The story of five Hong Kong booksellers

Today brings the revelation of Hong Kong citizen, publisher and bookseller Lam Wing-kee that in October last year he did not voluntarily cross the border into China to meet waiting law enforcement officers, in order to repent his sins for selling rumour-laden, sensationalist, gossip factory books about Chinese leadership in a televised confession.

He was rendered by Chinese state security operatives, against his will, as he crossed the border from Hong Kong to neighbouring Shenzhen, taken to the coastal port of Ningbo and made to sign papers waiving his right to a lawyer (an inalienable right, even in Chinese law). After months of house arrest and torture he eventually made a broadcast confession, reading from a pre-prepared script. A confession he now wholly refutes.

This is a man who has committed no crimes under Hong Kong law. A citizen of a sovereign political territory, acting only in that territory and in full compliance with the laws of that territory.

Rendered, imprisoned for months without standing trial, tortured and made to confess. Released only upon promise of delivering a hard drive of names and addresses of mainland Chinese clients who bought his books. His full statement can be read here.

Mighty China dwarfs the city state of HK

Thou shalt not spread rumours

His crime, in the eyes of the Chinese state, was to aid in the publishing, sale and distribution of books investigating the private lives of Chinese leadership. These books were only sold in Hong Kong but often to mainland Chinese citizens. This kind of sensationalist journalistic exposé is not permitted in China, but Hong Kong has inherited the British legal system and a culture of investigating and questioning power.

In October Lam’s shop began to sell a book detailing the mistresses of Xi Jinping. A personal insult to a power hungry, insecure leader who has so far spent his three years as President and General Secretary imprisoning political enemies, bringing the army under personal command, sidelining the role of Premier – once almost equal to President but now clearly subordinate – consolidating powers previously wielded by moderately autonomous committees under his direct direction, imprisoning feminist campaigners and human rights lawyers and demanding that all mass media in the nation with renewed focus and vigour be the mouthpiece of the party and of its great leader (a good overview can be read here). To such a man, this book could not be tolerated.

Publisher Lam was one of five, and is the fourth to return home. Of the rest, the co-owner, Gui Minhai was seized in Thailand, where Chinese security services either violated national sovereignty or, shockingly were permitted to render a Hong Kong national from Thai territory. It would appear the latter is more likely, as even Chinese nationals seeking political asylum have been handed back to Beijing by Thai authorities, in clear contravention of Article 3 of the UN Convention against Torture, which Thailand has signed and ratified. Gui, also a Swedish citizen, remains in custody on the mainland.

Two of the other booksellers were actually seized within Hong Kong territory, again either violating the sovereignty of Hong Kong law, or with the permission of the Hong Kong government, which it would not seem they are legally able to give.


The government of Hong Kong appear unconcerned and inactive regarding these grave occurrences. In reply to today’s exposition they claim to seek more information from Lam, and speak hypothetically that “it would be unacceptable for any law enforcement work to be carried out in the city without official permission.”

It has happened. These citizens went missing in October, and four have returned home. The Hong Kong and mainland Peoples’ Republic of China governments must have an extremely close working relationship, being of the same country but with separate political systems. It is surely impossible for the government of Hong Kong not to know exactly what took place, why, and whether or not that was in accordance with Hong Kong law. They need only ask the returnees themselves, and issue statements either confirming legal procedure or raising complaint and seeking redress.

These are citizens of a polity. It is the first charge of a political entity to protect its citizens from the arbitrary actions of foreign powers. True enough, Hong Kong is a part of the country of China, which de jure reserves the right to final, arbitrary decision. But extremely robust precedent has it that, along with commitments made to the British government in 1997, Hong Kong maintains an independent judiciary.

British Response

What does the British government have to say about the violation of these commitments? And what of British citizen Lee Bo? One of the last to be arrested and earliest released. Was this because of back-channel pressures brought by our government, or more likely because unlike the rest he talked – providing a list of names of Chinese book buyers.

Has our Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in Parliament to condemn the actions of the Chinese government? No. Have there been diplomatic missions? No. Has this story of an abuse of sovereignty and due process as severe as extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo bay, in a territory that not 20 years ago was a British colony appeared on a front page? Not at all. It’s barely known about. Foreign secretary Philip Hammond noted the seriousness of the of the situation and expressed concerns, in a routine six-monthly report. Deposited in Parliament, without even an accompanying verbal statement.

Six-monthly report on Hong Kong

I can remember instances in the past when government ministers and even PMs openly called on China to respect the fundamental rights of its citizens and British citizens wronged by the authoritarian state. There was something of a conversation about Tibet. That’s all changed.

British Culpability

Since their ascendance to highest office in 2012, Xi Jinping and his political allies have reversed the post-1992 trend of slowly increasing dialogue, engagement, civil society and rule of law. They have instead lead China down a path of centralising power and increased government monitoring, interference, censorship and repression. At the same time, our own British government has embarked on a grand project of forgetting wrongs, ignoring abuses of power and wooing Chinese state and business for investment and economic opportunity.

Was this a gambit that the nagging voice of neo-colonialists didn’t fundamentally do any good, and uncritical, good-faith engagement on their terms was a surer way to win respect and prove the reasonableness of our position on rights and limited, representative government? If it was, it certainly hasn’t worked and must be rethought.

Much more likely it was an international extension of the same realpolitik election strategizing the Conservative party have so successfully employed domestically. Oppressed Chinese citizens can’t vote in UK elections, so they have no political voice, so they don’t matter. British voters’ number one concern is the economy, which can be improved immensely at no personal cost to voters or national finances by encouraging Chinese investment in property, higher education, business and infrastructure.

Things like allowing London to becoming a clearing centre for Renminbi transactions, or Chinese investment in the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station, or allowing Chinese billionaires to develop great swathes of prime, city-centre real estate.

Of these three, which are so far the most tangible impacts of this policy, Hinkely point remains very much uncertain and as a business decision is destroying EDF from within. Meanwhile, on the assumption that energy security has been ensured, subsidies for renewables have been slashed, with investment duly falling. If it doesn’t now go ahead, as many remain doubtful it will, we’ll face a major energy supply crisis.

Foreign investment, especially in the centre of London, has led to soaring house prices and some of the most luxurious apartments remain vacant. Simply a vehicle for safely storing (misbegotten?) fortunes and a guaranteed profit machine as house prices inevitably continue their skyward climb. Locals still renting see themselves pushed out of their homes and into suburbia, or those few inner-city sink estates that still remain. Anyone else seeking opportunity in the capital is priced out of anything but a 60+ minute commute each way every day.

Yet more financial services generate incremental rises in tax revenue, but only provide employment to the already extremely well-educated, well-resourced, privileged living in London. Is that what Britain needs?


As Eric Abrahamsen summed neatly up in late May, it’s A Bad Year for China. By the actions of our government to consciously follow China more closely, criticise less, forge deeper economic ties, disagree less, then it also follows that it is A Bad Year for Britain.

Domestic economic prosperity at the cost of foreigners’ loss of political and social prosperity has long been a strategy of Western capitalism. It might even work, for us at least, if that prosperity were economically useful.

Under this recent courting of China, we’re yet to witness the benefits, but the consequences are already here. The all but confirmed rendition and torture of a British citizen Lee Bo, the regression and atrophy of the Chinese state, and a war brewing in the South China sea.

This has happened by our actions and inactions too.

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