Defiant Hong Kong bookseller likens China detention to 'Cultural Revolution'

Hong Kong - The Hong Kong bookseller who broke silence earlier this week about being blindfolded and interrogated in detention in China likened his ordeal to Cultural Revolution repression in an interview with AFP Sunday.

Lam Wing-kee is one of five booksellers who went missing last year - all worked for a Hong Kong publishing house known for salacious titles about leading Chinese politicians.

His story sent chills through Hong Kong where the booksellers' case has heightened fears Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city.

He told Thursday how he was detained for months after being picked up in the southern mainland city of Shenzhen in October on a visit to see his girlfriend.

Lam, who was placed on suicide watch during his detention, broke bail Thursday and is refusing to go back over the border, where he is under investigation for bringing banned books into the mainland.

Dressed in a neat blue shirt and cap, the 61-year-old told AFP how he felt terrified during his detention, where he was threatened with 30 years in jail and was harangued by two men who said they had come from Beijing.

"They made me feel it was a Cultural Revolution denunciation," he said, referring to the decade of torture, executions and public vilifications carried out under communist leader Mao Zedong across mainland China from 1966.

"They said we published, sold and mailed books to demean the state leadership. We are reactionaries. (They told me) I could be jailed for 20 to 30 years until I die.

"It was made clear to me that their power was huge and does not require legal means.

"I was just sitting there watching them. When I said one thing they would say 30 things...banging the table." Lam says he was told that a "special investigation unit" was dealing with his case.

He was allowed back into Hong Kong for the first time Tuesday on the condition that he pick up a hard disk listing bookstore customers and return to the mainland Thursday. Instead he decided to cut loose and break his silence.

"If the worst comes to the worst, I could die. (But) 'civilians do not fear death, why threaten them?'," said Lam, quoting an ancient Chinese idiom often used to describe fearless defiance of repressive regimes.

"I am a free man." Lam is staying with a relative and says he has not asked city authorities for protection.

"There is no use," he said. "They cannot protect me forever." He has also turned down an offer from a pro-democracy politician to help him seek asylum in another country, saying he wants to remain in Hong Kong and continue to speak out.

Critics have accused the Hong Kong government of being a Beijing puppet that can no longer protect its own citizens, and are demanding to know what the authorities have done to try to help the booksellers.

Lam led more than 1,000 protesters through the city centre Saturday over his detention.

He told AFP the Mighty Current publishing house, where the five booksellers worked, and its outlet the Causeway Bay Bookstore - which Lam managed - had been targeted as part of a wider crackdown to deter Hong Kong from putting out political titles.

During his interrogation he was asked to hand over details of authors and customers, he said.

The case has spooked some Hong Kong bookshops into removing controversial titles from their shelves - but Lam says he will continue to sell them if he can.

"There are no banned books in Hong Kong," Lam said.

"It's a place with freedom of publication...there is a market." Since Lam went public, three of the other booksellers have cast doubt on his story.

One of them, Lee Bo, the only one of the group to have disappeared on Hong Kong soil, refuted Lam's claim that he had told him he was taken to the mainland against his wishes.

The two other booksellers who questioned Lam's version, Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, were quoted by pro-Beijing media as speaking from the mainland, where they are believed to still be under investigation.

Lam says he sympathises, describing them as "under threat".

The fifth bookseller, Gui Minhai, is in detention - his family is demanding his release.

Lam has been hailed a role model by those in Hong Kong who feel Beijing is suffocating its cherished freedoms.

But he says he is nothing special.

"I am not a hero," he told AFP.

"The people of Hong Kong are heroes long as we keep fighting there is hope."