Taiwan welcomes bookseller who fled Hong Kong

When the Chinese government announced plans last month to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong, it triggered massive protests in the city. Critics called the law a blow to democracy in the territory and a threat to its position as a financial hub.

The protests made headlines in Taiwan, which has long endured its own volatile relationship with the mainland, and has recently become somewhat of a refuge for Hong Kong residents fleeing China's tightening grip on their home.

The day after China announced the legislation, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen expressed solidarity with the people of Hong Kong.

“Many Taiwanese have witnessed the tenacity of the Hong Kong people, pursuing freedom and democracy,” she said. “We would like to offer support when the people of Hong Kong need it.”

Her choice of venue for the comments was telling. The Causeway Bay Bookstore was once a Hong Kong institution, offering an extensive selection of books, including ones critical of Chinese Communist Party leadership that would never have cleared censors on the mainland.

Five years ago, shopkeeper Lam Wing-kee left home to see a friend in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and vanished. It later emerged that he had been detained by authorities after entering the mainland. Handcuffed and blindfolded, he was taken to Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, more than 1,000 kilometers from Hong Kong. Over the following months, he was shuttled to various places in the country for interrogation.

“The Chinese officials said, ‘If we think you have committed a crime, then you have. We don’t need a trial,’” Lam recalls. “I was astonished.” He was eventually released and allowed to return to Hong Kong, but he says the authorities have been watching him ever since.

In April 2019, he decided he’d had enough and moved to Taiwan. The final straw was the announcement of a bill that would enable extradition of criminal offenders to mainland China. Lam feared he would be detained again if he stayed in Hong Kong a moment longer.

According to Taiwan’s Immigration Agency, more than 5,800 people from Hong Kong obtained long-term residence status in Taiwan in 2019. That’s a 40% spike from the previous year.

Protest in Hong Kong
Massive protests broke out across Hong Kong after the bill was submitted to the Legislative Council in April 2019.

Lam used crowdfunding to raise money to reopen his bookstore in Taiwan, and received donations from many Taiwanese people.

Four days before the shop’s opening, three masked men splashed him with red paint. Police took the attackers into custody the following day, and found they had erased all the data on their mobile phones. Lam believes they were working for the Chinese government and were trying to scare him into not reopening his bookstore.

It didn’t work. Lam opened the new Causeway Bay Bookstore on April 25, about a year after moving to Taiwan. Like the original outlet in Hong Kong, it offers books critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

Causeway Bay Bookstore
Many people visited the new Causeway Bay Bookstore on opening day.

“Since my bookstore in Hong Kong was destroyed by the violence of the authorities, it is extremely meaningful that I have been able to resume business here,” Lam said. “I think my bookstore serves as proof that Taiwan is a place for freedom and democracy.”