone to Temple Street for so many years, as I had stood in my bookstore for a whole of twenty years. I loved observing the small peddlers and stall-keepers, although some of them sometimes cheated the tourists. I really liked looking at the way the fortune tellers pretended to show the way to those who looked wary and lost, despite being unreliable. Sometimes I stood under the balconies to look at the ladies of the night standing by the streets. I loved looking at the street hawkers, especially those that were spread out on the street. I loved gazing at the thousands of faces that sat at their tables enjoying their food. I loved seeing Hongkongers everywhere. I loved the quality of Hongkongers. I loved watching Hongkongers helping a fellow passerby. I loved how Hongkongers jaywalked. I loved the efficiency of Hongkongers.
As the man named Shi received my call at midnight, he sounded anxious. “How many computers are there in your shop, actually?” I said three. “Which one was the one with the information?” I said that it was the one that I used. “Where do you put the one that you use?” “At the desk.”
“There are two of them in the shop. Which one of them is yours?” “It’s the one at the cashier.” “Either tables could be used as a cashier. Is it the one of the left or the right?” “The right one.” “You mean the one near the toilet?” “No, I meant the one by the wall.” “I thought you said on the right?” “I am speaking from behind the cashier but you are looking from the door. Left and right are naturally inversed from this perspective.” “Right, everything clear. Wait for my text.” I then received a text giving me permission to stay another day, so I could have the computer exchanged the next day.
I don’t remember whether it was Lee Bo who opened the door the first time I retrieved the computer. That was probably the case? It didn’t seem like that in my memory though. His wife only appeared after I began talking to Lee Bo. I searched through my memory, trying to remember the second time which I went to retrieve my computer. Lee’s wife was there for the whole time. Yes—Lee had opened the door the first time. Only then did Mrs Lee appear, as Lee Bo spoke of being taken up there, Mrs Lee came out from the room partitioned by glass to interject, saying that she discovered that he was missing and that she was incredibly frightened that night. Then there was the second time that we spoke —she was there all along as well. What was strange was that the first conversation lasted longer, probably for an hour and half, but we didn’t talk about much. Whenever we spoke of the bookshop, we fell into silence. The second time was shorter. We had only an hour but the discussion was way more laden. We discussed briefly about Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping. Lui Por was currently in Hong Kong helping Cheung Chi-ping to clean up his mess. Cheung Chi-ping was here once. After he went back to Dongguan, he didn’t come back. Among the three of us, Cheung Chi-ping was the youngest. I knew that he was scared out of his wits then, and had once wept. I felt downcast when I heard about this in Ningbo, and so I kept silent and didn’t say anything about it. Lee Bo said that our bookshop had been bought up by someone else. Even I had already gotten wind of the news from my phone yesterday. Then Lee Bo started to talk about those books, which had all been destroyed across the border. I wasn’t aware of this; nor had the reports mentioned this. Lee Bo started to talk about having gone up with the others. Mrs Lee butted in again. That night, she discovered that he had disappeared after he went away with a few people. Opening his drawer, she found his Home Return Permit. (As I read the news on the same night on my phone, I realized that she had skipped over the part about how she had lost the key and had to find someone to open it for her, which made her panic even more). I looked at Mrs Lee’s face and saw a lingering fear. Lee Bo said afterwards that things will be over soon as long as they followed instructions. Everyone will be fine.
I wasn’t paying attention then and didn’t remember what Lee Bo had said, if he was taken up, brought up, or being threatened to go up. It didn’t really matter because they meant similar things—they were all to the similar sense of being forced to go up to Shenzhen involuntarily (he was unwilling. As long as you read his interview with Initium conducted in November, you will read that he had expressed the clear intention that he will not return to mainland). I kept glancing at the suitcase. I immediately exchanged computers the moment I went through the door, putting my computer in place of Lee Bo’s, afraid that I would forget. That computer was now my burden. I had no idea what to do. The matter concerning the computer clung to my mind and made me forget about asking Lee Bo, who had given them the reader’s information. I didn’t notice then that before he had disappeared on December the 30th, that the bookshop had already been exchanged and taken over by a man named Chan, according to the reports on Initium. I was still in solitary confinement then. Around the end of November, the man named Shi opened the files that contained information on the readers and showed them to me. Setting them side by side, since the bookshop had been taken over then, the person who handed over the software should be the man named Chan. When I saw the press later, I told them that Lee Bo had been the person handing over the software when someone asked about it. As I went over the evidence now, I realized how careless I was. I didn’t verify before telling them Shi’s version of the events. Because of this, the readers accused Shi of betraying them. I was misguided by Shi and made Lee Bo endure an injustice. I think then I was afraid of apologizing to Lee Bo, as I was misguided myself. Despite I really didn’t have time then to verify the facts. Against Mrs Lee and Lee Bo, I was agitated and was impatient to hand over the information that was demanded of me. I was the first one to betray the readers. And tomorrow, I would be the second one.
