Recently returned bookseller Lam Wing-kee said he underwent some 20 to 30 interrogations when he was detained in China. Each one lasted from 30 to 45 minutes, as he stood accused of running an “illegal operation” by sending “banned” books to the mainland.

Lam, who founded Causeway Bay Books before it was acquired by Mighty Current, said he was interrogated irregularly – sometimes up to four times a week, and sometimes with gaps of several weeks. He said he was forced to cooperate, without a lawyer and any outside communication.

Lam Wing-kee. Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

Lam told reporters on Thursday that he was detained by a “central special unit”, a term he had not heard since the Cultural Revolution.

“I did not believe it would happen to me – it was an absurd place,” he said. “It was not realistic… I hoped I was in another place, or that it was a dream, that it was not reality.”

“I am a Hongkonger, I am a free man, I did not break any law in Hong Kong, but I was arrested without any reason [at the beginning],” he said.

Lam was detained in a 200 to 300 square feet concrete room in Ningbo with a window looking out on a police station, but he did not know what building it was, as he was brought in blindfolded.

Lam Wing-kee. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

See also: Bookseller’s testimony has ‘blown apart’ Beijing’s ‘lies’ on the missing publishers, says Amnesty

Suicide-prevention measures

He said he could not go outside to take a walk. However, after many requests, he was allowed books to read.

He added that the desk, chair, water faucet and everything else in the room was wrapped in plastic.

“What were they afraid of? Afraid of me getting crazy and committing suicide,” he said. “It was very obvious – the detention would make you crazy.”

He said a nylon cord was attached to his toothbrush, so that when he brushed his teeth a guard would hold the other end of the thread, and he needed to return the toothbrush after finishing.

“They were afraid of me swallowing the toothbrush to commit suicide,” he said. “Someone must have done it before.”

The disappearances of the booksellers triggered protests in Hong Kong. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

He said a cord was also attached to a nail clipper for the same reason.

“They must be very experienced [with prisoners committing suicide],” he said.

He was due to return to China on Thursday but held a surprise press conference at the legislature with lawmaker Albert Ho instead. He said the psychological torture was one of the worst parts of his detention. But he said that, as he worked 13 hours a day in the past, his physical condition improved during his detention.

Lam’s four colleagues from Causeway Bay Books were also detained on the mainland, but Lam did not know where they were being held, except that they were also in Ningbo.

See also: Banned book seller says Chinese authorities demanded hard drive containing details of some 600 customers

Lam said that he was allowed to meet with Lee Bo, Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping at Shenzhen Kylin Villa for a meal. The latter three returned to Hong Kong before Lam, who crossed back into the city on Tuesday accompanied by two minders.

The villa was commonly used as a venue for Hong Kong lawmakers to meet with mainland officials if they were invited to the mainland.

Asked if the Hong Kong government had helped secure his release, he said: “I don’t know of anyone the Hong Kong government have ever saved.”

The Causeway Bay Bookstore. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

He also said that he had nothing to say to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, referring to the police using tear gas on protesters during the 2014 pro-democracy occupy protests.

“They were not on the people’s side,” he said.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.