A Hong Kong-based publisher who was arrested while preparing to release an unauthorized biography of Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been released after serving a 10-year sentence in a southern Chinese prison.
Respected San Francisco-based rights monitoring group Dui Hua reported Thursday that Yao Wentian, 83, was released on Feb. 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 his sentence at Dongguan Prison near the border with the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Dui Hua’s appeals for medical parole had been repeatedly rejected, but he had been transferred to the prison’s medical unit and allowed monthly visits by his wife, the group said in a press release.
Yao had been sentenced to 10 years and fined for “smuggling common goods” after bringing building 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 usually a crime punishable with such a harsh penalty.
Yao’s publishing 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 be waiting for Yao as he crossed the border into China with several cans of paint for a longtime friend.
An officer who answered the phone at Dongguan Prison said she was unable to provide any information about past or current inmates and declined to confirm whether Yao had served his sentence there.
Yao could not immediately be reached, and his former lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said he had had no contact with Yao and his family since his 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 the intervention of Dui Hua and is now a US citizen.
Yao founded Morning Bell Press in 2006 and built a reputation publishing works by Chinese dissidents, liberal intellectuals, exiled scholars and officials expelled for political reasons.
The book that apparently triggered his arrest was “The Godfather of China: Xi Jinping,” by veteran dissident author Yu Jie, who fled to the U.S. 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 leader of the Communist Party, had also drawn criticism from authorities.
Yao’s arrest followed the roundup of several other independent Hong Kong publishers, raising deep concerns about China’s encroachment on the city’s civil liberties that erupted in months of anti-government protests in 2019.
After the protests were crushed and elections for the city’s Legislative Council postponed, China launched a roundup of opposition figures, charging many of them under a sweeping National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress.
In the years since Yao’s arrest, Xi has eliminated all political opposition – both within the party and in dissident circles – in both mainland China and Hong Kong, abolished term limits to effectively make him ruler for life, and paid the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee with loyal allies from earlier in his career.
He is set to be nominated for a third five-year term as speaker at the legislature’s annual session that opens Sunday.
The arrests of the Hong Kong publishers, many of whom were associated with the once-famous Causeway Bay Books, effectively ended the publication of sometimes gossipy accounts of Chinese politicians that were hugely popular, especially among visitors from mainland China, where such books are banned. .
Hong Kong’s publishing industry is now almost entirely under party control, and the last pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was shut down after a police raid and its founder, 75-year-old Jimmy Lai, jailed. Lai now faces conspiracy charges that could carry a life sentence.
Among the Hong Kong publishers still being held is Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen who was abducted from his holiday home in Thailand in 2015, apparently by Chinese agents, only to appear months later on Chinese television confessing his involvement in a fatal car crash .
He was re-arrested while traveling by train in Beijing accompanied by two Swedish diplomats and in 2020 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegal provision of information abroad”.