By Scarlet Wan, Progressive Lawyers Group

Lee Bo, a co-owner of a book store in Causeway Bay carrying books critical of China, went missing in late December, following the disappearance in recent months of four other people connected to the bookstore. Lee was last seen in Hong Kong, with his home return permit still at home and no immigration records of his exit from Hong Kong.

The unusual circumstances of his disappearance sparked concern that Chinese security agencies may have entered Hong Kong and taken him to mainland China. A few days after his disappearance, Lee reportedly sent letters and a video to his wife and colleagues, saying he had gone to China “voluntarily” and was “cooperating” with the authorities in an investigation. These events leave little doubt that he has been detained or at least held under constant surveillance in the Mainland.

Lee is in indefinite detention in an unknown location, with neither access to legal representation, nor uncensored (or, quite possibly, uncompelled) means of communication to the outside world. Yet the Mainland authorities will declare that Lee’s ordeal was nothing of the sort – merely “voluntary cooperation” in an investigation. This is a world alien to Hong Kongers, who are supposedly protected by the rule of law.

Lee Bo. File

But this is a world all too familiar to individuals in the Mainland such as civil right lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, journalist Gao Yu, and lawyer Wang Yu and her husband Bao Longjun, who were among the first of more than 290 to be taken away in a sweeping crackdown on Chinese civil rights lawyers and activists that began in July 2015.

On 22 December 2015, Pu Zhiqiang, who was held for 19 months before trial, was handed a three-year suspended prison sentence for the alleged crimes of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “disturbing public order”, for seven posts he had published on Chinese social media questioning government policy. Despite Pu’s lawyer’s insistence that his client maintained his innocence, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, claimed Pu had been given “a light punishment… as he confessed his crime honestly, pleaded guilty and repented his guilt”.

Pu Zhiqiang. Photo: Wikicommons.

Gao Yu, convicted of leaking state secrets for allegedly sharing a document detailing the Communist party leadership’s resolve to suppress press freedom and an independent civil society with an overseas news magazine, was said to have “confessed” her guilt on state television (in footage of questionable authenticity), even though the magazine denied that Gao was the source.

Wang Yu has been held at an unnamed location in Beijing on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, as well as “incitement to subvert state power” (charges commonly used to hold rights activists) since July 2015, denied visits by lawyers and family. Her husband has also been under detention. Their 16-year-old son Bao Zhuoxuan was barred from leaving for Australia where he was due to study, and put under surveillance.

In October 2015, the couple’s friends helped Bao Zhuoxuan to travel to Myanmar, and thence to the West. However, the teenager was abducted from his guesthouse in Myanmar in what appears to be a shadowy cross-border operation involving Mainland Chinese state security. Wang Yu and her husband, who had by then been detained incommunicado for three months, were shown separately on state television in distress, condemning the attempt to “smuggle” their teenage son out of China.

There is little doubt what the rhetoric will be when the couple are eventually put on trial – they will be said to have “cooperated” with the investigation and confessed their crime voluntarily and honestly. After all, too much is at stake.

This too was the world Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, lived in. This is a world where “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. Winston was repeatedly tortured for his supposed insanity – his manifest hatred for the Party. He was taught that obeying Big Brother was not enough, he must learn to love him. In the end he was “cured” of his “insanity” and “confessed” to crimes he did not commit, following which he voluntarily, happily and wholeheartedly embraced his love of Big Brother.

George Orwell & 1984. Photo: Wikicommons.

Such is the obsession with “voluntariness” of a totalitarian regime. In the absence of a democratic mandate, it requires the “voluntary” submission of its subjects to legitimize its existence. To that end, it will not hesitate to extract “voluntary” submission through coercion and duress.

No doubt the public displays of “confession”, “repentance” or “voluntary cooperation” in high profile cases are intended to manipulate the minds of the public – they intimidate the rebellious, and deceive the ignorant. Such public displays of “voluntary” submission are usually the hallmark of oppression.

In a society founded on the rule of law, rules of evidence exist to exclude confessions extracted by coercion, protect an accused person from being forced to testify against herself, and deter abusive police interrogation. Words like “confession” or “voluntary cooperation” ought to cause immediate alarm in Hong Kong.

This is particularly so in light of the murky circumstances surrounding Lee Bo’s disappearance. Shortly after his disappearance, Gui Minhai, another co-owner of Lee Bo’s bookstore who had disappeared in October 2015 – last seen in Thailand where he was on holiday – was shown on Chinese state TV “confessimg” to a fatal drunk-driving offence that occurred in 2003, stating that he had “voluntarily” returned to China to surrender himself to the authorities. Both the truth of that “confession” and its voluntariness are highly questionable (and have been doubted by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).

Gui Minhai. Photo: CCTV screencap.

In 1984, the timidly rebellious Winston Smith set out to challenge the limits of the Party’s power, only to discover that its ability to control and enslave its subjects exceeded even his most paranoid conceptions of its reach. What will Hong Kongers discover when it comes to the Chinese government’s ability to control and manipulate our minds?

The Global Times, a Party mouthpiece, said there are ways in which the authorities could operate to evade the law and to cause the voluntary cooperation of those subject to investigation. If the Basic Law can be ignored and evaded, how far off is any one of us from being coerced into “voluntary cooperation”? After all, in the mind of the almighty Party, freedom is slavery, and Hong Kongers must, as all subjects do, not only obey, but also learn to love the Party.

Scarlet Wan is a barrister, who considers ignorance to be a sin and stupidity to be a crime.

Progressive Lawyers Group

The Progressive Lawyers Group is a group of Hong Kong lawyers dedicated to promoting core values of rule of law, judicial independence, democracy, human rights, freedom, and justice.