The fourth of five missing Hong Kong booksellers to return to the city has confirmed that he was detained as he crossed the internal immigration border into mainland China last October, before being blindfolded, spirited away, and interrogated for months by a special police unit directed from Beijing.
Lam Wing-kei told a packed news conference that he was detained at the Lo Wu border crossing between the former British colony and the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, with no reason given at first for the detention.
"On Oct. 24 last year, I was detained as I was crossing the border into Shenzhen," Lam said. "The police seized my travel documents and sent me to a local police station where I was held."
"A few days later, some officials blindfolded me and took me away in their car on a journey that lasted more than 10 hours," he said. "I was taken to Ningbo city in Zhejiang province."
"I was then interrogated by some other people," he said. "The main thrust of the questioning was to figure out my relationship with Causeway Bay Books and [its sister imprint] Mighty Current Publishing."
"They wanted to know who was buying the books and stuff like that," Lam said, adding that he heard that his case was being handled directly by a special task force set up by the central government in Beijing.
Lam said he had been sent back to Hong Kong on a mission to obtain a hard drive listing all the known contacts, including authors and mainland China-based mail order customers, of Causeway Bay Books and Mighty Current on behalf of the state security police.
Won't go back
Lam said he wouldn't be returning to mainland China in spite of his instructions to do so. "I don't dare go back there," he said. "Besides, I think the people of Hong Kong should stand up to power and say no."
But Lam warned: "If I suddenly disappear one day, then everyone will know the reason why. I haven't asked for special protection. We'll have to see how the Hong Kong government protects its own people."
Lam called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing to explain whether or not his detention, during which he had no access to a lawyer, was in breach of the "one country, two systems" policy governing Hong Kong's 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Lam, who went missing last October around the same time as four of his colleagues at Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books, is the fourth to return to the former British colony.
Store manager and British passport-holder Lee Bo, 65, went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong on Dec. 30, while general manager Lui Bo (also spelled Lui Por), and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping are believed to have been detained during trips to China from their usual base in Hong Kong.
Publisher and Swedish nation Gui Minhai left his Thai holiday home under opaque circumstances before appearing on state television CCTV "confessing" to involvement in a drunk-driving death 10 years earlier, a claim that his family have dismissed as highly dubious.
Lee, who went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong on Dec. 30, returned to mainland China after spending less than 24 hours in Hong Kong. The U.K. government has said he was "involuntarily removed" from the city.
No help from Hong Kong
Cheung Chi Ping, business manager of Causeway Bay Books, entered Hong Kong on March 6, two days after his colleague Lui Bo, the bookstore’s general manager, but they too stayed only a few hours in the city before going back to China.
Both were granted bail by Chinese authorities, allowing them to travel to Hong Kong, and all three men had asked for their missing persons files to be closed, Hong Kong police said at the time.
Lam said he believes Lee Bo was abducted by Chinese police in an unauthorized cross-border operation, giving the lie to Lee's claim during his brief return to Hong Kong in March that he went to mainland China willingly.
He said he is the only one among his colleagues who can afford to ignore instructions from the Chinese police.
While in Ningbo, Lam said he was held in a small room of 200-300 square feet and repeatedly interrogated, before being transferred back to Guangdong province, which neighbors Hong Kong, in March.
He said his televised "confession" was scripted, edited, and filmed under the supervision of a director.
"I decided to go public with this when I saw how much fuss Hong Kong people were making [about our disappearances]," Lam told reporters.
Asked if he had anything to say to the Hong Kong government, he replied: "I don't think they did anything to help us. I have nothing to say to [chief executive] Leung Chun-ying."
Coordinated by Beijing
Veteran journalist Ching Cheong said covert arrest operations are always coordinated by Beijing.
"Special task forces like this were very common during the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976], and were used when they wanted to target a specific individual," he told RFA.
"The centrally controlled task force would then set about collecting evidence against them, giving rise to a large number of miscarriages of justice."
Ching said: "The mention of these central task forces, which are a toxic throwback to the Cultural Revolution, is abhorrent to a lot of people ... and now it seems as if they are staging a comeback."
Richard Choi, deputy chairman of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, said that Chinese authorities had disregarded legal procedures in their handling of the booksellers' cases.
"We need to keep up the pressure on the Chinese government, because ... otherwise we won't know whether the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people have been affected," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London said they would issue a statement 'soon,' but hadn't responded to requests for comment at the time of writing.
The United Kingdom government has said in an official report that Lee Bo was "involuntarily removed" from the city, which has maintained a separate law enforcement jurisdiction and an internal immigration border since returning to Chinese rule in 1997.
The U.S. State Department said in its Hong Kong Policy Act Report earlier this month that the booksellers' detentions "have raised serious concerns in Hong Kong and represent what appears to be the most significant breach of the “one country, two systems” policy since 1997."
Swedish national and bookstore founder Gui Minhai, who disappeared from a Thai holiday resort last October, has yet to reappear.
He is known to be in detention in China after making a televised "confession" of involvement in a drunk-driving death 10 years ago that has been rejected as highly dubious by his family.
Gui Minhai's daughter Angela Gui praised Lam on Thursday for his courage in speaking out about his nightmare ordeal.
"I am very happy that he has had the courage to speak the truth," she told RFA. "But Lam Wing-kei's account makes me fear for my father."
"I hope this news will result in more attention on my father's case, so that he can be released."
Angela Gui has said she strongly doubts that her father left his holiday home in Thailand voluntarily, despite having said so in a televised "confession."
She has said her father had sent her messages on Skype in November and in January, asking her to keep quiet, probably "under duress."
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.