In late 2015, Chinese security agents kidnapped five men associated with the Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong. Popular with tourists from the mainland, the shop specialized in salacious works on the private lives of Chinese Communist Party members, as well as studies forecasting the Party’s imminent downfall. Sandwiched between a pharmacy and a discount clothing store, the shop is now barricaded behind a steel gate and heavyweight padlocks. There is a screen across the window, and a heap of unopened mail and takeout menus on the floor. A message of support written on the wall outside reads: “Freedom ends when we are all silent.”
Over the course of a few months, each of the kidnapped booksellers appeared on Chinese television to “confess” to a range of crimes, from a hit-and-run incident to selling books without a license. Lam Wing-kee, who was captured on the Chinese border, is the only one who has returned to Hong Kong and spoken publicly about how he spent five months in a prison on Hangzhou Bay, about seven hundred miles northeast of the territory.
“These kidnappings were scary for the people of Hong Kong,” Lam’s lawyer, Albert Ho Chun-yan, told me. Ho is a veteran of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, which emerged in May 1989 when activists held rallies in support of the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing. Braving torrential rains and gale force winds, 50,000 protesters huddled under umbrellas at the city’s Victoria Park. Concerts were organized to raise money for the students encamped on the square, while planes were chartered to dispatch medicines and tents. Pro-democracy groups were established, such as the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. On May 28, over one million people marched through the streets, chanting “Long live democracy!” The signs they held aloft read: “Today China, Tomorrow Hong Kong.”
One year later, Ho cofounded the city’s first major pro-democracy party, the United Democrats of Hong Kong, and he is currently chairman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. He was also responsible for helping Edward Snowden escape the city in 2013. Ho said there was a widespread belief that forced renditions “would only happen to mainland people hiding from the authorities in Beijing. The people of Hong Kong had some sense of comfort that this wouldn’t happen to them. But since the bookseller kidnappings, that comfort is gone.”
Democrats like Ho have long been driven to protest by a sense of political exclusion. Only in the final stages of its rule over the territory, from the early 1990s, did the British colonial government promote the “core values” on which Hong Kong prides itself—the rule of law, a free press, the…
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