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Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2016
If it wasn’t for the “Safety House” in which he was hiding as he wrote, the opening paragraph of Lam Wing Kee’s personal account would be beguilingly insouciant: there he stands at the window, painting his view of the Lei Yue Mun bay in the dazzling late afternoon light, with precise, unhurried sentences.
It is with this dissonant scene that Mr. Lam begins his narration of eight months of secret captivity in mainland China.
Doing what he had for years – hauling suitcases of tabloid-style exposés about Chinese leaders and politics to mainland China, and then mailing them to clients – he was stopped at customs in Shenzhen one day in October 2015 and pulled aside for questioning. It wasn’t his first time, but this time it was different. A Central Government Special Investigation Team (中央专案组) had been formed to target the book publishing and mailing business, newly seen as “a veiled attempt to overthrow the Chinese government.”
Handcuffed and hooded, he was taken to a two-story building in Ningbo on the coast. There were mountains on three sides, and fog shrouded the area in the morning and evenings. He discovered his whereabouts by squatting on the toilet and looking out through cracks in the window.
The room was padded to prevent suicide, a thought he briefly contemplated. Three surveillance cameras and two guards on rotation watched his every move. He was interrogated between 20 and 30 times about the Causeway Bay bookstore he worked at, the authors of the books, his clientele, and his boss, Gui Minhai (桂民海) who was abducted from Thailand and is still in custody. The interrogations must have been thin on substance given the number of sessions involved, so Mr. Lam’s account of them is at best sketchy.
On the third day of his abduction, he began to mark time by secretly pulling a thread off his orange jacket and tying a little knot each day. By the time he was removed from Ningbo there were 124 little orange knots.
He sought to communicate with his guards, but only one young man risked discovery to speak a few furtive words. A doctor who came to check his vitals took pains not to say any more than necessary, but nonetheless brought him some snow from outside — something he, a Hong Konger, had never touched before. He fancied that his main handler, Mr. Shi, might be above the others and the system he served, because he is “educated.” But humanity is a scarce commodity under terror.
They forced him to waive his right to notify relatives and hire lawyers. He signed. They presented him with a false confession, that he had committed the crime of illegally selling books. He signed. They forced him to write a statement of repentance. He did, according to their precise instructions. They made him confess on camera, several times. He was shocked to find that a “witness” at one of those sessions was played by a female cop. He did everything they made him do, because he saw that he had no choice.
In March 2016, they took him to Shaoguan, a city in northern Guangdong, and gave him a job in the local library. He reshelved books during the day and reported to his minder in the evening. From the cell phone they gave him he devoured every bit of news about the five booksellers in Hong Kong, and began to realize, from statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that what he was embroiled in was a big deal.
One night in April, two prostitutes knocked on his door. He saw that it was a noose to be tied around his neck and declined their company.
Having deemed him sufficiently conditioned and ready, in June the Special Investigation Team sent him back to Hong Kong to fetch the company computer that stored client information. He was given one day in which to do it, and also visit his relatives and an old teacher whose declining health was preoccupying him.
At the immigration check point he did what he had been instructed: he told Hong Kong police that he was back to close up the case. He’s safe and needs no help. Then he checked into a hotel designated by his minders.
He had planned to obey every command. “In any case,” he figured, “I’d go back [to the mainland] for a few more months, then everyone would be able to come back to Hong Kong and live peacefully like before.”
Things began to unravel after he boarded the MTR, going to the office in North Point to fetch the computer:
“Standing in the subway car were chattering students with smiles on their faces. Some passengers stared at their phones with their heads bowed. A pregnant woman boarded, and someone offered their seat. A courier had put his bags down and was squatting in a corner to sort his deliveries. Everyone was untroubled, except me, being followed and manipulated. What’s wrong with me? I’m in Hong Kong, and yet I still have no freedom.”
He began to feel a sense of repulsion at their plans, and the role he was assuming in them:
“What is even scarier, as the man named Shi told me, is that I have to continue working in the bookshop after they allow me to return to Hong Kong. He’ll keep in touch with me, and I’ll report what’s going on, through writing or photographs. They want to know about Hong Kong, especially those who are buying books about political affairs. I’ll be their eyes and ears. Good heavens, I’ll not only lose my own freedom, but betray others. If I yield today, I’ll be an accomplice tomorrow, forcing more people to submit. If I sell my soul today, I’ll be forcing others to sell their souls tomorrow.”
He was able to extend his stay for one more day, because he picked up the wrong computer.
He felt his love for Hong Kong acutely: the venders, the fortunetellers, the sidewalk food stands, and the crowds. He roamed Portland Street and went by Langham Place. From Shanghai Street, through Portland Street again, he walked towards Yau Ma Tei. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Hong Kong and going back to his captors. At dinner with his older sister, he dismissed the notion that only Christians were capable of doing good, and was stuck by an inscription on the homescreen of his brother-in-law’s phone: “When your attitude is right, happiness will come.”
At Festival Walk around noon the next day, where he was supposed to board the train and head to the border, he stopped and sat smoking in the bright sun. He was late, and the people on the other side of Luohu Bridge were waiting for him. He had stayed up all night reading news about the booksellers and the protest of six thousand Hong Kongers and pro-democracy legislators.
At the MTR entrance, he began to hesitate. He wanted another cigarette. Then a little poem that he had read when he was young came to him: “I have never seen / a knelt reading desk / though I’ve seen / men of knowledge on their knees.”
Then he made up his mind. He stubbed out the smoke and turned around. The rest of the story is now well known.
At the end of 2014, I was heartbroken that so many of the people I know or have reported on have gone to prison. I started to think that there weren’t too many left to put in jail. What did I know? Over the past two years, more people have been abducted, jailed, or secretly detained. More have been tortured. Harsher – much harsher – sentences have been handed down. The country is now on lockdown under a set of laws designed to restrict freedom in all areas. A narrative is being fostered that there is a U.S.-led conspiracy to bring down the communist regime.
At the end of 2016, however, the consensus among the people I work with is that, looking back some years later, we’ll find that 2016 is far from being the worst. The worst is yet to come.
I first read Mr. Lam’s account in August in a quiet cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, and read it once again on the eve of 2017. The power of his testimony is amplified by his considerable literary deftness. I have been wanting to capture that moment, on June 16, 2016, at the Kowloon Tong Station, when he put out his cigarette and turned around. To me, it’s one of the most important events of the year. In it is the kernel of hope I’m bringing with me into 2017, and beyond.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao