The disappearance of a Chinese billionaire from his Hong Kong hotel has brought back frightening memories for former Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei (林榮基), who also went missing in an ordeal that highlighted Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory.
Lam is one of five men connected to a Hong Kong publisher and bookstore who vanished at the end of 2015 and resurfaced in China. He returned to Hong Kong on bail after eight months in detention and refuses to go back.
The booksellers’ case sparked international outrage and fueled concern that Beijing is threatening the territory’s freedoms.
Those fears were reignited last month when Chinese tycoon Xiao Jianhua (肖建華) disappeared from his apartment in the Four Seasons hotel, with reports he was snatched by Chinese security agents. His whereabouts are still unknown.
Lam says both he and Xiao were political targets.
“It is 100 percent certain the [Chinese] Communist Party is behind it,” he said in an interview in Taipei, where he was attending the Taipei International Book Exhibition.
Lam and the other four men were known for publishing salacious titles about the Chinese leadership and ran a store stocked with books banned in China.
In Xiao’s case, there is widespread speculation that he has been caught up in an anti-corruption drive by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), which some critics believe has been a tool to target his political opponents.
The Xiao incident has renewed Lam’s fears about remaining in Hong Kong.
“Yes, I worry [about my safety]. Every Hong Kong person should worry,” the 62-year-old said. “I love Hong Kong. I want to stay in Hong Kong. I will never leave. I will speak out even if it means going to jail.”
Lam was allowed back to Hong Kong in June last year on the condition that he pick up a hard disc listing bookstore customers and return to China.
Instead he went public to tell an explosive story of how he was blindfolded by Chinese police after crossing the border and interrogated for months.
Hong Kong has a separate legal system under the “one country, two systems” deal struck when Britain returned the territory to China in 1997 and is not obliged to hand Lam back even if he is violating the terms of his bail.
Lam says he became suicidal during his detention and daily life is still not easy. He wears a face mask to help shield his identity and alternates between the eight entrances to the residential complex where he lives.
During his visit to Taiwan, he was protected by police security after pro-Beijing protesters attempted to attack prominent Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) during a recent trip to Taipei.
Lam says he is no longer involved in the book trade, but writes columns for local Hong Kong media outlets on a voluntary basis. There are still moments when his time in detention comes back to haunt him.
He said he was spooked on spotting a plain-clothes policeman waiting for him at the airport when he arrived in Taiwan.
“I thought he could be a mainland security agent,” Lam said.
Three of the other booksellers who were detained have been freed, but Lam said he is not in touch with them out of concern for their safety, believing they are still under surveillance.
The fifth, Gui Minhai (桂民海) — who disappeared in Thailand — is still in detention.
However, while Lam might have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life, he said that in some ways the trauma of his detention has made it easier to cope with its aftermath.