26 October 2016
Causeway Bay Bookstore founder Lam Wing-kee (right) was allowed to return after an eight-month detention in Ningbo. He was supposed to hand over the bookstore's client list to mainland authorities but he changed his mind. Photos: AP, VOA
Causeway Bay Bookstore founder Lam Wing-kee (right) was allowed to return after an eight-month detention in Ningbo. He was supposed to hand over the bookstore's client list to mainland authorities but he changed his mind. Photos: AP, VOA

Booksellers’ saga: the mystery of the men in black from Ningbo

It appears that those who had a direct hand in the booksellers’ arrest and subsequent detention in the mainland are the men in black from Ningbo, an eastern mainland port city about 1,100 kilometers away from the territory.

These people, likely dispatched by the Ningbo Municipal Bureau of Public Security, may be responsible for bookseller Lee Bo’s abduction in broad daylight in Chai Wan last year and some of Lee’s associates at the Causeway Bay Bookstore who went missing one after another in different locations from Hong Kong and Guangdong to Thailand.

Many months later, some of these missing persons resurfaced in Ningbo, albeit in captivity.

They include Gui Minhai (桂民海) and bookstore founder Lam Wing-kee, who, with suppressed fury, revealed what he had been through in a press conference last Thursday, after he was allowed to return briefly to Hong Kong.

Lee has also admitted he was assisting in an investigation by Ningbo authorities when he disappeared from the territory.

The booksellers have been accused of selling “illegal, libelous political” books – mostly about Communist Party General Secretary cum President Xi Jinping – on the mainland.

Until Lam’s shocking revelations about his ordeal during his eight months of detention in Ningbo, many Hongkongers thought henchmen from the Shenzhen or Guangdong security department might have been behind the abductions.

Movie-like, but real

All these sound like a cloak-and-dagger movie plot.

Lam said he was given a cellphone and told to report his location every hour during his stay in Hong Kong, and mainland agents also crossed the border to watch and tail him, though this time they chose to stay low-key probably due to the huge media commotion after Lee was reported missing by his wife.

Lam was here to obtain through Lee a hard disk containing information about the bookstore’s mainland clients, but he changed mind at the Kowloon Tong MTR station before boarding a train to the Lo Wu border checkpoint, wondering if he could ever return to Hong Kong again.

He threw away his mainland cellphone and managed to contact Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan, who arranged an attorney, a press conference inside the Legislative Council complex and a secure hideout for Lam.

It was said that Ho volunteered to help Lam to flee to the United States, but Lam decided to stay.

A Democratic Party van carrying Lam and Ho had to take several detours to elude mysterious stalkers.

More mystery

The latest episode of the booksellers’ saga has led to more questions than answers, though Hongkongers can decide for themselves whom to believe – Lam’s account of what happened to him in the past eight months or Lee’s insistence that “I crossed the border voluntarily”.

The first question is why did Ningbo authorities allow Lam to return to Hong Kong to collect client information when they could have easily ordered Lee, who is already in town since March and has kept his lips sealed, to hand over the hard disk to their agents?

Also, why is the Ningbo public security bureau leading the investigation when it could have been more convenient for the authorities in Shenzhen or Guangdong to get things done?

One possible explanation is that Gui, who is a Swedish national, is a native of Ningbo and he is accused of fleeing China after a fatal hit-and-run accident in the city.

Many believe that the road mishap was a mere excuse for the authorities to go after Gui.

Lam said he was told when he was in Ningbo that his case was in the hands of a “special investigative unit set up by the central authorities”.

If that is the case, what is the role of the Ningbo agents? Are they only supposed to do the “dirty job” of apprehending the booksellers, either in Hong Kong or in a foreign country, and escorting them for interrogation and forced TV confession?

Exactly how “central” is such an investigative unit? Is there any state agency, like the ministries responsible for public and national security and the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office or even anyone inside Zhongnanhai, involved?

Are all these incidents the result of a direct order from top party leaders or just the initiative of some Ningbo cadres trying to score some brownie points? Or both?

Lee has disavowed Lam’s claim, saying he only got in touch with Ningbo investigators when he was on the mainland.

Far from over

An official with the Ningbo public security bureau said they will, when the time is ripe, seek assistance from the Hong Kong police through a cooperation mechanism that is already in place, according to Sing Tao Daily.

At a media session on Monday, security minister Lai Tung-kwok was asked if the Hong Kong police will grab Lam and hand him over at the request of the Ningbo authorities.

Lai said: “It is only under the circumstance that we are satisfied it is made in accordance with the law that we can proceed, and any person who has reason to fear for his personal safety should approach the police.”

Some observers see the latest developments as the repercussions of some factional schism within the Communist Party: Xi’s foes may want to embarrass him as he is about to preside at a top-level conference to review Hong Kong policies.

Read more:

Beijing warning: You can run but you can’t hide in luxe hotels

Should you put your faith in your BNO passport?

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An official with the Ningbo Municipal Bureau of Public Security told Hong Kong media that they would seek assistance from the Hong Kong police regarding Lam’s case. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer

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