Hong Kong needs a hero and, thanks to Lam Wing-kee, we finally got one.

We had all given up the five disappeared Hong Kong booksellers as a lost cause as they began reappearing on Chinese state television to “confess their crimes”. Then, one by one, they returned to Hong Kong, clearly bound by a code of silence imposed on them by the mainland interrogators who had forced those confessions.

lam wing-kee
Lam Wing-Kee. Photo: Factwire.

The script had become sadly familiar: Bookseller returns home, cancels missing person report filed with Hong Kong police, asks to be left alone and then “voluntarily” returns to the mainland to offer “assistance in an ongoing investigation.”

The Hong Kong public had already heard this bogus story from three of the men accused of selling banned books in China: Cheung Chi-ping, Lui Por and Lee Bo. There was no reason to expect anything different when Lam, their former associate at the now-defunct Causeway Bay Books, returned to Hong Kong last Tuesday.

Like his three former colleagues, Lam went to police to have his missing person file expunged, declined any assistance in his case and shunned the media.

Then, two days later, an apparently conscience-stricken Lam dramatically flipped the script. Appearing alongside Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho Chun-yan at a hastily called news conference at the Legislative Council complex, Lam stated that he had been abducted by an extra-judicial investigative unit as he crossed the border into Shenzhen, abused by his interrogators and illegally detained on the mainland for eight months without access to a lawyer or his family.

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

He retracted his televised confession, during the entirety of which he said he was speaking according to a script provided by his captors. Moreover, he confirmed what had long been suspected about Lee—that, in an outrageous violation of the “one country, two systems” agreement which has been the bedrock of Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland since the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, Lee was seized by mainland security forces in Hong Kong last December before being secretly transported to the mainland. This, Lam said, Lee himself had told him.

“I hope Hong Kong people can say no to the authoritarian regime,” Lam declared. “If I can, why can’t you?”

lam wing-kee protest
Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

And, with those words, Lam transformed himself from just another hapless victim in the saga of the booksellers into a local hero who has defeated his mainland enemies by wielding the only weapon at his disposal: the truth. Across the border, facts, principles and beliefs may be bent, rent and manipulated beyond recognition to serve those in power, but in Hong Kong they still matter and our leaders must be made to acknowledge and act on them.

Lam’s explosive revelations make it absolutely imperative that the Hong Kong government, led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, demand a full and transparent investigation of the booksellers’ treatment by mainland agents that leaves plenty of room for sanctions and punishment, especially for the decision-makers involved.

This isn’t a case that can be dismissed as a misunderstanding or a simple disconnect between mainland and Hong Kong laws; it appears to be the most serious breach of the one country, two systems principle since the handover. It cannot go unaddressed without confidence in Hong Kong’s rule of law being profoundly shaken—and not only among the 7.3 million people who live in this city; what about all those high-flyers out there in the wider world who see Hong Kong’s independent, common-law legal system as one of its great strengths as an international business and finance hub?

This is not supposed to be a city where a business that has done nothing to transgress Hong Kong laws—let’s remember, selling books critical of and embarrassing to the Chinese leadership is perfectly legal in Hong Kong—is shuttered while those associated with it are illegally detained and charged with crimes across the border. In the end, the booksellers’ plight is not just alarming to people in Hong Kong; it’s also a tremendous stain on the city’s international reputation for freedom of speech and fair and impartial treatment under the law.

Lam should be thanked and honoured by the Hong Kong government for daring to tell the truth and also offered every legal protection. He suffered through his eight months of duress but, then, unlike his cowed colleagues, came home and blew the lid off the cynical fiction Chinese authorities had created to justify their detention.

Cheung, Lui and Lee have chosen to cooperate with mainland authorities and most assuredly are being treated with leniency as a result. Indeed, Lee used his Facebook timeline on Friday to deny that he told Lam he had been abducted last December and, in an interview with Sing Tao Daily that took place on the mainland, Cheung and Lui also called Lam a liar. At this point, however, it is their story, not Lam’s, that does not hold up to scrutiny.

missing booksellers lee bo
The five booksellers have been missing since last year.

Chinese authorities are portraying another bookseller, Gui Minhai—a Chinese-born Swedish national who disappeared in the Thai resort town of Pattaya last October—as the mastermind behind the sale of some 4,000 banned books on the mainland, setting him up as the fall guy in this case. Gui, too, has made a televised confession, but his involved a tearful admission that he was responsible for a 2004 drink-driving fatality in the northeastern Chinese city of Ningbo. He remains incarcerated in an unknown location and almost certainly faces jail time.

As for Cheung, Lui and Lee, if they continue their quiet cooperation with mainland security forces, they should be allowed to resume their lives in Hong Kong, although their bookselling days are over and their names will be forever besmirched by this tawdry affair.

For Lam, however, the blowback has just begun.

Predictably, following Lam’s press conference, the attack dogs among Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing politicians were immediately unleashed to discredit him and his story.

“We’re only hearing one side of the story – how do we know if [Lam is] telling the truth or lying?” said Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, adding that Lam “did not present any concrete evidence.”

Wong Kwok-kin
Wong Kwok-kin. File

Here Wong was only echoing the official Chinese Communist Party line as expressed in state media, which Hong Kong politicians who take their cues from north of the border were quick to pick up.

What do these parrot-patriots expect—photographs, video and souvenirs from Lam’s eight-months with China’s secret police? Isn’t his falling into a legal black hole on the mainland for all that time a good place to start if you’re looking for evidence?

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

Lam’s press conference also prompted an intriguing response from a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry:

“Lam Wing-kee is a Chinese citizen, and he has violated China’s laws on the mainland. Relevant authorities in China are authorised to handle the case in accordance with the law.”

Note there is no mention in this statement of Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China or of one country, two systems.

Finally, the propaganda war continued with another Sing Tao Daily interview published over the weekend in which a woman claiming to be Lam’s mainland girlfriend said he had brainwashed her into aiding and abetting him in his trade of illegal books; the woman also offered intimate details about their personal relationship. The paper provided only her surname, Hu, and her face was pixellated so that she could not be identified in a photograph accompanying the story.

Lam’s mission, as dictated by those responsible for his rendition on the mainland, was to return to Hong Kong, obtain the hard drive containing customer names from a Causeway Bay Books computer and deliver those names to his handlers on the mainland. That would have been the safe thing to do.

Instead, he blew the whistle on the scandalous operation that kidnapped and detained him and four colleagues and stood up for Hong Kong and its core values.

Yes, he is a hero, but now the vilification campaign begins.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.