“The world is watching”—appalled reactions to China’s kidnapping of a Hong Kong bookseller

Joshua Wong, left, at a demonstration in solidarity for abducted bookseller Lam Wing-kee
Joshua Wong, left, at a demonstration in solidarity for abducted bookseller Lam Wing-kee
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Yesterday (June 16) one of five Hong Kong booksellers who went missing in recent months made a surprise revelation. Lam Wing-kee appeared at a press conference to say he had been abducted by the Communist Party of China, and held in detention for almost eight months.

Hong Kong activists have expressed their solidarity for Lam. Demosisto, the civic organization led by Umbrella Movement leader Joshua Wong wrote on Facebook:

We thank Mr. Lam Wing-kee for daring to resist the power and confessing, and revealing to Hong Kongers that the [one country, two systems] has been heavily breached, to the extent that even one’s personal safety is endangered. This is not a problem just for the booksellers, but a problem for all Hong Kongers.

On her Facebook page, pop singer Denise Ho said Lam’s comments are a reminder to be selfless in one’s pursuit of freedom. A Lancome-sponsored concert by Ho was recently canceled, allegedly because of her outspoken support of pro-democracy activists.

The extra-courageous decision made by Mr Lam Wing-kee tells us that, in face of the power, we can’t think only about preserving our [personal] safety. Because only thinking about keeping ourselves is actually a concession, and will only give more bargaining chips to the opposite side. Worse, you yourself will live the rest of your life with no freedom. Is it worth it?

Multinational corporations “are looking at this very closely and are hugely concerned,” said a Hong Kong-based executive with one of the biggest Wall Street banks, who wished to remain anonymous. “The rule of law is clearly one of the key elements that attracts businesses to HK.”

It’s a “long-term game,” he added, “so don’t expect any companies to make any knee-jerk decisions.  But the world is watching.”

Even some conservative Hong Kong politicians are upset. Michael Tien, deputy chairman of the pro-Beijing New Power Party, issued a largely sympathetic response (link to Chinese video) soon after Lam’s press conference.

Today I heard Lam Wing-kee speak. Basically, [I feel] shocked and unsafe. Because I hear these things, Hong Kong also has many people who heard him speak [and wonder] if it is indeed true… As a representative of the people, I will write a letter to China’s National People’s Congress, and demand clarity regarding some of Lam’s comments on behalf of Hong Kongers.

Ann Chiang, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council representing the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), attempted to dampen fears.

The incident will not affect the confidence of Hong Kong people towards “One Country, Two Systems.” There is no need for ordinary law-abiding citizens to worry. Hong Kong has the freedom of press, and to sell books in Hong Kong would not violate mainland laws—the problem lies in whether those books are sold in mainland. Just like how Hong Kong people do not want mainlanders to come and enforce their laws, Hong Kong people should not intervene in mainland affairs either.

Rimsky Yuen, Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice, says that the Department of Justice will “look into” (link to video) the details of Lam’s case.

…people in Hong Kong, when they are physically in Hong Kong, they are perfectly entitled to all the legal protections that are conferred by the laws of Hong Kong, including those under the Basic Law as well as the provisions in the Bills of Rights Ordinance. Whether or not there is any breach of law in mainland China, that’s a matter which we would like to look into… to know more about this case.

Maya Wong, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says that Lam’s comments will place pressure on the city’s politicians—including chief executive Leung Chun-ying—to defend the “one country, two systems” policy.

CY Leung has stood up for Hong Kong autonomy before. The question is, as the head of Hong Kong, will he [continue to] defend Hong Kong’s autonomy…Eyes are on the Hong Kong government, as well as pro-Beijing politicians, to show that they defend ‘one country, two systems’ rather than just acting as the Chinese government’s spokesperson in Hong Kong.

Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, says that Lam’s revelations might fuel anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong’s legislative elections later this year.

The timing is terrible for Beijing, with the elections coming in September. This is a stark reminder of why the rule of law, which is a somewhat abstract concept, matters for Hong Kong and Hong Kong people. Because if you don’t have rule of law, then that’s what can happen yo you—you can be arrested arbitrarily, taken on a train, sign a forced confession and placed on TV.

Surprisingly, Chinese state media has weighed in. An op-ed piece in party mouthpiece Global Times (which was removed but has been partially republished by Apple Daily) took every opportunity to poke holes in Lam’s statements—noting the absence of any mention of torture as evidence that Lam was not mistreated.

Lam’s press conference at the very least confirms that he did not receive any mistreatment or torture. This is quite different [from notions that] Lin had been forcefully captured and taken away that some people have pulled out of their imaginations.

As soon as Lam returned to Hong Kong he held a press conference, and he himself said he was not concerned for his safety—this fact ought to prove that Hong Kong is free.

Christopher Smith, a Republican representative from New Jersey who serves as chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, chimed in too. His commission was created by the US Congress in 2000 with the legislative mandate to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China:

In a courageous statement, Lam Wing Kee completely destroyed the Chinese government’s official narrative. As was long suspected, the bookseller’s abductions were orchestrated by Chinese authorities in order to stop the export of freedoms guaranteed in Hong Kong. This whole episode was a counterproductive fiasco because it angered the Hong Kong people, sent a chill through the business community, and put in jeopardy the viability of the ‘One-Country, Two-Systems’ model.

The Swedish Embassy has not been able to contact missing Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, the publisher behind the bookstore where all five missing men worked, since February. A spokesman said today:

We continue to view the situation very seriously. We take a very serious view of the matter and it has been raised with representatives of China on several occasions.

A spokeswoman from the UK Foreign Office says that the country is “deeply concerned” about the abduction of Lee Bo from Hong Kong.

His involuntary removal to the mainland was a serious breach of the Joint Declaration. We urge authorities in China and Hong Kong to reassure the people of Hong Kong that their rights and freedoms will be protected in line with the principle of One Country, Two Systems and the Basic Law.

Kristin Haworth, a spokesperson for the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau, gave the following comments to Quartz in response to a query:

The United States remains deeply concerned by the disappearances of the five Hong Kong residents associated with Mighty Current Media and the Causeway Bay Bookstore, and we continue to closely follow developments in their cases.  These cases raise serious questions about China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country two systems” framework, as well as its respect for the protection of universal human rights and basic freedoms

A spokesperson for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the organization that oversees cross-strait relations, told domestic media (link in Chinese);

[We] hope mainland China will abide by its promise to Hong Kong, and reliably uphold ad respect the human rights of Hong Kongers.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Lam is a Chinese citizen who violated mainland Chinese law and has been dealt with according to Chinese law. She also referred to reports from Hong Kong media that got in touch with Ningbo’s public security bureau, which claimed that Lam confessed to his crimes on his own volition (link in Chinese).

Hong Kong pro-democracy groups held protests around the city on Friday.