A Hong Kong-based publisher who was arrested while preparing to release an unauthorized biography of Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been freed after serving a 10-year sentence in a south China prison.
The respected San Francisco-based rights monitoring group Dui Hua reported Thursday that Yao Wentian, 83, was released Feb. 26 and returned to his family in Hong Kong the next day.
Yao was arrested in October 2013 and served his entire sentence apart from an eight-month term reduction in Dongguan prison near the border with the semi-autonomous Chinese city. He had repeatedly been denied appeals for medical release filed by Dui Hua, but had been moved to the prison’s medical facility and was allowed monthly visits from his wife, the group said in a news release.
Yao had been sentenced to 10 years and fined for “smuggling common goods” after he brought construction materials into China to help a friend who was refurbishing his apartment, Dui Hua said. He was accused of failing to declare the value of the goods at customs, not normally a crime punished with such a harsh sentence.
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 have been laying in wait 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 prisoners and refused 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 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 Dui Hua’s intervention and is now a U.S. citizen.
Yao founded Morning Bell Press in 2006 and built a reputation publishing works by Chinese dissidents, liberal intellectuals, exiled scholars and officials ousted for political reasons.
The book that apparently sparked his arrest was “Godfather of China: Xi Jinping,” by veteran dissident writer Yu Jie, who fled to the U.S. in 2010 after alleged torture and harassment over his criticisms 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 the authorities.
Yao’s arrest was followed by the roundup of several other independent Hong Kong publishers, raising deep fears over China’s trampling of the city’s civil liberties that exploded into months of anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
After crushing the protests and postponing elections for 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 rubber-stamp 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, eliminated term limits to make him effectively ruler-for-life and packed the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee with loyal allies from earlier in his career.
He is set to be named to a third five-year term as president at the legislature’s annual meeting opening Sunday.
The arrests of the Hong Kong publishers, many of them associated with once-famed Causeway Bay Books, effectively ended the publication of sometimes gossipy tell-alls about Chinese politicians that had been 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 shuttered after it was raided by police and its founder, 75-year-old Jimmy Lai, imprisoned. Lai now faces collusion charges that could result in a life sentence.
Among Hong Kong publishers still detained is Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen who was abducted from his vacation home in Thailand in 2015, apparently by Chinese agents, only to turn up months later on Chinese television confessing to his part in a deadly traffic accident.
He was rearrested while traveling by train to Beijing in the company of two Swedish diplomats and in 2020 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence overseas.”