Families of Hongkongers detained in China for nearly three months have finally received letters from some of them, but a concern group has suggested that mainland officials dictated the content of the messages – which stress how well the prisoners are being treated.

hong kong twelve 12 fugitives
Los Angeles, USA rally for the “Hong Kong 12.” Photo: We The Hongkongers.

Seven out of 12 detainees at Yantian District Detention Centre in Shenzhen wrote letters to their families, with the earliest dated October 13. Most letters arrived last Saturday and the latest on Wednesday.

Tang Kai-yin’s letter to his family – translation, click to view

Dear mum and brother,

How are you doing lately? Hope you have a peace of mind, mother. Do not worry too much about me. Exercise more, stay healthy and wish you a peaceful birthday.

I am doing well here – well-fed and restful. My asthma and skin disorders never attacked even once. The guards here are friendly. My rest and eating time are regular.

Mother, please listen more to brother [brother’s name redacted,] do not agitate him. Go for a walk after meals. Talk to someone if you feel bothered. Brother, please take good care of mother. Doctors visit me every day. Don’t be too concerned.

I need to buy some daily necessities here. Would you please transfer $500 to my account at the detention center with the “Yue Sheng Shi” app for detention facilities service on WeChat.

Tang Kai-yin
October 24, 2020

12 hong kong youths letters
Photo: Save 12 HK Youths Concern group.

The 12 were on a speedboat en route to Taiwan when it was intercepted by the China Coast Guard on August 23. The Hongkongers – allegedly active in last year’s pro-democracy protests – have been detained since then, despite pleas from rights groups and others including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that they be returned to Hong Kong.

Save 12 HK Youths Concern Group said in a Facebook post the content of the letters was similar, with the writers emphasising that they were being well-treated and urging families not to worry.

Cheng Tsz-ho’s letter to his family – translation, click to view

Dear Father, Mother and Sister,


It has been a while since we last met. How are you doing lately? How’s your health? I am doing great here. Please rest assured. I am in good health, well-fed three meals a day. The food tastes good here. I have sufficient sleep – around nine hours a day. For rest of the time I mostly read and learn, exercise, chat with my cellmates and watch TV at night. My cellmates are all nice and very caring of me. My Mandarin has improved a lot. Daily conversations wouldn’t be a problem. My days are productive and time passes really quickly. Also illegal border crossing that I committed is actually a small offence. Do not overworry. During the pandemic, don’t come all the way to the mainland to visit me. Please take care of your physical health. The weather is turning cold. Wear more clothes and don’t get sick. And please go visit “Mama” [presumably grandmother] more often and take her out for meals. Mama most be heartbroken when she learns that I was arrested. I am worried that she may take it too hard. Sorry about that. I feel guilty about this – to have you anxious about me all the time.

I am now at Shenzhen’s Yantian District Detention Centre. You may try to write a letter back to me. I can sometimes spend money to buy daily necessities such as snacks and milk. You may expense RMB$500 every month. Doesn’t need to be much. I asked my cellmates, you may use WeChat, search for the official account “Yue Sheng Shi” where you can top up money for me. For more details, Sister, you may go online for tutorial. Thank you.

Lastly, I feel really sorry that you worry about me all the time. I have never considered your feelings. I am apologetic. I miss you very much. If there is any problem, anything interesting that you encounter at work and life, also thoughts, feel free to write back to me. I would like to know more about you too. Sister please study hard. For the time being, please take care of our parents. When I return to Hong Kong, I will study hard and work hard. I will treat you all nicely. Take care!

October 21, 2020
Cheng Tsz-ho

12 hong kong youths letters
Photo: Save 12 HK Youths Concern group.
12 hong kong youths letters
Photo: Save 12 HK Youths Concern group.

“There were many letters that directly ‘responded’ to the doubts of the outside world about China,” the concern group wrote. It posted four letters, with some content and names concealed according to the wishes of families.

In the letters which have been disclosed, detainees denied they were beaten up and said the conditions at the detention facility were good with guards and cellmates treating them well. They said they were given enough rest and food and had daily medical check-ups.

china coast guard marine police
China Coast Guard.

In some of the letters not shown on Facebook, according to the concern group, detainees denied being forced to confess under torture and said there was no difference between being detained in China and Hong Kong.

“These descriptions are substantially different from what is common in Chinese detention facilities,” the group wrote, citing Chinese lawyers and surveys which found conditions in detention centres usually to be poor.