I tried to appear relaxed. My sister told me to eat more. Prince Restaurant was packed that evening. There were even people lining up outside to be seated. Inside was a tumult of voices. The people on our neighboring table were particularly animated. Someone stood up to propose a toast. The ones being toasted didn’t dare to ignore the gesture and returned it immediately. I could tell it was a gathering of old classmates when they started to talk about interesting things that happened in high school. Someone was playing a game on their phones behind us —I wasn’t sure whether it as a game of racing cars or roller coasters, as I heard the engines grate against the metallic rails. My sister asked me whether I was going to live in a hotel this time I went back to Shaoguan. I nodded. I told her I didn’t return the room when I came over, so all my clothes, books and belongings were still there. Then my sister’s husband then showed me some biblical passages and adages on his phone. I didn’t know when it was that my sister’s family started to be religious. They kept preaching to me in these recent years. You have to believe, if you do, you will be able to follow virtue. My sister said earnestly. Of course I agreed, but one does not have to believe in order to be able to follow virtue, I said and smiled. Sister shook her head exasperatedly and served me food. I glanced at her husband’s phone. There was a small photograph on the screen. In the photograph was a blue tea cup, the rim of which was bordered with white chrysanthemums. It said on it: Happiness will come with the right attitude.
As I sent my sister off to the bus, I turned into Portland Street and passed by Langham Place. It was a weekday. Had it been a holiday, the streets would still be swarmed by people. I walked towards the direction of Yau Ma Tei into Shanghai Street, and then back into Portland Street. I wanted to take everything into my eyes, because I couldn’t bear to part with Hong Kong.
As I followed the stream of the crowd along the escalator back to the ground floor, my bus came, which promised that I would be able to cross the Lo Wu bridge in 45 minutes. I suddenly wanted to smoke a cigarette. I pushed my suitcase forward and felt for my wallet. There were people everywhere. As I left the gate, I had no idea which direction I should go. I remember that my left should be Festival Walk. Only after I crossed the passage did I realize that I was in the wrong way. On both sides of the end were only stairs. On the right, were a few people who were sitting on the steps, most probably taking a rest. Not wanting to walk backwards, I carried my suitcase upwards. As I smoked my first drag, I felt that I didn’t have enough time. I continued to take a second drag anyway. I looked at my watch. It was 12:45pm. It was for the better that I turned my phone off. On the right was the entrance to Festival Walk, where people mulled about. On the left, a little bit further removed, were a few gates to the MTR. On the side were a few tuck shops. Someone came over to smoke. The ash tray on the top of the bin was laden with cigarette butts. I glanced at my watch. The person over there took a few drags and flicked away the remaining half of his cigarette, turning away to leave. Someone was waiting for me on the other side of Lo Wu. If I was late, Mr Shi wouldn’t reproach me —this I knew. Director Chan would most probably not say anything either, but would keep this in mind.
“Director Chan said that you were not cooperating,” claimed Mrs Lee. “How?” I didn’t answer.
It only came to my knowledge yesterday that Director Chan had put Lee Bo on trial when we talked. I couldn’t figure out when was it that they met. Figuring from Mrs Lee’s tone, he was also there. When I was in Shaoguan, I saw the Director a few times. Thenafter he and the man named Shi escort me under custody to Shenzhen, where we went through customs separately. Lee Bo was already back in Hong Kong in March, so it wasn’t possible that they could have seen each other recently. But Mrs Lee wouldn’t have had mentioned the past without a reason—unless they had just met? I thought of the computer in the suitcase. That I was delaying bringing the computer back was probably noticed by him. He was probably going to striding arrogantly into the bookshop to take the computer, because the bookshop had already been taken over and belonged no longer to Lee Bo. They had probably made the exchange in the morning and talked. Mrs Lee probably didn’t want to have it straight out, and instead hinted at me secretly. I shivered under the warm sunshine. This time going back, I was screwed.
