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    Mar
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    The bizarre disappearances that “strike fear” in Hongkongers
    The bizarre disappearances that “strike fear” in Hongkongers
    POLITICS

    The bizarre disappearances that “strike fear” in Hongkongers

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    by
    Alan Wong
    Alan Wong
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    Hong Kong democracy campaigner Howard Lam was in court this week, accused of lying about being kidnapped by alleged Chinese agents in 2017. Why did so many people believe his initial claim? Alan Wong looks at a string of mysterious disappearances in the city.

    It was a story that stunned Hong Kong.

    Last August, a little-known democracy campaigner in Hong Kong, Howard Lam, told a hastily arranged press conference that Chinese agents had grabbed him the day before and tortured him overnight. 

    With cameras rolling, Lam settled his tired frame into an office chair and pulled up his shorts, revealing more than a dozen metal staples that he said the agents had driven into his thighs. 

    They did it to send a threat, he said.

    Howard Lam, a member of the Democratic Party, said Chinese agents drove metal staples into his legs and warned him not to cause trouble.
    Howard Lam, a member of the Democratic Party, said Chinese agents drove metal staples into his legs and warned him not to cause trouble. Photo: Felix Wong
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    The images and his shocking account rippled across the semi-autonomous former British colony, where many fear that their freedoms are fast eroding 20 years after it returned to Chinese rule.

    In Hong Kong, many outraged supporters of the city's democracy movement pointed the finger at Beijing, until local media published CCTV footage that appeared to contradict Lam's story.

    On Tuesday, Lam was put on trial, where government prosecutors accused him of making a false criminal report.

    He denied the charge, and told the court that he would "rather die than submit." The case has been adjourned to June 15.

    Public sentiment has turned against the activist.

    Albert Ho, former chairman of Hong Kong's long-standing Democratic Party who helped set up the Lam's press conference, declined to comment.

    Group 5
    In Hong Kong you’re supposed to be able to criticize the government and not worry about being taken away
    -
    Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch

    To be sure, Lam's shocking account of kidnapping was cast in doubt even before video surfaced showing Lam where he shouldn't have been.

    But mysterious disappearances are nothing new in the strange world of Hong Kong politics.

    “The disappearances strike fear in the hearts of many Hongkongers because this boundary between Hong Kong and China is being erased, and nobody is safe,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. 

    “In Hong Kong you’re supposed to be able to criticize the government and not worry about being taken away. That’s the one big difference between Hong Kong and China.”

    One after another from October 2016 onwards, five Hong Kong sellers of gossip-filled books about China's political elite vanished before resurfacing in Chinese police custody.

    The first among the five disappeared from his holiday home in a Thai resort town. The next three had last been seen in southern China. 

    But it was the disappearance of the last of the five men, Lee Po, that prompted large protests in Hong Kong. 

    That's because Lee had disappeared from the former colony, which is governed under a legal system separate from mainland China's and is constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.

    Like three others, Lee said that he travelled to the mainland voluntarily to assist in an investigation. Hong Kong did not have any official record of his departure.

    Bookseller Lam Wing-kee says he was abducted.
    Bookseller Lam Wing-kee says he was abducted. Photo: Edward Wong

    Another bookseller, Lam Wing-kee, said he was taken away, blindfolded and handcuffed by Chinese agents while crossing the border to the neighboring city of Shenzhen.

    The bookseller case raised questions about the safety and freedom of Hong Kong people at home.

    Then, there was the case of the billionaire Chinese-Canadian businessman Xiao Jianhua.

    Before his disappearance from Hong Kong last year, the tycoon lived a life of luxury in a serviced apartment operated by the Four Seasons.

    There have been different accounts of his leaving Hong Kong on January 27, including claims of abduction.

    Xiao Jianhua
    Xiao Jianhua Photo: Illustration by Henry Wong

    But sources told the Post that he was seen, accompanied by five men and his two bodyguards, leaving his building and later traveling to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, after passing through immigration.

    The next day, Xiao's wife, Zhou Hongwen, reported a missing persons case to the Hong Kong police.

    She eventually withdrew the case.

    And the Tomorrow Group, Xiao's flagship company, released statements through social media denying his abduction: messages that were later removed but reappeared as an advertisement in a local Chinese newspaper.

    Xiao is now in "house custody," the South China Morning Post reported last week.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

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