At the start of June, Foreign Minister Wang Yi berated Canadian reporter Amanda Connolly when she asked about human rights in China. Fuming, Wang accused her of prejudice.
“I want to tell you that it’s the Chinese people who most understand China’s human rights record – not you, but the Chinese people themselves. You have no right to speak on this. The Chinese people have the right to speak,” he lectured scathingly.
Interestingly, one Chinese citizen has just exercised that right. In fact, he gave a withering critique of China’s legal system, as well as its trampling of Hong Kong laws.
Lam Wing-kee, one of five detailed booksellers from Hong Kong, was allowed to return on the proviso he would collect for investigators a database of 400-500 mainland readers from his bookshop, of which he was store manager.
Instead, he exposed in a press conference on 16 June the treatment he had undergone at the hands of the Chinese authorities. His claims were a literal bombshell.
After his arrest when crossing the border from Hong Kong into Shenzhen on 24 October 2015, Lam was blindfolded and bundled 1,100km by train to Ningbo. He was forced to sign a form giving up rights to legal representation and contact with family members. He was never formally charged. Lam was interrogated up to four times a week. He was forced to give a scripted television confession and was held in solitary confinement for eight months under 24-hour surveillance.
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A guard would even hold a string tied at the end of his toothbrush to prevent him from attempting suicide by swallowing it, he said.
The bookseller saga has gripped Hong Kong for months. Five men associated with Causeway Bay Books and the Mighty Current publishing house, which locally published and distributed books critical of the Beijing government, disappeared one after another last year. All eventually surfaced on the mainland, claiming they had gone there voluntarily. Only one remains in Chinese custody, the others have returned home.
The clear import of Lam’s allegations is that the Chinese authorities are above the law. It also shows Beijing blatantly breaks the spirit and regulations enshrined in the One Country, Two Systems principle.
Foreign Minister Wang’s words — “I want to tell you that it’s the Chinese people who most understand China’s human rights record” – ring hollow in the light of Lam’s lamentable treatment.
The 61-year-old Lam commented on his incarceration, “I couldn’t believe this could happen to me. It was very surreal. I thought I was in another world and even hoped my situation was a dream and not reality. As a Hongkonger I am a free man. I did not commit any crimes but I was locked up for no reason for five months.”
Referring to his televised confession, Lam said, “There was a director and there was a script. I had to memorize the lines and read them in front of TV.”
Only Lam has dared to speak out. “If I don’t speak up…then there is no hope for Hong Kong. I had to pluck up a lot of courage, thought about it for two nights, before I decided tell you all what happened, as originally and completely as I could.
“I also want to tell the whole world. This is Hongkongers’ bottom line: Hongkongers will not bow down before brute force.”
With clenched fists, he declared, “The Chinese government has forced Hong Kong people into a dead end.”
There is genuine concern among some sectors of Hong Kong that they could meet the same fate. Andrei Chang, editor of the defense publication Kanwa, permanently left Hong Kong in May for Japan. He said that he too feared being abducted. Chang feels particularly vulnerable as he writes regular exposés about China’s military.
One of the booksellers, Gui Minhai, who is also a Swedish national, disappeared from Pattaya in Thailand. The logical conclusion is that China kidnapped him from there.
In Lam’s case, the bare facts are stark. China detained a Hong Kong citizen for eight months and denied him due legal process. The territory’s autonomy has been severely eroded.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “Lam Wing-kee is a Chinese citizen, and he has violated China’s laws on the mainland. Related authorities in China are authorized to handle the case in accordance with the law.” However, are the charges politically motivated rather than criminal acts?
Winnie Tam SC, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, queried, “The Hong Kong government has to ask what was it that Lam committed, where does his criminal responsibility lie, what gives the mainland, whichever department, the right to take him away or detain him. These are answers we really need to know.”
In April 2015 the Cyberspace Administration of China issued a directive saying that terrorism, illegal religion, fake reporters, foreign harmful culture and counter-revolutionary information from Hong Kong and Taiwan were subject to suppression and eradication. This is itself inflammatory, as Taiwanese could be arrested in the same way if they set foot in China.
Lam said he was not arrested by regular police, but by a secretive central investigation team that usually only takes cases of very senior politicians. Such ad hoc groups are commissioned directly by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and are not subject to regular law enforcement restrictions.
This underscores the notion that Beijing was concerned about subversion. It is keenly aware of internal dissent, hence the desire to find out who is behind the bookshop and who is buying books. This also indicates acute paranoia among President Xi Jinping’s inner circle, which cannot tolerate any bad publicity.
Lam was supposedly accompanied by two Chinese investigators, yet another violation of Hong Kong law, since Chinese law enforcement has no jurisdiction in the territory.
