by Chris Buckley)
HONG KONG — Three months ago, Yiu Mantin, a retired engineer from Hong Kong, crossed into mainland China for a short visit, as he had done many times. But this time he disappeared into the hands of the police, and his family and friends believe Mr. Yiu was singled out because of his book publishing, especially his plans to distribute a withering denunciation of President Xi Jinping.
The police in Shenzhen, the city across the border from Hong Kong, arrested Mr. Yiu on charges of falsely labeling and smuggling in seven bottles of industrial chemicals, and they claim that his smuggling dated to 2010 and involved goods worth 1.3 million renminbi ($220,000), said Mo Shaoping, a prominent Beijing lawyer who recently agreed to represent Mr. Yiu. But Mr. Yiu’s son, Edmond Yiu, said his father’s real offense in the eyes of the authorities was what he published, not what he is accused of taking into China.
After working as a manufacturing engineer for much of his life, Mr. Yiu, 72, began a second career running one of several small publishing companies in Hong Kong that, taking advantage of the territory’s robust protections of free speech, issue books anathema to mainland government censors. He planned to issue “Godfather of China Xi Jinping,” by Yu Jie, a Chinese writer living in the United States, his son said.
“I think that the publishing was what triggered this,” the younger Mr. Yiu said in a telephone interview from Minnesota, where he lives. He said he himself was jailed for a year in China in 1989 for his involvement in the pro-democracy student protests that ended in an armed crackdown on June 4 of that year. He said he decided to speak publicly after efforts to quietly secure his father’s release had failed.
“I’m pretty familiar with the Chinese legal system in China and how they produce fake criminal charges against political prisoners,” Mr. Yiu said. “There is no question that they are trying to punish him for his publishing activities through normal criminal charges.”
He said his father’s frugal lifestyle did not square with the smuggling charges, and that he hoped drawing public attention to the case would help win his release. A Hong Kong newspaper, The South China Morning Post, first reported Mr. Yiu’s arrest.
The case has aroused worry among other independent publishers in Hong Kong, who said it could signal intensified efforts by the Communist Party to stifle their work. Since Hong Kong transferred from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it has remained an outpost of free speech and publishing, with laws and courts insulated from direct mainland control. But many residents say the Chinese government has increasingly made efforts to shape opinion and the news media, and to stymie the flow of banned publications into the mainland.
“China has tightened controls on public opinion and ideology, and all the people in this business believe there’s a connection with this case,” said Meng Lang, a writer and publisher in Hong Kong who worked at Mr. Yiu’s tiny publishing house for about seven years until 2013. “Especially if publishers put out serious, critical books on the top leaders, they can come under pressure, like the book he was about to put out on Xi Jinping,” Mr. Meng said.
Also known by his Mandarin Chinese name, Yao Wentian, Mr. Yiu was born in Sichuan Province in southwest China and settled in Hong Kong in 1982, his son said. In 2006, he founded Morning Bell Press, which has published the works of Chinese dissidents, liberal intellectuals, exiled scholars and ousted officials, Mr. Meng said.
The Chinese government bans such books as “politically harmful.” But their most avid readers are Chinese citizens, who often try to sneak them past customs inspectors. Mr. Yiu made scant profit from the books, according to those who knew his work.
“He’s quite different from the average publishers I’ve come across in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan,” Mr. Yu, the author of “Godfather of China Xi Jinping,” said in a telephone interview.
“Most of them are businesses; they want to see whether a book can become a best seller and how much money it can make,” Mr. Yu said. “But Yao Wentian was a retired engineer. He had a pension, a guaranteed livelihood, and his publishing was about his ideals of promoting democracy in China.”
“Godfather of China Xi Jinping,” was supposed to be issued in the coming months, and may have particularly incensed the Chinese police. Mr. Yu won fame as an essayist in the late 1990s, and evolved into an increasingly outspoken critic of the Communist Party. He moved to the United States in 2012, and has written bitterly critical books about former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and former President Hu Jintao.
Mr. Yiu was preparing to publish three more books by Mr. Yu. “Godfather of China Xi Xinping” is a polemical dissection of the leader’s time in power since November 2012. Mr. Yu said Chinese officials have been particularly hostile to criticisms of Mr. Xi, and he had warned Mr. Yiu not to risk his safety by going back into mainland China.
Police officers contacted by telephone in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, which lies next to Hong Kong, refused to comment on the case. An official in the Guangdong office that deals with Hong Kong residents said he knew nothing about Mr. Yiu, and added that the government “does not and cannot intervene in judicial affairs.”
Mr. Mo, the lawyer, said prosecutors were considering whether to indict Mr. Yiu, and that the authorities were unlikely to grant bail, given the relatively large sum involved in the charges. He said prosecutors would probably avoid mentioning Mr. Yiu’s publishing in any indictment.
“Of course, the police will not acknowledge that they caught him because of that,” Mr. Mo said. “They’ll treat it as an ordinary crime.”