Protests in HK Amid Tensions Over Detained Booksellers

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong on Friday for the territory’s annual pro-democracy march on July 1st, the anniversary of ’s 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule. Tensions are high in the former British colony after bookseller Lam Wing-kee revealed dramatic details of his eight-month detention in mainland China. Lam was one of five Causeway Bay booksellers who went missing from Hong Kong last year and later turned up in mainland custody. Many protestors on Friday expressed concern over the case of the five booksellers, which has raised serious questions about eroding freedoms in Hong Kong and the potential breakdown of the “one country, two systems” deal. Venus Wu at Reuters reports:

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents marched in protest on the 19th anniversary of the financial hub’s return to Chinese rule on Friday as tensions simmer against Chinese authorities over the abductions of Hong Kong booksellers.

Some waved banners criticizing Beijing for the cross-border abductions as acts of a “totalitarian” regime, as well as calling for the release of leading dissidents, chanting for democracy and for Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying to step down.

Several hundred scuffled with police outside Government House, with police using pepper spray to keep them back. Organizers said 110,000 people took part in the march, while police put the figure at 19,300.

[…] The city has been unnerved over the past year by the disappearances of five booksellers who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders. One of the men, Lam Wing-kee, who was detained for eight months by Chinese agents and released last month, criticized Beijing for “violating Hong Kong’s rights” through illegal cross-border enforcement operations.

The tactics have raised fears of Communist Party rulers in Beijing eroding the so-called “one country, two systems” formula, granting Hong Kong a high degree of freedom and autonomy since its 1997 return from British to Chinese rule. [Source]

TIME’s Rishi Iyengar tweeted photos from the march:

South China Morning Post reports that turnout at this year’s march was lower than usual, though the event organizers’ claim of 110,000 participants far exceeded the police estimate of 19,300. See Hong Kong Free Press’ live blog for more on the demonstration.

Lam, who was due to lead Friday’s demonstration, pulled out at the last minute due to concerns for his personal safety, claiming that he had been followed by strangers in the days leading up to the march. From AFP:

“Lam Wing Kee is facing a serious threat and is forced to not attend the rally,” said protest leader Lau Shan-Ching, who spent 10 years in a Chinese jail as a prisoner of conscience.

The march organisers said Lam had pulled out because he had been tailed in recent days.

“He had observed that he had been followed by strangers in the last two days. He got greatly annoyed about his personal safety so he decided not to come today,” pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho told reporters.

“Mr Lam has reason to be scared that this may be people from the mainland,” Ho added. [Source]

From Reuters:

At South China Morning Post, Elizabeth Cheung reports claims by Hong Kong police that there is “no evidence at this stage” of any serious threat to Lam’s safety.

Of the released booksellers, Lam Wing-kee is the only one to go public about his ordeal. Others who returned to Hong Kong have largely remained silent on the issue. Hong Kong Free Press has more on Lam’s decision to speak out about his experience:

When Lam crossed the border on June 14, he cancelled his missing person case and stated that he did not require any assistance from the government or the police – the same as the other returned booksellers.

But in a surprise press conference two days later, he revealed that he was kidnapped in Shenzhen last October, then detained and ill-treated for eight months by a “special unit” separate from official mainland police.

Lam told reporters that he was asked to return to Hong Kong at the order of the Chinese authorities to retrieve a hard drive containing sales records from the bookstore. However, according to Lam, he was touched by the Hongkongers who marched in the street for the booksellers and decided to turn back at the Kowloon Tong MTR station on the way to the mainland.

[…] Since Lam’s revelations, his colleagues at the Causeway Bay Bookstore and his girlfriend in the mainland have separately accused him of lying and using them to run his business. Lam said that he would not reply to or rebut these claims for the sake of his girlfriend and his friends. [Source]

The mainland’s response to Lam’s claims got off to a rocky start, with a leaked media directive ordering the deletion of a Global Times editorial attacking them. With the widely publicized statements from his associates, however, it fell into an established pattern described at Quartz by Ilaria Maria Sala and Heather Timmons. They outlined a five-step “playbook,” comprising distraction with ad hominem attacks; the use of forced and often televised confessions; pressure on family members; a focus on salacious relationship details (along the lines, ironically, of those Lam and the others are accused of publishing); and intimidation. Sala and Timmons illustrated these with cases ranging from artist-activist Ai Weiwei’s to fallen security chief Zhou Yongkang’s. Some commentators, such as democracy advocate and former lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah, have argued that in Hong Kong, this kind of “smear campaign” will merely “add fuel to the fire. […] They never understand how Hong Kong people think.”

Lam has suggested that his detention was ordered by top authorities searching for sources behind a book on Xi Jinping’s alleged plans to extend his rule beyond the conventional ten-year limit. New York University legal scholar Jerome Cohen told The Guardian that this “offers classic instruction about the arbitrary power of the Chinese police to detain and torture any of us within China and to reach beyond China borders. [… Lam] has confirmed that this case is not the product of some out-of-control local officials in southern China but emanates from the party centre.”

On the other hand, the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing has accused Lam of “destroying” the “one country, two systems” principle by distributing banned political gossip titles in mainland China. South China Morning Post’s Jeffie Lam and Jennifer Ngo report:

Director Wang Guangya of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, speaking in Beijing, attacked Lam for “publishing books in Hong Kong attacking the mainland’s political system and then selling them on the mainland”.

“The books they publish aren’t about Hong Kong affairs … but about the mainland’s affairs. He publishes … books in Hong Kong and brings them back to sell on the mainland. This is his understanding of ‘one country, two systems’ – this ‘one country, two systems’, we’d rather not have it,” Wang said.

The veteran Beijing official also denied having ever heard of the mysterious “special central investigative unit” that Lam identified as his “abductors” when he was detained after crossing into Shenzhen last October.

[…] “It was Wong’s remarks which destroy the principle of ‘one country, two systems’,” he said. [Source]