Friday May 12, 2017

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When Lam Wing-kee was released from his secret, eight-month detention by Chinese authorities in 2015, he was supposed to keep quiet and turn over the names of the people who bought banned books from his Hong Kong bookstore.

Instead, he became an outspoken activist for freedom of expression in China and Hong Kong’s rights to self-determination.

“I realized that I need to do something,” Lam told As It Happens host Carol Off through a translator.

Lam is the founder of Causeway Bay Books, a Hong Kong bookshop that sold political titles banned by Beijing before it shuttered in 2015 after Lam and four of his colleagues suddenly disappeared. 

The disappearance of the five booksellers — including a British and Swedish national — made headlines around the world and sent shockwaves across Hong Kong, which gained sovereignty from Britain in 1997 under the conditions that it would maintain independence from the Chinese government.

Under this agreement —known as “one country, two systems” — the people of Hong Kong have enjoyed far greater personal freedoms than their mainland neighbours. The Causeway Bay Books disappearances were seen by many as a threat to those freedoms. 

“The Chinese government wanted to put a chill on freedom of the expression in Hong Kong, sort of giving a warning that don’t publish books that are anti-Communist Party, that are anti-China and that show a bad light on the Chinese government,” Lam said.

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As It Happens host Carol Off poses with Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee at the CBC Radio studio in Toronto. (Cheuk Kwan)

Lam received that warning loud and clear in October 2015, when he went to Shenzhen to visit his girlfriend, where he was abducted by Chinese authorities, blindfolded and detained for eight months without trial.

“I asked constantly, ‘Why am I being detained?’ And nobody could give me an answer,” Lam said. 

He said he was held in a 300 square foot room with two cameras and six guards watching him 24 hours a day. 

“The lights were never turned off, so even when I was sleeping they were still on,” he said. “And throughout my detention, every day someone would come and interrogate me.”

He said he was forced to sign a document promising not to hire a lawyer or tell his family — who had filed a missing persons report for him — where he’d been. He was also made to appear on Chinese television to read a “confession” that had been written for him by Chinese authorities.

Finally Lam was released and ordered return to Hong Kong to retrieve an electronic database of customers who had purchased banned books from his shop, he said.

Lam did not comply. Instead, two days after his release, he held an explosive news conference and told reporters everything that had happened to him.

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Lam Wing-kee held an explosive a press conference in June 2016, describing in detail his ordeal of being abducted and detained by Chinese authorities. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

“When I came back out, I spent two nights watching the TV news and I realized that this is more than just the five booksellers that we are dealing with. This is destroying the one-country, two-system that the Chinese had promised to Hong Kong people,” Lam said,

“And the fact that there had been 6,000 people up in the street protesting, I realized that I need to stand up and deal with the freedom of expression and the erosion of the Hong Kong system as we know it.”

The Chinese government has maintained that Lam broke Chinese law by mailing banned books across the border into mainland China, and that Beijing is within its rights to deal with him as it sees fit.

Lam is the only of the five missing booksellers who have spoken publicly about their experiences. Four have since been released.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish national who was abducted while on vacation Thailand, remains in detention, and his daughter continues to speak out for his release.

Lam, meanwhile, has been openly championing free speech and Hong Kong independence since his release, marching in the streets during the umbrella revolution and sometimes travelling the world to promote his cause.  

“I think that if any harm comes to me, China will be further condemned by the international community, and because this is such a high-profile case, I feel safe. I feel that China will not be as stupid as to harm me right now knowing that I have the world’s attention,” he said.

“Of course I’m fearful. Of course I’m being very careful. But that doesn’t stop me from doing what I have to do.”

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Lam Wing-kee took part in a protest on June 18, 2016, in Hong Kong, after being released by Chinese authorities. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

He recently announced he would reopen his bookstore in neighbouring Taiwan, and says he will continue to promote literature that’s critical of the Chinese government.

“I want the people on the mainland to know what their country’s going to be and how it’s going to be and I want to help with that dissemination of information.”

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