Then I thought of the time when I reading the news on my phone through the night. The 6000 Hongkongers who rallied and protested for us moved me. And also those legislative council members—I didn’t have ongoings with most of them. They stood out purely for the sake of justice to excoriate what the Mainland had done. These people were too arrogant. They had no regard for law or discipline and crossed our bottom lines. The Hongkongers had stepped out to prove the existence of human conscience: that our fundamental human rights were not to be infringed upon. We have to safeguard our (Hongkongers’) freedom and dignity, we will not bend our backs to power, we will never yield. They are role models. They are the role models of Hongkongers. I felt that I had to stand out and make this incident be known to everyone. Not only to Hongkongers, but to the world—that the mainland chinese government was going back on their promise, violating the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”.
And yet this was no way to go. My girlfriend was in the Mainland, like Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, waiting to be granted bail and put on trial. If I met the press to publicize the incident, they will probably be punished even more heavily. What about Lee Bo? They would probably fly into a rage out of humiliation and even prosecute him too, adding groundless accusations on his head. This was what had happened to Yiu Man-tin. I knew him well. He was an amiable man of culture. He only published a few books that made them unhappy to fall headfirst into their framing. He was given a heavy sentence. I couldn’t do this. I cannot not care about them. I am being too selfish. There was a lot of sense in what Lee Bo had said; things were going to die down soon. As long as we acted accordingly to their instructions, everyone was going to be fine. As long as I kept quiet and stayed in Shaoguan for a few months —as Shi had said, until September or December, after Gui Minhai had been granted sentence, we would be released back to Hong Kong, where things would be resolved.
But I couldn’t leave things this way. This was not only a matter concerning the bookstore, nor that of us few people. I dragged my suitcase and walked to the gate. I began to tell myself: I need a drag of a cigarette. Only half of one would suffice. I stopped looking at my watch, knowing that I was already late for a whole half an hour. Someone was probably waiting there in vain. I couldn’t make up my mind. I was back where I had started. A man who was dragging his luggage was smoking. I couldn’t do that. I had no idea as to whether what I had done was right or wrong. I couldn’t make a decision. And then I remembered a poem, that poem by S.C. Wong (舒巷城). I had read it when I was young, the poem about knees folding against a desk. I still remember what I had read on The Ocean Arts. I didn’t read less than others. If I went back, wouldn’t I have read these books for nothing? I tossed away my cigarette and decided to change the plans of my journey.
I was interviewed afterwards by the media who wanted to know the details. They seemed to have asked about everything but one thing. Why did these people sell the bookshop but leave it empty? The rent of Causeway Bay Bookshop was 40,000 HKD per month. I know a two-year contract had been signed, in which we had to pay 960,000 for two years. With extra agency fees it would have cost over a million. Everyone knew that these people were rich. Yet they wouldn’t waste their money on nothing, would they? I am going to quote my own words — “when I was in Shaoguan, Shi told me that I had to continue working in the bookshop after I came back to Hong Kong. He would be in contact so I could report what was happening, through text or photographs. They wanted to understand what was going on in Hong Kong, especially those who were buying books about political theories.” Don’t you understand? The purpose of those people buying off the store was to have it serve as a convenient point of surveillance, from which they could spy upon Hongkongers. Isn’t this scary? I think this strict deployment cannot be counted as scary. Even if the rights of most Hongkongers were to face encroachment from the Mainland, we would still endure it without a sound, until it became a matter that no longer concerned oneself, as we casted cold eyes upon it like an outsider, fearful that something similarly severe could happen; if they could destroy a bookstore with violence, they could destroy each of our families violently as well.
It is deep into the night as I write this last paragraph. Leaning against the window, I saw that the lights reflected from the streetlights on the typhoon shelter were flickering uncertainly. On the right were the residential areas, where tens and thousands of lights were burning. On a footbridge not too far removed were subway trains that criss-crossed against the burning street lamps. Underneath them were a few scattered cars, which sped on the curved highway like track athletes, making an elegant turn.
As it was written in The Old Man and The Sea: A man is not made for defeat.
Written in the safe house on the 29th of July, 2016.