July 7, 2016
Lam Wing-kee: Is he safe, will he move to Taiwan, and what’s Amazon got to do with it?
by Ian Dreiblatt
Recently, we’ve offered increasingly extensive coverage of the case of Lam Wing-Kee, a bookseller from Hong Kong who claims that he and four colleagues — citizens of Hong Kong, the UK, and Sweden — were abducted by representatives of People’s Republic of China and detained there for a number of months without charges or legal representation. The five men — all but one of whom, Swedish national Gui Minhai, have been released — are affiliated with Causeway Bay Books and Mighty Current Media, a bookstore and publishing company respectively, both focused on thinly-sourced, gossipy books about the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership.
Lam claims he was held in a padded cell in Ningbo for months as investigators tried to obtain the names of CCP members disloyal to General Secretary (and Chinese president) Xi Jinping, believing them to have provided information for one of Mighty Current’s titles, Xi Jinping’s Dream of a Twenty-Year Rule.
As we reported last week, response to Lam’s disclosures was swift, with fellow Causeway Bay booksellers and a woman who identified herself as Lam’s girlfriend opposing his claims, and thousands of Hong Kongers, joined by international voices including American publishers, international rights watchdogs, and others, rallying to support him.
In an interview yesterday with Ming Pao, a Chinese-language news daily based in Hong Kong that has been accused of taking orders from Beijing, Lam said that he is being followed “without restraint” by agents of the PRC and that he fears for his safety. The allegation was dismissed in Hong Kong, where acting police commissioner Tony Wong Chi-hung said, “We realised that what he claimed was not coherent with what we found after investigation,” as well as the mainland, where authorities have found “no problems such as stalking or controlling.” Meantime, Lam cancelled plans to participate in a protest march on July 1st amid fears for his safety, and has reached a “verbal preliminary agreement” with Wong to receive heightened protection from Hong Kong’s police force.
Lam’s support has not dried up — he was named the Hong Kong Free Press’s Person of the Month for June 2016, and an editorial in the Chicago Tribune last week (besides getting several facts wrong) declared that his “disappearance and treatment reflect the worst impulses of a thin-skinned authoritarian government.”
Earlier this week, the Ningbo Public Security Bureau issued a statement officially accusing Lam of jumping bail and threatening to “amend the criminal compulsory measures” against him if he does not return to the PRC. Authorities in Hong Kong, which, formally a part of the PRC, does not have an extradition agreement with it, have said that they will not turn him over. Lam, who says he feels “half-dead” in Hong Kong, is considering moving to Taiwan, which the PRC formally recognizes as a “renegade province,” and which recognizes itself as the independent Republic of China.
As we did last week, we reached out again to Dr. Eli Friedman, an in-demand scholar of contemporary China, a sociologist who teaches at Cornell University, and the author of 2014’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China, as well as articles for Jacobin, The Nation, and other publications.
This situation is so complicated. Can you explain a little more about the nature of relations between the PRC and Hong Kong?
The British successively captured Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories during the nineteenth century. Although the British implemented some of the trappings of a liberal polity — freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and of course strong property rights — the governor of Hong Kong was a white man appointed by the Queen. The territory reverted to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. It was to be governed under the principle of “one country, two systems,” meaning that it’s supposed to maintain its own political and legal systems until 2047, at which point it will be fully reintegrated into China. But if anything, PRC-HK relations have become more strained in the twenty years since the handover, with younger Hong Kong residents increasingly less likely to identify as “Chinese.” The reasons behind this are complicated, and there is a good deal of nativist discrimination against Mainlanders in Hong Kong. But there are also some very legitimate concerns. Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong has been pretty disastrous, leading to unbelievable levels of wealth inequality, housing prices that make New York City look quaint, and fewer and fewer job prospects for young people. So people are angry. Some of this anger has been channeled into causes I find politically retrograde, like the movement for Hong Kong to revert to British rule (insert Brexit joke here). Some are calling for Hong Kong independence, which is in my view neither realistic nor desirable, even if it is understandable. Most people just want Hong Kong to be able to maintain its own legal system, to begin moving towards electoral democracy and a more inclusive economy — hardly radical demands. But across the political spectrum, people are watching the clock tick down to 2047 and are very afraid for their future. The booksellers case brings all of these fears out into the open.
