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The Bookseller’s Decision

Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2016



Photo: AFP


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




English translation of Lam Wing-kee’s account by Kong Kong Free Press



‘China Is the Biggest Mad House in the World and CCP the Worst Lunatic’

Yaxue Cao, June 17, 2016

Great renaissance 62%

According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the renaissance of the Chinese nation is 62% complete. Cartoon by Kuang Biao.


I was on a Voice of America Chinese Service show on Thursday and, with the host and another guest, we discussed rights movement leader Guo Feixiong’s hunger strike, rumors about a young legal worker being violated in prison, and police-operated mental hospitals. A caller from Hubei Province by the surname Deng had this to say: “As a matter of fact, China is the biggest mental asylum in the world. A normal country would not have had the Great Leap Forward. A normal country would not have had the Cultural Revolution. A normal country would not have run over students with tanks. A normal country would not have prisoners of conscience and would not lock rights defenders in mental hospitals. The Communist Party are the worst lunatics.”

The host asked me for comment. I remarked: “Well said. No further comment.”

Over 800 days from his secret detention in August, 2013, to early this year when he was transferred the Yangchun Prison in Guangdong, Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) was not allowed yard time, not a single time. This website has written extensively about such barbarism, calling it “slow killing” — except it’s not that slow. When his sister, a doctor, publicized his deteriorating health condition and the prison’s refusal to provide treatment, he was given a check-up. But officials from the Guangdong Provincial Prison Administrative Bureau used the occasion to humiliate him: they videotaped the forced rectal examination and threatened to post it online. They shaved his head and ordered him to squat “like a bug” in the presence of prison officers. To protest, he’s been on hunger strike for nearly 40 days now, and his sister, after sitting three days outside the prison, was refused visitation. The reason given? “Every one of my visits with him led to enormous amounts of international and domestic public opinion and attention and focus [on his case].”


Zhao Wei (in dark green coat) with lawyer Li Heping. Photo credit: Prof. Chen Taihe

Zhao Wei (赵威) is a young woman in her 20s with a keener sense of social justice than most of her peers. While a journalism student in Jiangxi Normal University, she videotaped protesters in front of a courthouse and was then chased down by armed police who ordered her to delete all the recordings. When she was a senior, interning in Fuzhou, she witnessed the “Three Netizens in Fujian” trial and the ensuing protests in April, 2010. She befriended activists, and was subsequently summoned by police for “questioning.” Eventually she became an assistant to Li Heping (李和平), a prominent rights lawyer. She was among the scores of lawyers, law staffers, and activists arrested last July, known as the “709 crackdown.” Almost a year into detention, none of them have had access to lawyers or families.

Recently there have been rumors that Zhao Wei was “sexually violated” in prison. More rumors followed, painting horrific scenarios. Her husband, her mother, lawyers and activists sought clarification from the authorities, but have been met with stone silence. Citizens have reasons to worry about Zhao Wei and, indeed, to believe the rumors, as the Chinese government have shown that it’s something they are perfectly capable of and have intentionally done in case after case.

China is probably the only country in the world where the Ministry of Public Security operates a chain of at least 27 mental hospitals across the country known as the “Tranquil and Healthy Hospitals” (安康医院).  Petitioners, Falun Gong practitioners, and sometimes political prisoners, have been thrown in mental hospitals. Recently, a news item from 2010 went viral on social media with the headline “The Ministry of Public Security: Mental Hospitals May Not Treat Non-mentally Ill Patients Without Permission from Police.” Netizens quickly parsed its understatement:

  •         With permission from the police, mental hospitals may admit normal people;
  •         Mental hospitals have done so before without police permission;
  •         Mental hospitals have done so before with police permission;
  •         Police, not medical professionals, decide whether one should be sent to a mental hospital.

My co-guest Zhao Yan (赵岩), whose resume includes a stint as researcher at The New York Times’ Beijing bureau in the 2000s and who was imprisoned for three years, has been involved in rights-defense lawsuits against local governments in China. “Are you mentally ill, doing what you are doing?” A judge once asked him. Indeed, challenging the authorities can easily be considered a “mental illness.”  

