Who is the man at centre of Hong Kong’s bizarre allegation of torture, staples and kidnap in broad daylight?
Howard Lam Tsz-kin is not on the who’s who list of democracy activists in Hong Kong, but over the past week, all everyone can talk about is the man at the centre of a bizarre case of alleged kidnapping, torture, a late night beach dropoff – and staples.
When he first claimed he had been shoved into a van in Mong Kok by two Mandarin Chinese-speaking men, blindfolded and had staples punched in cross-shaped fashion on his large thighs, people were aghast.
As he hitched up his shorts at a press conference last week to show his wounds, he and Democratic Party elders claimed the cruel acts were the handiwork of mainland agents.
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But on Tuesday as the story came undone, questions surfaced on Lam’s credentials.
Who is Lam and how did he succeed in persuading party veterans to back his case “wholeheartedly”, in the words of founder Albert Ho Chun-yan? What was his standing that he could be such a threat to mainland agents if all he wanted to do was to mail a postcard to Liu Xia, the widow of the late dissident Liu Xiaobo?
In any event, no one knew how to reach her, so what danger did Lam pose to anyone? What was his real game plan?
There have been few answers thus far. But within the party, Lam remains a controversial figure.
The show of support for Lam has to do with a shared history. He joined the organisers behind the Tiananmen Square vigil in 1989 when he was in his early teens. In 1994, he became a founding member of the Democratic Party at the age of 18. By then, he had marched alongside democracy icon the late Szeto-Wah, the party’s founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming and Albert Ho, all of whom he regarded as mentors.
But sometime in the early 2000s, Lam became a figure of suspicion among the party rank-and-file. Such was his unpopularity that despite strong backing, Lam tried and failed to win a vice-chairman post in last year’s internal elections.
The secret loathing dated back to 2005 during the height of a rift within the party between reformists and traditionalists that led to a split eventually.
In an interview with online website Stand News last year, Lam claimed he was assigned by Szeto and Ho to be a spy in the reformist group, which had been lobbing criticism at the leadership.
Szeto had suspected the reformist faction had been infiltrated by Chinese Communist Party members, Lam said, and had asked him to stick to them.
Leaked internal emails revealed the depth of the factionalism. An internal investigation was ordered. A report issued then concluded the party faced “serious risk of infiltration” and chastised reformist Raymond Luk Yiu-man for frequently contacting mainland middlemen without declaring to the party.
The group of reformists, including former lawmaker Gary Fan Kwok-wai, eventually quit the party in 2010 in the wake of the political reform controversy.
Lam stayed with the party.
“Many party members do not trust Lam since the saga as they believe he was with the reformists, even though Ho has defended him in an internal meeting in 2014,” said a party source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In 2014, Lam made a bid to be on the Democrat’s central committee – the decision-making body of the party – and won Ho’s endorsement.
In that annual meeting, Ho defended Lam’s loyalty to the party and explained his role in the rift.
“What [Lam] did back then was to report what he knew to [Szeto] and me so we could be aware of it,” said Ho. “What he did was for the party’s good... I owe him for not clarifying for him publicly and let the misunderstanding [against] him linger for years.”
In the 2016 interview, Lam said he was caught by the two blocs. In the end, he became the sacrificial lamb.
The party elders took care of him, by giving him an online radio site to run, sponsored by party funds. But in recent years, the 41-year-old who suffered thyroid cancers last year began focusing more on the pro-democracy campaign within Christian circles.
In 2011, he spearheaded a campaign against the Hong Kong Christian Council’s plan to change the way their 300,000 members select delegates to the Election Committee, which picks the city’s chief executive.
Last year, he had been calling for the 10 Christians seats on the Election Committee to be vacated as a way to protest against the lack of a direct election for the chief executive in Hong Kong, and even went on a hunger strike.
Tam Tak-chi, who knew Lam in 2006 when they both studied theology in Chinese University, believed his ally was an honest man.
Lam had suffered from depression in the past and had emotional problems, said Tam.
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But he believed Lam was getting better and in the midst of making plans to study for a doctorate in theology at Yale University in the United States.
“I don’t think it was a story of lies and deception. Maybe Lam has hidden something, but I do believe he was tortured by someone,” Tam said. “He was not crazy enough to staple his own legs.”
Democratic Party vice-chairman Lo Kin-hei brushed off speculation Lam was paid to concoct lies and tarnish the party.
“I would not believe he would betray Albert Ho and Martin Lee given their years of relationship.”