January 29, 2014

What’s happening to dissenting voices in Hong Kong? Like book publisher Yao Wentian, they’re getting arrested


Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Yao Wentian, the publisher of Morning Bell Press in Hong Kong, was arrested on October 27, and has remained in prison for the last three months in spite of numerous health problems. His son, Yao Yongzhan, came forward yesterday to say the arrest is not for smuggling as the authorities said, but due to a book his father planned to publish three months later that denounced President Xi Jinping.

Founded in 2006, Morning Bell Press has made its name publishing Chinese dissidents, liberal intellectuals, exiled scholars and ousted officials. The forthcoming book is Godfather of China Xi Jinping by Yu Jie, a Chinese writer who fled to the States after he was tortured and harassed for his criticism of Chinese leadership in 2010. Many of Yu Jie’s books are banned in China; Yao Wentian had come under pressure from the communist party for a previous volume about a government official released by Morning Bell, Hu Jintao: Harmony King.

The Shenzhen police arrested Wentian as he was traveling from Hong Kong to mainland China. Angela Meng of the South Cina Morning Post reports he was “lured to Shenzhen on the pretense of delivering paint to a long-time friend,” and that the paint, which was legal, had to be screened by customs. There he was charged with falsely labeling and smuggling in seven bottles of industrial chemicals. “We finally got you; you’re a big fish,” one customs agent said to Wentian.

The police said the smuggling dates back to 2010, and was worth 1.3 million renminbi ($220,000 U.S.), according to Wentian’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping. Wentian’s son says his father lived a frugal lifestyle and was not involved in any smuggling operations.

“I’m pretty familiar with the Chinese legal system in China and how they produce fake criminal charges against political prisoners,” Yongzhan said in an interview with Chris Buckley of The New York Times. “There is no question that they are trying to punish him for his publishing activities through normal criminal charges.”

This arrest is linked to a censorship crackdown on Hong Kong and Taiwanese works that are deemed “vulgar” or “politically harmful,” with serious implications for writers and publishers. Journalist Bao Pu writes in the South China Morning Post:

All journalists, editors and publishers in Hong Kong have got the message: there are certain words that the mainland authorities dislike, and if you use them, you too may suffer the consequences….

No one expects the mainland’s war on Hong Kong publications to stop. The truth is that there is nothing the Hong Kong media can do to stop it. Only the Chinese Communist Party can do this, by changing its general attitude towards a free press.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong media must uphold the highest professional standards, stick to the truth, and be faithful to our beliefs.

In December, Beijing issued a directive to all chief editors of Chinese publishers that all books, especially those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, would have to go through a stricter approval process. Though it took effect immediately, the tightening was never publicized.

Activists with the New Citizens’ Movement have been having trouble in China, too. The movement’s leader, Xu Zhiyong, was arrested in July 2013 for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order,” and is currently serving a four-year sentence. Zhao Changqing, a freelance writer and political essayist in Beijing, is facing charges of disrupting social order after eight years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

It’s clear that Wentian is a small piece of the puzzle in a larger battle with censorship in this region, but his health concerns make this an urgent matter. Wentian is seventy three years-old and suffers from asthma and heart problems. He fainted when he was arrested, and his condition is getting worse; he is being held in a medical facility of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau right now. PEN International is rallying its members to write letters to the President as well (more info here).

Yongzhan’s open letter to the President appealed to his morality, as well as his own father’s political legacy: “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun was a compassionate and morally upright leader, a rare gem of a politician. I hope that Xi can follow in his father’s footsteps, accommodate dissenting voices in Hong Kong, and release my father.”

Yao Yongzhan’s letter was followed by an appeal by a group of Chinese academics and publishers who published a letter in which they appealed for clemency, and stressed that Yao Wentian’s advanced age coupled with his heart disease meant that prolonged incarceration could endanger his life.


Amy Conchie contributed to this post. 

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.