June 28, 2016

Following up on the Causeway Bay booksellers case


Lam Wing-kee at the press conference he called after his release. Via Youtube.

Lam Wing-kee at the press conference he called after his release. Via Youtube.

In recent months, we’ve written several times on the plight of five Hong Kong booksellers who appear to have been kidnapped by security forces from the People’s Republic of China and detained there illegally. Most recently, we reported that bookseller (and “super book lover”) Lam Wing-kee has been released, and promptly called a press conference in which he publicly acknowledged what onlookers have long suspected: that he had in fact been kidnapped and detained without charge or legal representation by the PRC.  Five booksellers from Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books disappeared in 2015, of whom Lam was the fourth to reappear (leaving only one, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, still in PRC custody). The store is known for selling cheap, gossipy books about the leadership of China’s Communist Party, which are legal in Hong Kong but illegal in the mainland.

Reactions since Lam’s release have been mixed. On June 17, he led thousands of protestors through the streets of Hong Kong in a display of outrage over his treatment. That same day, a statement issued jointly by the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association praised Lam for “his courageous defense of the right of the Chinese people to read the books they want.” Lam has likewise been applauded by speech advocates around the world, from India to Canada. He has also offered further details on his detention, including that it drove him to contemplate suicide. Just yesterday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said he will soon begin discussions with the mainland about arrests and detentions of Hong Kongers.

Lam has also had his account challenged by the three other Causeway Bay detainees who have been released, Lee PoLui Por and Cheung Chi-ping (who said, “I had no idea that Lam Wing-kee was such a dishonest person”), as well as a woman named Hu who claimed to be Lam’s girlfriend (and who went so far as to declare that “cursed Lam is not a man”). The claims were published by Sing Tao Daily, a Hong Kong-based paper that has been accused of secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

To help make sense of the story, we reached out to Eli Friedman, a sociologist at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and author of 2014’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China. Friedman has written for JacobinThe Nation, and other publications, and is knowledgeable about Beijing’s repressive tactics and treatment of dissidents.

Did our previous reporting on Lam Wing-kee’s recent disclosures get anything wrong?

The reporting was spot-on in explaining the unfortunate situation of Gui Minhai. But there is one piece of this quite complex (and hugely important) case that your coverage might have made clearer. Lam’s public statements offered the first actual confirmation of what many in Hong Kong have long believed: that the Chinese state feels empowered to abduct Hong Kong residents against their will, and detain them indefinitely without charges. Lam also confirmed that the series of televised “confessions” he and his fellow booksellers had given were secured under duress.

What do you imagine Lam’s disclosures will mean for his and his colleagues’ safety?

I don’t know what this will mean for Lam. He is clearly taking a major risk by embarrassing the Chinese government in an incredibly public manner, and he has also reneged on his agreement to return, hard drive in hand, to his captors. But at least he should now be somewhat protected by his celebrity. Were Chinese police agents to abduct him off the streets of Hong Kong, this would certainly engender massive protests. So my guess is that they won’t do anything so brazen as that. But they will likely find less confrontational ways of making him suffer. This often involves threatening family and friends. There are other tricks in the playbook, too.

What this will mean for Gui is really anyone’s guess. Part of the problem with this case is simply that we do not have any information. The Chinese state is jealous and vindictive, so there is a real possibility that Lam’s disclosures will hurt Gui’s chances of release. But that is precisely their strategy: to ensure blanket silence by keeping people in fear that things could be worse. Lam should be commended for refusing to play that game.

What do you make of the recent denunciations of Lam by his colleagues and girlfriend?

Everyone in Hong Kong knows exactly what’s going on here, which is that the Chinese state is using various kinds of threats to ensure that others stick to the official story. I don’t know anything about Lam’s girlfriend, but Beijing has a huge array of tactics to make her life miserable: they could easily have her removed from her job, kick her out of her apartment, ensure that her children won’t get into college… the list goes on. As these forced confessions have demonstrated, the state willingly stoops to thuggishness when it needs people to sing. It’s really unfortunate that the Chinese government may have sowed discord amongst the booksellers, but it’s important to remember that Lee Po and the others are in a very precarious position.

Assuming these disappearances are, as Lam has reported, abductions, how unusual are they?  Has China been known to abduct Hong Kong residents and foreign nationals in the past?

Certainly the state has long abducted its own citizens and held them without trial, basically whenever it wanted. (In fact, just last week, Lu Yuyu, widely known as “China’s protest archivist,” went missing.)  But up till now it has been pretty unusual for the PRC to abduct foreigners or Hong Kong residents outside the borders of Mainland China. This is what’s so alarming to people in Hong Kong.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, which was adopted after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, the so-called “special administrative region of Hong Kong” maintains its own legal system. Although the British never allowed anything approximating electoral democracy, there have been strong protections for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, and there is an independent judiciary. So these abductions can easily be read as the Chinese government telling people in Hong Kong that the old system — which, by the way, is supposed to be in place until 2047 — is over. Hong Kong residents are now subject to the same arbitrary state power as mainland residents. This is very scary, the limited number of cases notwithstanding.

Gui Minhai is yet another story, as he is a naturalized Swedish citizen. He does not have Chinese citizenship and hasn’t for many years. So his abduction suggests a racialized conceptualization of belonging, in which “Chinese” people are considered perpetual subjects of Beijing. It also suggests a willingness on the part of the Chinese state to risk diplomatic backlash in pursuing their ends.

In general, how does the government of Xi Jinping stack up with earlier ones in its approach to dissidents, transparency, and relations with Hong Kong?

Without a question, Xi is worse than his predecessors on every count. Hu Jintao, China’s last president, was no champion of free inquiry, but he was first and foremost a boring technocrat. Xi revels in the political, but his version of politics is to brook no opposition. Nearly every group in China has felt the stepped-up repression, including labor activists, feminists, rights lawyers, ethnic minorities, professors.

Xi has taken precisely the same stance in dealing with Hong Kong. During the Umbrella Movement of 2014, the central city was basically paralyzed for weeks. This was a peaceful insurrection. And Beijing never batted an eyelash: nothing changed, there was no compromise. That basically sums up Xi’s approach across the board.

As for transparency, the bookseller case reveals that the state has definitively broken with its erstwhile push for “rule of law.” They aren’t even pretending anymore. And there are no indications of greater transparency in other realms of governance. I went to China for the first time in 1999, and I’ve never been more pessimistic about the direction of the country than I am today.

Do you have any thoughts on what the abductions might or should mean to American publishers?

I think it’s worth it for publishers to think very carefully about how to deal with China. After all, it’s not just Apple and General Motors who are banking on an expanding Chinese market. So a huge question moving forward is: what kinds of compromises are people willing to make to get their products into the PRC? Particularly if a book is to be translated into Chinese, authors are often told that they need to edit out anything deemed offensive. Hollywood has already demonstrated utter obsequiousness towards the Chinese government, and is now engaged in widespread self-censorship. Of course I hope the publishing industry won’t be quite as craven, and perhaps the Hong Kong booksellers case will secure greater exposure for this issue.

Are you familiar with the kinds of books the HK sellers have been charged with distributing in the mainland?

I haven’t actually read these books, but you see them for sale in Hong Kong. Everything I’ve read about them suggests they’re trashy political thrillers posing as non-fiction. It’s not my genre, but you know what? People everywhere read terrible books—lack of factual accuracy and bad aesthetics are hardly a justification for indefinite detention.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.