Appearing at a Hong Kong press conference more than eight months after his abduction by mainland Chinese security personnel, bookseller Lam Wing-kee’s harrowing account has produced a wave of anger in society.
Late last year, five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong disappeared one after the other under mysterious circumstances. Months later, the Chinese authorities admitted the men (Lee Bo, Liu Bo, Cheung Ji-ping, Gui Minhai and Lam Wing-kee) were in detention on the mainland, but erected a smokescreen of lies about how and why the five came to be there. Soon afterwards they were all paraded on national television making ‘confessions’.
Most of the five have since been allowed to return to Hong Kong for short visits escorted by shadowy ‘friends’, believed to be mainland security agents. Until now, fearing for their own safety and that of their families, they have stuck to the story that they were helping the Chinese authorities ‘voluntarily’ – a story that almost nobody believes.
Lam is the fourth of the group to return to Hong Kong and his statement on 16 June, speaking to the world’s press corps, has had the effect of a bomb exploding on the already tense political atmosphere of Hong Kong. The dictatorship’s smokescreen has collapsed! Ordinary people in Hong Kong have long feared that the Chinese dictatorship is extending its political control over the city and dismantling the partial democratic rights it enjoys under the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ formula.
Lam’s public unmasking of the dictatorship’s gangster methods has to some extent reanimated the city’s pro-democracy movement, which has been in a state of shellshock since the 2014 struggle for universal suffrage ended in stalemate. A demonstration just two days after Lam’s reappearance, on Saturday 18 June, drew around 6,000 protesters chanting “We are all Lam Wing-kee!” and “Release the five booksellers!”
Lam revealed how he was arrested in Shenzhen in October, taken to the eastern city of Ningbo and held for months in solitary confinement and under 24-hour supervision to prevent him from committing suicide. He was forced to sign a waiver to forego his right under Chinese law to a lawyer and contact with his family. Even his toothbrush was tied to a string held by a guard – to prevent him from using it to hurt himself. In February, he was forced to make a scripted (literally) ‘confession’ on television: “I acted in front of the camera – I needed to. There was a director. I had to recite the script,” he said.
His captors allowed him to return to Hong Kong last week ostensibly to collect a computer hard disk containing details of the book company’s clients. Instead of doing so, Lam decided to defy his captors and go public about his ordeal.
Lam’s revelations are a major political embarrassment for the Chinese regime which, of course, has imposed a total media blackout inside China. This shows the regime’s fragility – despite its public projection of ‘strength’ – as it increasingly strives to impose an ultimately unsustainable level of political control and repression in fear of mass unrest.
Beijing’s attempt to silence and make an example of the five booksellers had the aim of closing down the once booming business in political-scandal books published openly and legally in Hong Kong, but banned in China. The books have been extremely popular with the roughly 45 million mainland Chinese tourists visiting the city every year.
The Hong Kong government and police force are also deeply compromised in the light of Lam’s revelations. The unpopular Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, is exposed once again as a puppet of the Chinese dictatorship who cannot “protect his own citizens”. As a measure of how damaging the affair is for pro-government parties facing ‘semi-free’ elections to Hong Kong’s legislature in September, Leung announced he will “write to Beijing” to seek clarification. He also said the mechanism by which the Hong Kong government is – normally – notified when its residents are detained on the mainland has “room for improvement”.
In all statements made during Lam’s detention the Hong Kong government never mentioned he was being held in Ningbo (Zhejiang province), referring instead to Guangdong where he was arrested. The most obvious explanation for this is that the Leung government in Hong Kong was kept in the dark by the mainland authorities. Yet, as Hong Kong’s boss, Leung enjoys the same rank as a cabinet minister and the case of the five is important – in terms of damage control – for a politician desperate to obtain a second term. This sums up the realities of power within China’s dictatorial system, where secretive security units like the one that held Lam are a law unto themselves.
‘Globalisation’ of repression
Lam’s account conforms with accounts from other victims of state repression in China. Contributors to chinaworker.info and sympathisers of the CWI in China have reported similar experiences, such as that of arrested young socialist, Zhang Shujie. He was allowed by his police minders to visit Hong Kong in 2012, in order – they believed – to attend a conference of left-wing activists organised by Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) in order to spy on the participants. Instead of following this plan, Zhang escaped to Europe with the help of Socialist Action and CWI members internationally.
This latest affair also presents a political dilemma for Hong Kong’s right-wing ‘localist’ movement, which advocates a vaguely defined independence from China. As recently as 4 June, the anniversary of 1989 Beijing massacre, the localists boycotted the city’s 125,000-strong commemoration in order to distance themselves from any support for the democracy struggle in China. This they argue has no relevance to the struggle in Hong Kong for democracy. Localist groups are also refusing to participate in the latest protests in support of Lam and the booksellers.
As the case of the five demonstrates, the CCP regime’s repression and the increasing use of extrajudicial methods is being exported not only to ‘autonomous’ Hong Kong, but also to fully independent states such as Thailand (where one of the five, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, was abducted in October), Myanmar and Laos. The Chinese regime enjoys leverage over these governments, which, for fear of harming economic ties, have not protested over the abduction of Chinese nationals on their territory.
The localists- claim to defend ‘Hong Kong interests’ but take a head-in-the-sand approach to the crimes of the Chinese regime against the Chinese masses. They oppose linking the mass struggles in Hong Kong with those developing in China – a recipe for politically disarming the struggle in Hong Kong against the dictatorship.
At the same time, the question needs to be asked: are the Pan-Democratic (bourgeois democratic) leaders, who led the recent demonstration in support of Lam, drawing all the necessary conclusions from this scandal? While they correctly accuse the Chinese regime of gangster methods, they imply that a dictatorship could conduct itself in a more civilised fashion. But the task of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and China is not to try to teach the Chinese regime ‘good manners’ – but to mobilise for its overthrow. This requires mass struggle linked across the border to overthrow capitalism and dictatorship.
Socialist Action calls for the immediate release of Gui Minhai, still held in captivity on the mainland, and the dropping of all the trumped up charges against the five booksellers. We call for the defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. In order to stop the recurrence of cross-border violations in Hong Kong, we call for an independent committee of inquiry - including representatives of the grassroots democracy movement, workers’ and media trade unions, along with human rights lawyers - into these kidnappings and to examine the extent of illegal, covert mainland security operations in Hong Kong. We demand the expulsion from Hong Kong of all mainland state security agents.