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Exiled bookseller: 'If they can take Hong Kong back, the next place is Taiwan'

Helen Davidson in Taipei
·6-min read

Lam Wing-kee leans forward in his chair, answering quickly and sharply to issue a warning to the people of his new home, Taiwan. “Be ready now,” he says.

“We should be more alert as citizens, we should get ready,” says the 64-year-old Hongkonger. “If they can take Hong Kong back, the next place, I feel, is Taiwan.”

It’s late in central Taipei at Causeway Bay Books mark II (the previous one in Hong Kong having had to be abandoned). On the 10th floor of a nondescript building, Lam, a wiry, grey-haired bookseller, sits at his desk with a bemused gaze behind thin oval glasses. The desk is neat but crowded with books and a cash register, with revolutionary banners pinned to the front and mementoes entombed under its glass top. Behind him is the single bunk bed where he sleeps.

The shop is crammed with shelves of books on history, culture, economics and politics – primarily Chinese, but there are also books on the Romanovs, Vladimir Putin and Edward Snowden, and books by Hannah Arendt. Near the front door are children’s books, including several Winnie-the-Pooh stories – a sly dig at the Chinese president perhaps. Facing them is a makeshift Lennon Wall of Post-it notes, a now-illegal symbol of the Hong Kong protests.

Lam and his live-in bookshop are both exiles. The bookseller fled Hong Kong to Taiwan last year, reopening Causeway Bay Books to sell a dissident’s education on how and why the Chinese Communist party (CCP) launched its unprecedented crackdown on the previously semi-autonomous city and accelerated its takeover by decades. He says Taiwan must heed Hong Kong’s cautionary tale.

Lam had spent decades selling critical, political and gossipy titles banned by the CCP before he and four others were disappeared from various locations in Hong Kong, mainland China and Thailand, re-emerging in Chinese detention. Lam has said he was grabbed by agents while crossing the Chinese border at Shenzhen with a load of books for distribution in the mainland.

“I never understood why this thing happened, but I understood I could be a threat to the Chinese government,” he says. “I’d shipped many different books, including those that were banned and others just not considered good, because I thought it was important for people in China to know exactly what was going on.”

He was held for five months in the city of Ningbo, where he taped a false confession for broadcast, and then was transferred to Guangdong province. He relates to the group known as the Hong Kong 12, young activists languishing in mainland prisons after they were arrested trying to reach Taiwan by boat.

“You can’t compare custody in Hong Kong to custody in China,” Lam says. “I was really scared in custody.”

He taps the side of his head. “It was mental pressure, not physical damage.”

Lam was allowed back to his home city briefly, where he skipped bail and stayed, telling his fellow Hongkongers that what happened to him could happen to them. In many ways that has come true quicker than he anticipated.

Lam left Hong Kong fearing he was high on the wanted list should the government pass its proposed extradition bill. The bill drew millions to the street in protest and was eventually withdrawn, but too late to stop the momentum of the pro-democracy movement. Beijing responded to the mass protests with a sweeping national security law it claimed had global jurisdiction. The scope of the law shocked even the most cynical observers and accelerated a crackdown in Hong Kong on even the most benign forms of dissent – including books – and the mass arrests of activists and politicians.

Related: Encrypted apps and false names: new Taiwan book club takes no chances

Half a dozen items within Lam’s reach would have him jailed.

“I was a little surprised by the sudden change in Hong Kong,” says Lam. “You can simplify everything and just say China is totalitarian … but there are a lot of reasons behind it. The first question we should ask, though, is: ‘one country, two systems’ [the relationship between China and Hong Kong agreed when the UK handed the territory back] still had 27 years until the end, so why did they decide to end it now?”

He sits forward and grabs a CCP-banned book on the history of China’s government. It’s important for people to read such works to understand what is happening and why, he says.

“We need to go back to the political climate changing in China, not in Hong Kong,” says Lam, pointing at the cover. “Who holds the power? Mr Xi Jinping. He’s like an emperor. He’s 67 years old. If he waits another 27 years [for Hong Kong to return] how old will he be? Will he still have power? Will he still be in good health?”

A new home but for how long?

Over the past 18 months, while Hong Kong was being brutally crushed, pressure also increased across the Taiwan Strait. China’s belligerence was fuelled by the growing friendship and increasing arms sales between Taiwan and the US.

Lam moved to Taiwan because of its thriving democracy, where free speech and political differences are allowed, and recreated Causeway Bay Books with the blessing of the Taiwanese president. But while the CCP has never governed Taiwan, the party considers it to be a rogue province of the motherland, and has not ruled out “unifying” by force.

Lam has concerns about the readiness of Taiwan’s military and the cultural influence of China on the young people of Taiwan. He tries to talk to those who come into his shop or whom he sees at universities. He recently held a screening for students of Ten Years, a 2015 Hong Kong film that was supposed to be a dystopian imagining of political suppression 10 years in the future, only for much of it to become reality in five.

This month he will host an online book club discussing activism and opposition in Hong Kong and Taiwan, to encourage a deeper understanding of the political forces and culture behind China’s aggression.

When Lam left Hong Kong, he was accompanied to the airport by pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo.

Mo said it was clear at the time that Lam had no choice but to leave and cut off his local friends in a probable effort to protect them. Lam later confirms he has the phone numbers for the three other booksellers who have been released but fears that to contact them would only get them in trouble.

Mo says: “He is a lone wolf, a fighter, but also a sentimental person who would however prefer to put on a poker face to hide his feelings.”

Lam says he no longer sees a future for Hong Kong as it once was. He has hope but says he must be realistic and quotes a Bible passage: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” He looks now at the threat to his new home.

“For Taiwan it depends on the people here, how they defy it,” says Lam. “We have guns and cannons. What did Hong Kong have?”