“I had no choice but to flee to Taiwan,” former Causeway Bay Books manager Lam Wing-kei (林榮基) said in an interview with the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the sister newspaper of the Taipei Times) in Taipei on May 13.
Lam, who in 2015 disappeared into Chinese custody for half a year, said that he fled to Taiwan because he feared for his life after Hong Kong authorities began mulling amendments to extradition laws with the mainland.
Departing from Hong Kong, he had packed a box of clothes, a box of books and a black backpack from a UN Human Rights Summit and emblazoned with the words “Democracy” and “Rights” — the very things Hong Kong lost under Beijing’s rule, he said.
Photo: Fang Bin-chao, Taipei Times
While mass protests in Hong Kong last month opposed the proposed amendments, Lam expressed pessimism over the prospect of democratic movements in the territory.
“Protests are of no use. The July 1 March in 2003 got 500,000 people on the streets; now we are down to 130,000 people. That is a decline of 370,000. Where have the people gone?” he asked, before adding: “Fear and self-interest have got to them.”
In Hong Kong, he was shadowed by secret agents around the clock and when he went to rallies, they increased to a dozen up close and a score at a distance, he said.
“I was a simple bookseller in my own land, yet when I saw police, I did not feel that I was under the government’s protection; instead I felt the leviathan-like presence of a state ready to devour those whose ideals of freedom and democracy were opposed to it,” he said.
That many Taiwanese who enjoy democratic freedoms still desire political union with autocratic China is explained not by simple self-interest, but political ideology, he said.
“In Taiwan, as in Hong Kong, some people are joining their voices to slogans such as ‘there is one family across the Strait,’” he said.
“In identifying themselves as Chinese, those people are not concerned with accusations of selling out Taiwan or Hong Kong, because they are serving the nation they belong to and proud of it,” he said.
His own perceptions of China changed long before his imprisonment in 2015, starting eight or nine years ago as he read, before Beijing bought Causeway Bay Books from private hands, he said.
The bookstore was renowned for carrying historical, philosophical and banned books, and he had to read extensively to select items for the shelves, which led him to develop certain ideas about China, he said.
Confucianism is why China’s political constitution cannot rise above feudalism and autocracy, he said, adding that Ray Huang’s (黃仁宇) “otherwise erudite” China: A Macro-History was marred by its failure to take the effects of Chinese culture into full account.
“A common topic of historical comparison poses the failed Chinese Democracy movement against Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, both occurring in 1989,” Lam said.
“That Czechoslovakia was not tainted by the poison of Confucianism played a crucial role in the outcome,” he said.
Confucian culture, with its emphasis on marking differences of status, rights and obligations in a patriarchal and monarchical system, is antithetical to universal concepts of equality and human rights, he said.
When asked to comment on Taiwan’s vulnerability to Chinese propaganda, Lam said: “More than 90 percent of history and philosophy books found in Taiwanese libraries are essentially written from a Confucian perspective.”
“Long before China infiltrated or obtained outright control of Taiwanese media outlets, most Taiwanese have already been indoctrinated to identify with Chinese culture,” he said. “There was no talk of the US and Britain being in the same family around the period of US independence.”
No change is possible in Taiwan without first changing the foundations of culture and education through books, he said, adding: “Books happen to be my livelihood; being an exile does not pay for itself.”
The biggest problem that independent bookstores in Taiwan face is that nearly every venue is run by an idealistic hipster, he said.
“You cannot run a bookstore on idealism, which most certainly does not pay the rent,” Lam said.
His dream job in Taiwan would be to manage a second-hand bookstore, as many classics published the 1980s and 1990s are not in circulation because they could not be reprinted, he said.
“Many authors wrote just one good book in their entire career and the value of the copies have doubled or tripled since their original publication,” he said.
Lam’s interview was interrupted by a call from the National Immigration Agency informing him that his visa had been extended by two months.
“This bit of breathing room could just be enough for me to start a life in Taiwan,” he said. “Or I could run out of savings and end up in a shelter in [Taipei’s] Wanhua District (萬華) with the rest of the homeless people. Whichever it is, I will still have my freedom.”
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