Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee at a bookstore in Taipei on April 26. Lam, who disappeared into Chinese custody for eight months, has fled to Taiwan after Hong Kong announced plans to approve extraditions to mainland China. (Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP)
“If the extradition law is passed, it is a death sentence for Hong Kong,” said Lam Wing-kee in a crowded coffee shop in Taipei. “Beijing will use this law to control Hong Kong completely. Freedom of speech will be lost. In the past, the regime kidnapped its critics, like me, illegally. With this law, they will abduct their critics legally.”
That is why yesterday an estimated one million Hong Kongers marched in protest at the extradition law. Businesses, judges, lawyers and the international community have spoken out, but so far the Hong Kong government seems determined to press ahead.
Yet Lam Wing-kee, 63, knows from first-hand experience what the consequences of this change to the extradition law could be, and how the Chinese Communist Party behaves.
On Oct. 24, 2015, Lam, who managed a bookshop and publishing business in Causeway Bay that sold books critical of China’s leadership, was arrested as he crossed the border into mainland China in Shenzhen. There then followed an eight-month nightmare in which he was first imprisoned in Ningbo and then moved to Shaoguan, a small mountain town in Guangdong province where he was assigned to work in a library — better off than in prison but still not free and completely cut off from the outside world.
“I was not physically tortured, but mentally I was threatened and subjected to brainwashing,” he said.
When he was first arrested, Lam was forced to sign two statements: surrendering his right to inform his family of his whereabouts and his right to a lawyer. Over the eight months he was held in China, he was forced to write confessions more than 20 times. Several times he was filmed, with an interrogator behind him whom he could not see, and these were then broadcast on national television — one of many forced televised confessions that have become a feature of Xi Jinping’s regime.
“If I didn’t write what they wanted me to write, they would write it for me,” Lam said. “If my confession was not satisfactory, they would tell me what to write.”
When he asked what crimes he had committed, his interrogators told him simply: “If we say you have committed a crime, you have committed a crime.” So much for the rule of law. “I never went to court, I never saw a judge,” he told me. He was accused of being a counter-revolutionary, damaging the Chinese Communist Party and attempting to split the nation.
But Lam was not acting alone. Indeed he was one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers who disappeared one by one in the final quarter of 2015 — Gui Minhai, who remains in detention in Ningbo today, abducted from his holiday home in Thailand in October 2015; Lee Bo, who was abducted the previous month; Lu Bo and Zhang Zhiping, who also disappeared. And while the booksellers were missing, their company was mysteriously bought out by, according to Lam, “people sent by Beijing.”
Why were they targeted and why is Gui Minhai the only one of them still not released? According to Lam, it all relates to a document which Gui allegedly has in his possession regarding a love affair which Xi Jinping reportedly had while he was vice governor of Fujian in 1999. “No one knows if the document is real, but Xi Jinping clearly cares about it a lot,” said Lam.
Snatched from train
Gui, a Swedish citizen, had supposedly been released in January 2018 from detention in Ningbo, and he boarded a train accompanied by Swedish diplomats with a view to leaving the country. At the last minute he was snatched by Chinese police from the train and returned to detention.
Lam was finally brought back to Hong Kong in June 2016, not for the purposes of releasing him but in order to obtain his computer which contained the details of some of the bookstore’s customers. Lam described to me in detail that episode, including the fact that he was accompanied by mainland Chinese officials who provided him with a cellphone with a tracking device. Whenever he wished to leave his hotel, he had to inform his minders — and he was warned never to turn off the cellphone.
After a series of meetings with colleagues to obtain the computer, and a false start in which he was given the wrong computer, he finally made his way, as instructed, back to the border where he was expected to hand over the computer with clients’ details and return to his restricted life as a librarian under the regime’s control in the mountains of Guangdong.
He was offered the chance, in the future, to work again in what had been his own bookstore but was now under Beijing’s ownership, and to do so as a spy for the Chinese regime. “I did not want to be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party or to lose my freedom,” he said. “They wanted to turn the bookstore and publishing company from one that believed in freedom of expression into one that would be a speech-monitoring center. I couldn’t do that.”
On the way, and after stopping for three cigarettes, Lam had a rethink. “I was afraid that if I gave my computer, the regime would kidnap, arrest or prosecute all my customers. I couldn’t do that. I thought, if I go public and tell Hong Kongers the truth, I might save some people,” he said. “But I faced a dilemma. I might endanger my colleagues. But they can’t speak out because they all have relatives in China. I realized I was the only one who could reveal the truth.”
And so, at the very last minute, on his way to the border, Lam switched off the cellphone, aborted the journey, borrowed another phone, called a prominent pro-democracy lawyer and went public.
Over the past three years, Lam has been followed regularly in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government, he said, “pretended to communicate with Beijing” about his case but in reality did nothing to help. He fears that if the extradition law passes, he could be sent back to the mainland — and that is why he has left Hong Kong.
“If the extradition law passes, you won’t be able to post articles on your own social media about human rights in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and about Taiwan’s independence,” he said. “You will face charges of ‘splittism’, even if you speak up outside China. Foreigners who speak out will be in danger transiting through Hong Kong. If you have said something about China and you are in transit in Hong Kong, the Chinese regime can catch you there. Until now, Hong Kong just deports critics. Under this law, it can send them to the mainland.”
Lam is unsure of his own future. But of one thing he is crystal clear. “The international community must wake up and not put all their attention solely on China’s economy,” he said. “They must pay more attention to the human rights situation, not only in mainland China but in Hong Kong too. We already have Hong Kong refugees. I hope more countries will prepare to receive more asylum seekers from Hong Kong. And I hope the world will speak out against the proposed extradition law.”
Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist, co-founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and East Asia team leader of international human rights organization CSW.