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Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books looks for a home in Taiwan

Bookstore manager detained on mainland vows to keep fighting for press freedom

HONG KONG Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee dropped a bombshell last June when he gave an account of his eight-month detention in China. Now, as the media sensation dies down, Lam is working to revive Causeway Bay Books, the small shop he ran until it was forced to close amid political tensions between the city and the leadership in Beijing.

But the bookstore, which sold politically sensitive publications banned on the mainland, will not reopen in Hong Kong. Instead, it will open its doors some 800km away in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee is set to bring the closed Causeway Bay Books store back to life in Taiwan. (Photo by Yasuo Awai)

"Hong Kong's protection for the fourth estate is just incomparable with [that of] Taiwan," Lam told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview, referring to the treatment of the press in the two regions.

Scheduled to open in the second half of this year, the new store is being funded by a group of pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

"It's 90% for sure now. The only thing is to find the right people and place," said Lam, who has served as an adviser for the new venture but will not be involved in the day-to-day operation of the bookstore. "It will be more like a symbol -- a symbol of resistance -- just like Causeway Bay Books has done before."

Arriving at the Nikkei office in Hong Kong, the thin, bespectacled Lam slowly removed his cap and face mask, a precautionary measure he has adopted over the past year to keep a low profile.

The 62-year-old retiree formerly managed Causeway Bay Books, where he and four other booksellers sold books critical of Chinese leaders. He vanished mysteriously in late 2015, only to resurface on the mainland months later.

Some of the more gossipy titles they carried, especially those about the colorful private lives and power struggles of top Chinese politicians, sold briskly among mainland tourists visiting Hong Kong. The bookstore also mailed books directly to clients on the mainland.

Lam was the first of the booksellers to speak out about his disappearance. In a press conference upon his release in June 2016, he described how he was abducted after crossing the border to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen to meet his girlfriend. According to Lam, he was handcuffed and blindfolded and later held in a small room, facing repeated interrogations by mainland security agents.

"I dared not contact my colleagues until now. This will only put them in greater danger," Lam said, referring to the other booksellers who disappeared for a time. Chinese-born British national Lee Bo was allegedly abducted by mainland agents from Hong Kong but, like his colleagues Lui Bo and Cheung Chi-ping, came under pressure to remain silent over what happened due to family ties on the mainland.

Swedish national Gui Minhai, a major shareholder of Mighty Current, the owner of Causeway Bay Books, is the only bookseller still in custody. He is awaiting sentencing on a charge of drunk driving, though it is unclear whether he actually committed the crime.

EROSION ANXIETIES The case of the missing booksellers rekindled long-standing anxiety over Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" principle, engineered by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping before the city was returned to Beijing in 1997. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution, guarantees freedom of speech, publication and movement in the territory, and is in force until 2047.

A sign points upstairs to the now closed Causeway Bay Bookstore in Hong Kong. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

International rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders recently chose Taiwan over Hong Kong as the location for its first Asian bureau, citing concerns over China's interference in the latter. According to the Paris-based organization, Hong Kong's latest ranking in terms of press freedom slid to 73th, down 55 places in 15 years. Taiwan is ranked the freest in Asia, at 45th.

"The erosion of Hong Kong's media independence vis-a-vis Beijing is now underway," the organization says on its website.

The alleged abduction in late January of Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua and a crackdown on leaders of the 2014 "Umbrella Movement" protests, which came just a day after Beijing-backed bureaucrat Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was elected as Hong Kong's leader, have only added to fears of political intervention from the mainland.

Bookseller Lam predicts that if no genuine attempts are made to address Hong Kong's deepening political and economic woes, protests of far greater scale than the Umbrella Movement are inevitable. "The question is just when," he said.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lam has been in the publishing industry for two decades. For most of that time, he was involved in the once-lucrative trade in banned books, which boomed after China relaxed travel restrictions to Hong Kong in 2003. Some books were even smuggled into China, but Chinese President Xi Jinping's rise to power and his crackdown on free speech stifled sales.

AN EVOLVING SCENE Tucked away in a dilapidated building behind the Sogo Japanese department store in a prime shopping hub in Hong Kong, Causeway Bay Books was one of the city's few remaining independent bookstores, along with a handful of others concentrated in Mongkok across the harbor. Major bookstore chains have mostly distanced themselves from the banned book trade.

Lam blamed the deteriorating quality of banned titles for the dwindling market and falling sales. While earlier titles were mostly memoirs of important politicians or based on serious investigations, "a scandalous book could now be churned out three days after the 18th Party Congress [in 2012]," he said, referring to the meeting of the Chinese Communist Party held once every five years. "This is way too fast and too much."

Looking ahead, the industry will need an overhaul and a greater emphasis on quality over quantity, he said. "They can't go on selling junk."

In February, Lam was invited to attend an event in Taiwan. What impressed him during his visit, he said, was not just Taiwan's respect for publishers, but also the sprawling community of independent bookstores across the island. He hoped this could be an inspiration for Hong Kong.

"They can help sow the seeds of new ideas in Hong Kong, whether it can be a new philosophy of governance or independence -- what I mean is not just greater political independence but also mental independence," he said.

The bookstores scattered around Taiwanese neighborhoods have become focal points for nurturing and spreading new ideas through seminars, book clubs and film screenings. Lam recalled visiting a small village where many local bookstores displayed banners supporting the anti-nuclear movement that is gathering steam in Taiwan.

But despite his affection for Taiwan, it is not somewhere he could call home. Last year, soon after he revealed details of his abduction, Lam was offered political asylum both there and in the U.S., but he decided to stay in Hong Kong. A ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China is set for July 1 in the territory, and President Xi is expected to attend.

"You might choose to escape abroad, but then you are only enjoying the fruits of others," he said. "As a native Hong Konger, I will stay here to fight for democratic changes."

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