by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Okstartnow/WikiCommons/CC

THE REAPPEARANCE of abducted Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee and revelations of forced confessions of wrongdoing extracted from him by the Chinese government have rocked Hong Kong in recent days. Lam was one of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold and published books critical of the Chinese government who disappeared mysteriously, only for it later to be discovered that they were in China, pointing towards kidnapping by the Chinese government. 

Aired confessions of criminal wrongdoing by the booksellers were aired on Chinese state-run media, during which the kidnapped individuals claimed that they were guilty of criminal wrongdoing for crimes as vehicular manslaughter or illegal activities in China but denied that they had been coerced into going to China. These televised confessions suggested coercion, with few believing the official narrative that the booksellers had voluntarily gone to China of their own will.

In particular, while several of the booksellers were kidnapped in China, the kidnapping of Lee Bo provoked much fear given that it happened directly within Hong Kong territory. Likewise, the kidnapping of Gui Minhai occurred while he was in Thailand, suggesting collusion between Chinese and Thai authorities. Of the booksellers, Lee Bo, Lui Por, and Cheung Jiping would later reappear briefly in Hong Kong to deny that they had been kidnapped and asking for missing persons reports filed about them to be withdrawn—upon which they then disappeared back into China under mysterious circumstances. Indeed, though some news reports actually claim that the missing booksellers are now free after reappearing in Hong Kong, what is missed in such coverage is that afterwards these booksellers returned to China and presumably remain detained. Nothing has been heard from Gui Minhai after his televised confession of wrongdoing, although his daughter has begun a campaign asking the US for help to inquire as to his whereabouts.

Lam, the founder of Causeway Bay books, first appeared in Hong Kong in similar fashion to Lee Bo, Lui Por, and Cheung Jiping, asking that Hong Kong police withdraw their missing person report concerning him. But Lam later held a press conference stating that he had been coerced into previous confessions of criminal wrongdoing. Lam stated that he was detained by officials at the border crossing between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, blindfolded, and spirited away by train for hundreds of miles to a city near Shanghai. Lam was then detained in a 200 to 300 square feet room for five months without outside contact, kept under 24/7 surveillance, and subjected to interrogation.

Although Lam stated he had not been tortured, during this time, Lam’s overseers feared he would attempt to kill himself, only allowing him to brush his teeth with the toothbrush on a string so that he would not try to swallow the toothbrush. Lam stated that he had contact with Lee Bo during this time, Lee confirming that he had been kidnapped from within Hong Kong. It is thought that Lam may have been the last of the booksellers to be temporarily released, given his lack of family members whom the Chinese Communist Party, could have used as hostage.

Lam also stated that he had been originally slated to return to China, having been released in order to obtain a hard drive containing the customer information for 600 customers of the Causeway Bay bookshop run by the booksellers. However, after some thought, he decided to go public rather than turn in the customer information and return to China. Lam claimed that Lee Bo had told him that he had given the information of customers to Chinese authorities already, in response to which Lee would publish a post on Facebook denying that he had handed in such information and denying that he been kidnapped to China, claiming that he had gone to China of his own free will. Suspiciously, this was the first Facebook post by Lee in over two years. Cheung Chi-ping and Lui Por have also issued statements claiming that Lam is lying, not without much skepticism that this, too, may be coerced. Several bookstores in Hong Kong selling political books have now announced that they will no longer be keeping member information after these revelations.

Lam, of course, remains in danger and could be detained again by Chinese or Hong Kong authorities. At the very least, Lam has turned to pan-democratic lawmakers as Alfred Ho for assistance, whom Lam consulted before making the decision to go public and many groups have rallied behind him. However, the possibility of being kidnapped again remains large. Lam cited that because he was the least important of the five booksellers, he felt he had a responsibility to speak out—and that if Hong Kong as a whole did not speak out, Hong Kong would be doomed. Lam has also stated that this is also not about himself, but about the Hong Kong people. For his actions, Lam has been hailed as a hero by many. On the other hand, news coverage of the event has been banned in China and a woman claiming to be his Chinese girlfriend alleges criminal activity by Lam.

If Lam’s revelations are not exactly surprising, they at least confirm what had been suspected for a long time both within Hong Kong and by observers from afar. Yet, significantly, what may be the key revelation from Lam’s reappearance is that Lam claims a central special investigation team was behind the kidnappings.

Central special investigation teams reports directly to top Chinese leadership and are usually used in politically sensitive, high-level purges of Chinese government officials, as in the recent purges of Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai under the auspices of Xi Jinping’s current ongoing anti-corruption campaign. They are ad hoc groups of investigators used to handle sensitive political matters, reporting directly to top leadership, operating not as part of any official law enforcement body. Namely, if Lam’s account is true, this would suggest that the kidnappings of the five booksellers was orchestrated from the highest-levels of the Chinese leadership. It was previously speculated that the kidnappings may have been orchestrated by overzealous low-ranking officials seeking to impress their superiors.

Nevertheless, it is also to be questioned why exactly five booksellers would be targeted. The books sold by the booksellers were largely tabloids, often revolving the relationships and sex lives of contemporary Chinese leaders, particularly Xi Jinping. Would it be so important to target such individuals? It is possible that this signifies the importance of pacifying Hong Kong to the top levels of Chinese leadership, through making examples of individuals as the Causeway Bay booksellers. It has also been suggested that the central special investigation team believes that there is a political clique behind the Causeway Bay booksellers orchestrating the dissemination of information critical of Chinese government leaders, possibly in collusion with foreign powers, and is attempting to flush this clique out.

The latter explanation suggests it is possible that the Chinese government may be seeing the shadowy presence of forces that may not exist behind popular dissent against Chinese rule in Hong Kong, however, apparently with the view that popular dissent cannot happen without some orchestrating presence behind the scenes. That would not be too surprising, given Chinese government reactions to popular dissent has revolved around such lines in past.

The future of Lam Wing-kei remains unknown, as does that of the other four booksellers. Lam would lead 6,000 in demonstration through the streets of Hong Kong in demonstration on Saturday. More broadly, as evidenced in this case, we will continue to see as to the future of Hong Kong.

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