However, Steve Vickers, CEO of Hong Kong-based political and corporate risk consultancy Steve Vickers and Associates, said that the 2014 Occupy Central movement attracted the Chinese security apparatus in force. Democrats “pulled the tiger’s tail and they’re now paying the price,” he said. “They’re here in large numbers now, as they would be in any other territory they control. Now its presence is substantial and it will materially change everything.”
The Hong Kong government has not addressed the issue of such Chinese security personnel operating covertly or overtly there. Furthermore, in 2014 it was discovered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was operating a secret installation atop Hong Kong’s tallest peak. The electronic and signals intelligence facility possesses a likely ability to eavesdrop on phone calls and communications. The facility’s existence was kept under wraps for approximately three years.
The three other booksellers previously allowed to return to Hong Kong have remained silent on their arrests, even requesting Hong Kong police to cease investigations.
Interestingly, since Lam’s revelations, there has been a storm of criticism and denials. This is all part of the murky obfuscation that has dogged revelations and counter-revelations throughout the whole bookseller saga.
Fellow bookseller Lee Po disappeared from Hong Kong in December, but he denied Lam’s claims that he was kidnapped. Oddly, however, the Hong Kong government had no record of his legally leaving the territory.
In Gui’s television cameo from imprisonment, he said he had returned voluntarily to set right a 2004 drink-driving incident. Is this believable?
The Sing Tao Daily has been the only Hong Kong newspaper given exclusive interviews and access within China on the issue. It quoted the Ningbo authorities as saying, “He stayed there voluntarily as he had family disputes in Hong Kong.” Lam, however, separated from his wife several years ago.
In another article, Sing Tao Daily interview Lam’s 37-year-old girlfriend, surnamed Hu. She heaped criticism on him, “He is not like a man. He has completely ruined the image of Hong Kong’s men.” She directly challenged Lam’s version, saying she was arrested alongside him and that they were given the right to legal representation.
“He introduced me to the business of the bookstore, repeatedly brainwashing me. Lam Wing-kee never told me it was contrary to mainland laws to sell these books through mailing,” she complained. Hu is under investigation and awaiting trial.
Elsewhere, fellow bookseller Lui Por argued, “There was absolutely no such thing as coerced confessions or prearranged media interviews with a script. I never imagined Lam Wing-kee was such a dishonest person. He should bravely admit his guilt and shoulder the legal responsibility.”
Another bookseller, Cheung Chi-ping, asserted, “Lam’s press conference was premeditated and an attack on the one country, two systems principle.”
Why such disarray and accusations from among even former associates? The most logical is that the other booksellers are too scared to tell the truth. Indeed, all the others have family on the mainland. Lam does not. One can surmise that if they do not toe the official line, their relatives will suffer.
Vitriolic public attacks and character assassination are a well-used ploy in communist China. It appears China has embarked upon an all-out smear campaign against Lam, even using leverage against his former colleagues. Bused-in protestors also staged a protest on 19 June,
The South China Morning Post quoted Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a China watcher, “As Mr Lam’s remarks exposed the nature of the incident and the processes of the investigation, the government is on the losing side. It is customary for the mainland to wage a propaganda war and character assassination against [him].”
Gui’s daughter, Angela Gui, currently studying in the UK, praised Lam’s bravery on her Twitter account. “It is sad that the only person [who] has spoken out has done so because he has not got family on the mainland that could be threatened and punished for his choice to tell the truth.” She asserted it was “beyond doubt” that her father had been abducted and forced to confess.
Amnesty International said in a February statement, “The Chinese authorities are showing total contempt for due process and the rule of law in the case of five detained Hong Kong booksellers.” William Nee, the organization’s China researcher, stated, “These detentions make a mockery of the Chinese government’s claims to be ‘ruling the country according to the law’. The Chinese authorities seem to think that if they can get detained people under their control to write implausible letters or call family members saying that they are proactively ‘cooperating with investigations’ they can do away with due process and human rights.”
The Hong Kong administration has been revealed as a toothless tiger too. It has no influence over Beijing, and cannot uphold cross-border jurisdictional rights. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying admitted the city’s detention notification mechanism with the mainland had “room for improvement”. He promised to write a letter to Beijing to address Hong Kong concerns.
China’s human rights record was already in tatters. Amnesty International’s 2015-16 annual report summarized the situation: “The government launched a massive nationwide crackdown against human rights lawyers. Other activists and human rights defenders continued to be systematically subjected to harassment and intimidation.”
This should all be enough to make Foreign Minister Wang blow his top. Then again, he has his hands full orchestrating the propaganda campaign to support China’s contentious South China Sea territorial claims, which are likely to be struck down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague next month.
Certainly, Lam’s allegations against China will not just go away, despite a heated Beijing-backed campaign against him. Meanwhile, some in Hong Kong will be wary of a midnight knock on the door, a possibility with which Chinese citizens must already contend.