Lam Kwok-lap and Hwang Chun-mei | Radio Free Asia
Lam Wing-kei, one of five Hong Kong booksellers detained by the Chinese authorities for selling “banned” political books to customers across the internal border in mainland China, says he will open a new bookstore on the democratic island of Taiwan later this year in a bid to keep selling and publishing freely, something that is no longer possible in his home city of Hong Kong.
Lam, who has been the most outspoken of the detainees, speaking out in defiance of gag orders imposed by Chinese police, fled to Taiwan after giving a large number of media interviews, amid concerns that he may be detained again or kidnapped.
He has also sought to warn the island’s 23 million residents what Beijing really means when it offers Taiwan “reunification” along the same lines as Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement:
ever-increasing control by the ruling Chinese Communist Party over every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
While Lam announced he would open the bookstore last month, he has yet to find adequate funding for his new enterprise, or even suitable premises, and hopes to raise enough money using online crowdfunding for the project.
Even so, he doesn’t expect to be able to open the store, which he hopes to locate in Taiwan’s old-town district of Ximending, until September.
“Our aim with this bookstore is to raise consciousness among the general population, their general level of education, [that] there is a shared issue that is common both to Hong Kong and Taiwan: forcible control by mainland China,” Lam said in a recent interview with RFA.
He said issues still remain around funding and finding a venue for the new Causeway Bay Books store.
“Some people in Taiwan suggested this as a way of widening participation to include people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China,” Lam said.
Focus for opposition
Lam would like the new incarnation of Causeway Bay Books to be a focal point for anyone opposed to the Communist Party regime in Beijing, its growing control of Hong Kong and its creeping influence in Taiwan.
“If mainland China is a dictatorship, then of course we want to oppose it,” Lam said. “We should do this under the banner of universal values [of democracy and human rights], and oppose anything that contravenes those values.”
“Right now, China is anything but open, and a lot of people are saying that it is reversing recent progress,” he said. “China is becoming something we don’t want to see, so we ought to get to work on that.”
Lam said that life hasn’t been all plain sailing since he arrived in Taiwan, however.
Initially, the authorities were reluctant to allow him in at all, which he puts down to growing pressure from Beijing, Taiwanese democracy notwithstanding.
“I hadn’t expected there to be so many people here in Taiwan who are subject to the mainland’s influence, because maybe they have various transactions going on there,” Lam said. “But I also understand it.”
Many willing to help
Lam has also found plenty of people willing to support his mission.
“There are a lot of people willing to help in Taiwan, and many of them are very talented,” he said.
Two of Lam’s colleagues at the now-shuttered Causeway Bay Books store, Lee Bo and Gui Minhai, are foreign passport-holders who went missing outside China’s borders: Lee Bo from his workplace in Hong Kong and Gui Minhai from Thailand.
Colleagues Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, like Lam, were detained as soon as they crossed the border into China.
Gui was released from his initial sentence and house arrest in the eastern city of Ningbo, but was later snatched by state security police from a train, where he was en route to Beijing in the company of two Swedish diplomats.
He now faces fresh charges of supplying “state secrets” to overseas organizations.
Controls in Hong Kong
Lam thinks Causeway Bay Books is unlikely to be allowed to go home to Hong Kong, where he says Beijing has failed to uphold promises of continued freedoms of expression and association enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
“If mainland China were to respect the Basic Law, and if we had genuine freedom of publication, and if the mainland no longer interfered in the running of Hong Kong, then there would be no problem,” Lam said.
“But everyone is very clear about the extent to which mainland China interferes in Hong Kong,” he said.
Lam said the new store is also unlikely to continue shipping books to mail-order customers in mainland China, the very thing that prompted the cross-border detentions of him and four of his colleagues, starting with the kidnapping of publisher Gui Minhai from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand, in October 2015.
“There are bound to be restrictions: for example, no books that mention Taiwan independence, or self-determination for Hong Kong, or books about Tibet,” he said.
Lam is also unsure about Taiwan’s possible future now that China’s rubber-stamp parliament has voted to allow indefinite rule by President Xi Jinping.
“He’s not going to care about what people think now that he’s been made emperor,” Lam said. “Their thinking is still very traditional. You may think China has been modernizing, but Chinese people’s thinking is still exactly the same as it was in the past.”
Asked if he believes Xi will try “reunification” with Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, by force, Lam said he is unsure.
“It’s possible that he won’t make any big moves, but he could make war in smaller ways,” Lam said. “I think we will likely see bigger and bigger military operations against Taiwan in the next decade or so.”
“But I can’t afford to look too far into the future. I have to deal with what’s in front of me right now,” he said.