HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chain smoking outside a train station in Hong Kong last Thursday, a thin, bespectacled man called Lam Wing-kee was in a bind.
He could return across the mainland China border to meet up with the Chinese agents who had just kept him captive for eight months and hand them a disk holding the names of hundreds of customers who had ordered politically sensitive books.
The alternative was to hold a news conference in Hong Kong and tell the world how he had been arrested, blindfolded and handcuffed in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Oct. 22, and then taken to the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo where he was forced into solitary confinement and faced repeated interrogations.
Lam chose the latter.
By doing so, he reignited a controversy that first rocked Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to China in 1997, late last year. That was when Lam and four other booksellers, who published gossipy and often scandalous books on the personal lives and power struggles of China’s senior Communist Party leaders, had mysteriously disappeared.
Just a year earlier Lam had led an ordinary life, managing a small bookshop, but he now found himself thrust into the center of an extraordinary political storm that had called into question Hong Kong’s relationship with its Chinese rulers.
In an interview with Reuters, Lam said he was released last Tuesday and sent back to Hong Kong with an express purpose - to bring back that hard disk containing the customer database.
But as he prepared to board a train to the Chinese border, Lam vacillated. He paused at a 7-11 convenience store where he bought a bottle of water and a packet of cigarettes that he smoked, one after another.
“I could have changed trains and gone directly to Lowu to give them the hard disk,” he told Reuters, referring to the Chinese district bordering Hong Kong. “Once I crossed the border I’d have no chance. But I could still decide whether to go public.”
He chose to board a train back to the city and called the pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho, who helped arrange a press conference that same evening.
“At the most intense moment of indecision, the pressure was great, but in the end I figured this wasn’t an issue only for myself or for the five of us ... so I decided to come out,” Lam said.
Four of the booksellers have now returned to Hong Kong, including Lam and Chinese-born British national Lee Bo, who went missing from Hong Kong in late December. But Swedish passport holder Gui Minhai, who disappeared from the Thai resort of Pattaya last October, remains in detention in China.
Chinese authorities have repeatedly said they would never do anything illegal and that Hong Kong’s autonomy was fully respected.
Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong declined to comment on Lam’s account of his detention.
Lam’s recounting of repeated interrogations by Chinese agents, detention for months alone in a small room without contact with family or lawyers, does not mesh with statements by some of the other booksellers who said they had been well treated by authorities.
Also Lam said that Lee had been abducted by Chinese agents in Hong Kong, but Lee has disputed this account, saying he went to China voluntarily with unspecified friends.
A number of Western governments, including Britain, voiced concerns this year that Lee had been abducted, undermining the city’s “one country, two systems” formula of governance granting Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, speaking on Monday after he returned from holiday, said he would write a letter to Beijing to express concern over the bookseller case.
“Any law-enforcement entity, including mainland and foreign, does not have the right to exercise power in Hong Kong,” said Leung. “It is illegal for any overseas entities to enforce law in Hong Kong and we shall not accept it.”
Lam told Reuters he believed his bookstore, where he worked as the shop manager had come into the crosshairs of unspecified senior Chinese leaders given some of the controversial publications that they put out through the years.
“Some books were affecting the leaders,” Lam said. “They discovered some information channels were real and they tried investigating these channels, to find out the source. I think they blew the whole thing up for this reason alone.”
Lam worked for years as the face of the Causeway Bay Bookshop, a hole in the wall independent bookshop tucked upstairs in an old building behind the well-known SOGO Japanese department store in the teeming Hong Kong shopping hotspot.
Lam said that it was rare for any of the 50 or 60 officers who dealt with him during his imprisonment to mention politics or give away any personal details. He said none wore uniforms nor showed him identification papers.
Reporting By James Pomfret; additional reporting by Sharon Shi, Tris Pan and Lindsy Long; Editing by Martin Howell