A Hong Kong-based publisher arrested while preparing to release an unauthorized biography of Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been released after serving a 10-year sentence in a prison in southern China.
The respected San Francisco-based rights monitoring group Dui Hua reported Thursday that Yao Wentian, 83, was released on February 26 and returned to his family in Hong Kong the next day.
Yao was arrested in October 2013 and served his entire sentence except for an eight-month reduction in prison in Dongguan near the border with the semi-autonomous Chinese city. He had been repeatedly denied appeals for medical release filed by Dui Hua, but he had been moved to the prison’s medical facility and received monthly visits from his wife, the group said in a press release.
Yao had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined for “smuggling common goods” after he brought construction materials to China to help a friend who was renovating his apartment, Dui Hua said. He was accused of failing to declare the value of the goods to customs, not normally a crime punishable with such a severe penalty.
Yao’s publication of sensitive books was “almost certainly the reason for his imprisonment,” Dui Hua said. Reports at the time said police and customs agents appeared to have been waiting for Yao as he crossed the border into China with several cans of paint for a longtime friend.
An official who answered the phone at Dongguan Prison said she could not provide any information about former or current inmates and declined to confirm whether Yao had served his sentence there.
Yao could not immediately be reached for contact, and his former lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said he had had no contact with Yao and his family since the trial.
Yao’s son, Yao Yongzhan, had been arrested as a student leader in Shanghai during the 1989 pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He was released through Dui Hua’s intervention and is now an American citizen.
Arrest one of several
Yao founded Morning Bell Press in 2006 and built a reputation for publishing the works of Chinese dissidents, liberal intellectuals, exiled scholars, and politically ousted officials.
The book that apparently triggered his arrest was “The Godfather of China: Xi Jinping,” by veteran dissident author Yu Jie, who fled to the United States in 2010 after allegedly being tortured and harassed for his criticism of the regime. Another book published by Morning Bell, “Hu Jintao: Harmony King,” about Xi’s predecessor as president and Communist Party leader, had also drawn criticism from authorities.
Yao’s arrest was followed by a roundup of several other independent Hong Kong publishers, raising deep fears about China’s crackdown on civil liberties in the city that exploded in months of anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
After crushing the protests and postponing elections to the city’s Legislative Council, China began a roundup of opposition figures, charging many of them under a sweeping national security law imposed on Hong Kong by China’s stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress.
The party controls most of HK publishing
In the years since Yao’s arrest, Xi has eliminated all political opposition — both within the party and in dissident circles — in both China and Hong Kong, eliminated term limits to make him ruler for life, and packed the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee with loyal allies from the past in his career.
He will be elected to a third five-year term as president at the legislature’s annual session, which opens on Sunday.
The arrests of the Hong Kong publishers, many of them associated with the once-famous Causeway Bay Books, effectively put an end to the publication of sometimes gossipy speeches about Chinese politicians that had been hugely popular, especially among visitors from mainland China, where such books are available. prohibited.
Hong Kong’s publishing industry is now almost entirely under party control and the last pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was shut down after it was raided by police and its founder, 75-year-old Jimmy Lai, was jailed. Lai is now charged with conspiracy, which could result in a life sentence.
Among the Hong Kong publishers still imprisoned is Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen who was kidnapped from his holiday home in Thailand in 2015, apparently by Chinese agents, only to appear on Chinese television months later and admit his involvement in a fatal traffic accident.
He was arrested again when he traveled by train to Beijing in the company of two Swedish diplomats and was sentenced in 2020 to 10 years in prison for “illegal provision of intelligence abroad.”