According to the Associated Press, Lam’s interrogators were especially interested in a book “based on a high-level internal circular leaked in 2013 that was seen as an attempt to attack Western democratic ideals” such as “press freedom, judicial independence, civil rights, civil society and the party’s historic mistakes.” What do you make of this?
I found this particularly puzzling. High-level circulars are occasionally leaked, so this is not impossible. Whether or not the leaks are intentional is another question, and we of course have no way of knowing. But it’s particularly odd because the Party and various official and semi-official media have no qualms about openly expressing their contempt for “Western values.” This past winter, Xi Jinping went on a tour to some large media outlets and was very explicit that their job is to serve the Party. Academics have been given lists of things they are not allowed to discuss in the classroom, including things like democracy and human rights. So the Party is not at all coy about their opinions on what they in the dumbest, most essentialist way, term “Western.”
China’s accusation that Lam has jumped bail would seem to be their first admission that they’ve held him in custody at all. Whereas in the US we go to great lengths to paint extralegal detentions with a veneer of due process, China’s conduct here seems either pointedly capricious or absolutely incoherent — and Lam, at any rate, has made it obvious that he doesn’t plan to return. What might Beijing be hoping to get out of this?
I think “pointedly capricious and absolutely incoherent” nicely sums up the PRC’s handling of the whole series of events related to the HK booksellers. They shove people into vans in areas outside their jurisdiction, force them to make patently false confessions, and stick to an official storyline that doesn’t stand up to even the most casual interrogation. I think the basic attitude is, we are going to bend reality to our will, and if it doesn’t bend then who cares anyway, we have the guns. So they’ve clearly given up even the façade of due process or rule of law. This emanates from a number of recent dynamics. But the most important issue is that China is now a powerful country, they correctly see the US and other Western powers as corrupt and hypocritical about human rights, and they simply don’t care that much what others think. If the US can extraordinarily render people and use flying robots to murder indiscriminately, then why shouldn’t we be able to kidnap a few people? I’m not saying this justifies their total disregard for the law, of course, but there aren’t a lot of positive superpower role models out there.
What do you think of Lam’s accusations that he is being followed?
Frankly I would be pretty surprised if he were not being closely monitored. It is well known that there are Chinese security agents all over Hong Kong. But high-profile people such as Lam would likely be monitored even if they were in the US. The motive behind this is certainly open to interpretation, but I think it’s a combination of intelligence-gathering and intimidation. Probably more the latter, as any serious intelligence officer in China understands that Lam doesn’t actually represent an existential threat to the Communist Party, and the likelihood of them gathering any meaningful intelligence from following him his basically nil. The HK police, and the government more generally, have proven almost completely ineffectual when it comes to protecting the privacy of their citizens. And they’re in a difficult position, because the HK government is formally subordinate to Beijing. So at the end of the day, Beijing can really push its advantage. This is why Hong Kongers’ fears of becoming “just another Chinese city” are so strong. The PRC has been tightening the noose for years, and even 2014’s mass uprising hasn’t changed their tack — if anything, it’s reinforced for them the need to crack down even harder.
Is there anything you think citizens of states like the US and UK can do to meaningfully support Lam and the other booksellers?
The Chinese state makes it very difficult for outsiders to have a meaningful impact on the development of these sorts of cases, and I feel like my answer might be unsatisfying. There are some people in the US who might be strategically located to exert some pressure, e.g. a major publishing house saying they will pull out of the China market in protest. But I think the most important thing, short of moving to HK and becoming involved in the struggle full time, is for people to actually engage with questions around freedom of speech wherever they live. You can write letters to the Chinese government, and, frankly, I don’t think they’ll care. The US, Sweden, and UK have already expressed concern over the Gui Minhai case, seemingly to little effect. But there are all kinds of threats to free speech right here in the US, be it through the corporatization of the university, or Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s increasing stranglehold on information and media. There is clearly a global trend away from democracy, and the HK booksellers case is just one instance of that. We’ll be in a much better place to fight authoritarianism in HK and China if we can successfully fight authoritarianism here.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.