Letter from an unnamed detainee – translation, click to view

Dear Mum and Dad,

[content redacted] How are you doing? Is everything okay in terms of health? Please take care of your physical health and live well. Please rest assured. I am neither bullied nor beaten up here. People who share the same cell with me are getting along well. I am well-fed and restful, will return very soon. Please don’t overworry and take care of yourself!

[content redacted] Sorry to have made you worried. I will bear the consequences and return to you and perform my filial duty – to take care of you. Previously you transferred $500 to my account. I spent it on some daily necessities and snacks. Thank you for the transfer. Much appreciated.

[content redacted] Lastly, please do me a favour – tell [name redacted] that I love them. I miss them very much and I believe that they understand my feelings towards them. Love you all.

[name redacted]
November 3, 2020

12 hong kong youths letters
Photo: Save 12 HK Youths Concern group.

“[D]etainees often have to sleep on the floor, no air break will be arranged in the winter because of the cold weather, detainees have to work the night shift and cannot rest, most do not have hot water for bathing, and the food is described as ‘pig food,’ resulting in frequent diarrhea and daily checkups by doctor is impossible.”

Some letters not shown in the Facebook post also claimed that detainees had appointed lawyers on their own. Family-appointed lawyers were repeatedly denied access to the detainees over the past three months as Chinese authorities claimed they had appointed lawyers separately.

The People’s Procuratorate of Yantian District in Shenzhen on September 30 approved the arrests of the detainees for illegal border crossing and they may face a year in detention for the offence. Two of the 12 – Tang Kai-yin and Quinn Moon – were arrested on suspicion of helping the others escape Hong Kong – a more serious offence.

hong kong twelve flying service
Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Tang’s family previously voiced worries that he suffered from asthma but it is unclear whether he receives medication in the facility. In the letter, he wrote that he had not suffered any asthma attacks while in custody.

Quinn Moon’s brother has aired fears that she was not receiving medication for her depression.

Letter from an unnamed detainee – translation, click to view

My dearest Mum and Dad,

Mum and dad, please do not worry about me. I am at Yantian Detention Centre. I am writing to tell you that I am safe and sound. Please rest assured that I am doing okay here. There is vegetable and meat every meal. I am well-fed and have enough clothes to keep me from cold. Also, doctors come for check-ups everyday. There won’t be a problem. I will take good care of myself and return as soon as possible to meet you. Please take good care of yourselves, especially Mum and Dad – take care of your physical health. Don’t be so restless. Take good rest and be cautious of your health. You will live a long life and then I will take good care of you in your old age. Don’t worry! I am mature now and will act thoughtfully in the future. Do not over worry! Brother…

On the other hand, please tell my girlfriend [name redacted] – think you have her contact. Please tell her: Dear [name redacted,] it has been a while since we last met. I miss you so much. Sorry that I made you worried. Please rest assured that I am doing well now. So don’t act like you always do – shut off yourself when you’re upset. Remember to take care of yourself, eat more and hang out with friends more. I wish to see a well-fed and healthy sweetheart when I am back. I don’t know how long the imprisonment will be or what may happen next but I will always love you. I will ask my brother to relay messages to you in the future. You may forward messages to me through my brother too. I can receive letters. [The sentence was crossed – but do not mention about the case.] Although I am not around, my heart is with you, accompanying you to do whatever you want to. I will be with you, support you in whatever you like in the future. Tell brother what you want and you can take whatever belongs to me. Lastly, I love you. I will say this again in person when I am back.

12 hong kong youths letters
Photo: Save 12 HK Youths Concern group.
12 hong kong youths letters
Photo: Save 12 HK Youths Concern group.

Families have questioned the claim that detainees had found their own lawyers, saying that they have no connections in China and that authorities had barred family-appointed lawyers from meeting their clients to verify the claim. According to Chinese legal experts, appointing state lawyers for political dissidents is common practice.

In some of the letters, detainees asked whether family members were speaking at press conferences and urged them not to say too much.

The concern group said detainees may have been forced to write the letters according to instructions. It cited the use of simplified Chinese characters rather than the traditional characters common in Hong Kong, and a writing style that resembled that used in China rather than in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong 12
Photo: @save12hkyouths, via Twitter.

“In past Chinese human rights cases, there have been cases in which detainees were forced to follow the instructions of the authorities to send letters to their families with specified content, asking the families to abandon the rescue, indicated no abuse, no need for a family-appointed lawyer, asked family [not] to cause ‘trouble’,” the concern group wrote.

The group reiterated the families’ three demands: allowing family-appointed lawyers to meet their clients, allowing direct conversation between the Hongkongers and their families, and the disclosure of the names and contact details of the government-appointed lawyers, as well as of the detention authorisation documents.

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Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.