Asia Life | Society | East Asia

Targeted in Hong Kong, Causeway Bay Books Has a New Home: Taiwan

Lam Wing-kee found refuge in Taiwan. Can the island offer safe harbor to more Hong Kong democracy activists?

By Kuang-shun Yang for
Targeted in Hong Kong, Causeway Bay Books Has a New Home: Taiwan

Lam Wing-kee thanks the press on the opening day of his shop in Taipei, Taiwan, April 25, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Lam Wing-kee, the former owner of Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong, reopened his business in Taipei on April 25. His last bookstore in Hong Kong was forced to shut down for the sale of banned books purporting to reveal the secrets of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Lam and four shareholders or managers at the bookstore were arrested in 2015 and incarcerated, although initially they simply vanished from their last known locations in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Thailand. Lam moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan in April 2019, over fears that a planned extradition bill would allow him to be sent to China and imprisoned once again.

In Taipei, instead of being shut down, Causeway Bay Books celebrated its rebirth with Taiwanese dignitaries present and a congratulatory wreath from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.

Days before the opening of his new store in Taipei, Lam was attacked with red spray paint. The motives behind this attack are still under investigation, but Lam believes that the CCP was behind it.

The incident was not an isolated case. Multiple cases of harassment against Hong Kong activists in Taiwan have been reported over the years. Denise Ho, a renowned Hong Kong singer and advocate for Hong Kong’s freedom, was also attacked with red paint at an event in Taiwan last September by a pro-unification party member. On the same day Lam was attacked, he received a death threat from a pro-China Singaporean, who claimed to have “many brothers in Taipei” who can kill Lam “in minutes.”

Lam’s efforts resonate strongly in Taiwan, an island that also experienced dictatorship. The Kuomintang regime, fleeing to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, used to call the island the “Free China.” That name, however, could not conceal the regime’s authoritarian nature and violation of human rights during the 38 years of martial law. Reformists had their civil rights suppressed and dissidents lost their lives.

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Causeway Bay Books in Taipei only occupies about 700 square feet, yet it resembles other places with a humble appearance that played central roles to Taiwanese dissenters abroad. Shinchimmi, a ramen restaurant in Japan opened by a Taiwanese revolutionary Su Beng, became a gathering place for Taiwan independence supporters in Japan. A nondescript three-story building in Washington, D.C. is the headquarters of the Formosa Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), a grassroots organization advocating for Taiwan’s democracy and independence in the U.S. Congress since 1982.

Today, these stories of overseas Taiwanese have become an example for Hong Kong activists. Seeing the bravery Hong Kongers demonstrated in the pro-democracy protest in 2019, FAPA invited Taiwanese and Hong Kongers in the U.S. to take part in its annual congressional advocacy. Joshua Wong, the secretary-general of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party Demosistō, expressed his wish that advocacy groups like Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC) could play the role of FAPA for Hong Kong.

Causeway Bay Books in Taipei also embodies the historical bond between Taiwanese and Hong Kongers, a democratic alliance against the common enemy of authoritarianism. When Hong Kong was under British rule, many overseas Taiwanese were enlightened by the latest discussions on democracy and human rights, which were heavily censored in Taiwan. Over the years, rights groups from Taiwan and Hong Kong have visited each other to explore the possibility of political reform in their respective civil societies.

As a sign of that solidarity, Lam decorated his bookstore with two banners reading “Taiwan Independence” and “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now.” Lam has argued that Taiwanese people will face a plight like his should Taiwan be “unified” by Beijing. He also suggests that, for the sake of their personal safety, fellow Hong Kong activists should join him in Taiwan to become a “resistance from the outside.”

Such calls have become increasingly popular in Hong Kong. According to a poll conducted in January 2020 by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), there were more respondents in Hong Kong favoring Taiwan independence than those who opposed the idea, for the first time in the survey’s history. This is a strong message from the Hong Kong people about their grievances toward Beijing’s brutality, displayed in the police violence against protesters. It also expresses the hope of Hong Kongers to have a Taiwan that is independent from China’s rule as a safe haven, should an exodus from Hong Kong become inevitable.

For years, Taiwan has become the destination of many freedom-loving Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur, and Hong Kongers political refugees as a stage for continuing their advocacy or even their second home. This has sparked discussion on the pros and cons of accepting Hong Konger asylum seekers in Taiwan.

Since the outbreak of the pro-democracy protests in 2019, the world has been amazed, and not just by Hong Kongers’ courage to fight for freedom. Their impressive capabilities of communicating with politicians and media and organizing worldwide advocacy work exemplify the high quality of civic virtue in Hong Kong. In recent years, Hong Kong ranked one of the world’s top places in indices like the Human Development Index (fourth). Meanwhile, the world also sees the deteriorating conditions of freedom of the press (Hong Kong is ranked 73rd in the World Press Freedom Index), political rights, and civil liberties. Considering the potential contribution these immigrants from Hong Kong can make to Taiwan, a legal arrangement accepting them can be mutually beneficial to both Hong Kong’s activists and Taiwan.

However, the debate on the necessity of enacting a “Refugee Law” between the Taiwanese government and rights communities in Taiwan and Hong Kong is still ongoing. The Taiwanese government argues that the existing “Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong & Macao Affairs” already provides sufficient mechanisms for Hong Kong asylum seekers. Lam, for instance, will gain a work permit that will allow him to pursue permanent residency or even citizenship in Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Joshua Wong and the Taiwan Association for Human Rights propose more comprehensive legal arrangements like amendment of the existing law to provide “necessary assistance” to Hong Kong demonstrators, or legislation of a new “Refugee Act.” After all, those Hong Kong dissenters not as high-profile as Lam may not meet the somewhat ambiguous existing standards of providing “valuable information” about China or making “special contributions” to Taiwan’s national security, international image or social stability.

Lam’s relocation in Taiwan and the ever-escalating police violence against democracy protesters in Hong Kong raised the discussion on expediting the legislation of a Refugee Act to accommodate potential political refugees from Hong Kong in Taiwan. However, the Taiwanese government has not prioritized such legislation with the presidential election and the worldwide coronavirus outbreak.

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Today, international support for the current Hong Kong democratic movement is largely distracted by the spread of COVID-19 around the globe. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong administration knows no holiday in stifling Hong Kong’s freedom. Beijing rang the death knell of the “one country, two systems” formula when its liaison office in Hong Kong declared itself to be above the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Behind the arrests of high-profile activists like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai, thousands of unknown protesters have been arrested, prosecuted, or even killed. Taiwan, with its well-recognized achievement in combatting COVID-19, can reach out its helping hand to freedom-loving Hong Kongers before it is too late.

On the wreath she gifted to the reborn Causeway Bay Books, President Tsai wrote a line from the Bible: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Biblical references to righteousness and freedom are abundant throughout Taiwan’s history of democratization. The cross in the middle of the flag of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan’s ruling party, is believed to be a symbol of bearing the cross of Taiwanese democracy. President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, wished to be a Moses-like figure leading Taiwanese from suppression to freedom. Today, Taiwan can embody another Biblical reference by becoming a “Noah’s Ark” for all freedom-loving people defying dictatorship.

Kuang-shun Yang is cofounder of US-Taiwan Watch.