I don’t mean to merely repeat what we said on the show. What prompted this post is the news that followed in the last 24 hours which proves just what a nuthouse China is:

The Beijing-based lawyer Xia Lin (夏霖), who is a co-partner of the Huayi Law Firm with Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), was tried on June 17 for “fraud.” He has been held incommunicado for nearly two years. It was an “open” trial, but none of those who attempted to observe were admitted. It’s unclear what “fraud” he has committed, but a glance over the list of his clients over the years may provide a clue: Cui Yingjie (崔英杰), a street vendor who killed a brutalizing chengguan in self-defense; Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇), a young woman who stabbed to death an official who demanded sex from her; artist Ai Weiwei’s Fake tax case; Sichuan writers Ran Yunfei (冉云飞) and Tan Zuoren (谭作人); NGO leader Guo Yushan (郭玉闪). Xia Lin was tortured for confessions.


Bookseller Lam Wing-kee. Photo: AFP

In Hong Kong, bookseller Mr. Lam Wing-kee described abduction, detention and forced confession by a “Central Special Case Team.” He was one of five to suffer the same fate. Mr. Lam had been sent back to fetch customers’ data and was supposed to go back to custody in mainland China, but he defied them, and probably defied his own fear, too. “If I don’t speak up… then there is no hope for Hong Kong. There, in the quiet-mannered bookshop owner, is sanity and courage. That’s hope.

“The fact that Lam Wing-kee held a press conference in Hong Kong as soon as he returned without being concerned about his safety proves that Hong Kong is free,” argued the Global Times, the People’s Daily’s tabloid specializing in doing the Party’s dirty work. “Lam Wing-kee is a Chinese citizen,” said the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, “who broke the law in mainland China.”

Block it! Block anything Lam says! Block the Global Times article too! Soon the Propaganda Department issued directives, because, oops, Chinese readers were able to piece together from the article what happened to Mr. Lam.  

Also today, two dissidents in Hangzhou, Lü Gengsong (吕耿松) and Chen Shuqing (陈树庆), were sentenced to 11 and 10.5 years respectively for writing a few essays and belonging to an opposition party called the “Chinese Democracy Party.” I have grown so numb with the unceasing flow of mad news that I had to pause to feel the shock vibrating in my mind — not just the cruelty of the punishment, but also the wantonness with which the punishment was delivered. It’s madness.  

Just when I thought this was enough for a bad day, lawyer Ge Yongxi (葛永喜) brought a message from lawyer Tang Jingling, who is serving a 5-year sentence for practicing some of Dr. Gene Sharp’s non-violent resistance methods:  

On the afternoon of June 16, 2016, I met with Mr. Tang Jingling in Guangzhou First Detention Center. Mr. Tang said that his cell had a new Uighur teenage prisoner named Ardu (阿尔都). He came from Kashar and his father is an elementary school teacher there. Ardu said that he was arrested the day after the Gaokao [China’s national college entrance exams held this year on June 7 and 8] along with nine other Uighur teenagers — eight males and two females, who are all students at Guangzhou No. 75 High School. They are allegedly involved in terrorist activities (details unclear). Mr. Tang called attention to the case of the ten Uighur youngsters, and he hopes that they will receive fair trials.

Talk about fair trials…

Madness keeps rolling in. On the show yesterday, I pointed out that, when the Re-education Through Labor system was abolished two years ago, some, both inside and outside China, applauded it as a progress towards the rule of law. I said at the time: “Don’t be too happy too soon. They’ll use prisons instead of labor camps; they’ll use black jails; they’ll use mental hospitals; they’ll invent new methods. You’ll soon be missing RTL!”

If you apply reason in dealing with the Chinese Communist Party, you’ll always be proven wrong. This bit of wisdom, part knowledge and part gut instinct, has served me well.  


Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao