Causeway Bay Books recently announced plans to relocate from Hong Kong to Taipei. But during a recent trip to Taiwan, founder Lam Wing-kee discovered how difficult it might be to sell politically sensitive books here that are banned in China.
Lam Wing-kee was one of the five Hong Kong publishers kidnapped by Chinese authorities in late 2015. He was also the founder of Causeway Bay Books, the walk-up bookstore located in one of Hong Kong’s busiest commercial districts where the publishers sold many of their politically sensitive books.
Last summer, Lam was temporarily released and allowed back into Hong Kong in order to retrieve sales data to hand over to Chinese police. Instead, he escaped his captors by holding a press conference in Hong Kong, talking in detail about his eight-month-long detention and how the “confessions” on television made by him and his colleagues were false and occurred under duress.
Of the five kidnapped publishers, only the Swedish citizen, Gui Minhai, remains in detention, having now been held incommunicado for 570 days and counting. While the other three publishers have kept a low profile after being released, Lam has vowed to continue his struggle for democratic development in his native Hong Kong.
Last week Nikkei Asian Review published an interview with Lam, where he announced that Causeway Bay Books was planning to open in Taipei as a “symbol of resistance.” The article quoted Lam as being 90 percent sure that the bookstore would open later this year, as the only thing remaining was to find “the right people and place.”
In late April and after the interview with Nikkei, Lam came to Taiwan for nine days, visiting 10 bookstores in a handful of cities including Taipei, Taoyuan, Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taichung.
Taiwan Sentinel contacted Lam for an interview this week. Currently in the United States, Lam said he remembers the trip to Taiwan as one presenting many challenges, resulting in fear that the opening of a Taiwanese branch of his bookstore might have to be delayed.
The most obvious difficulty concerns the somewhat sluggish state of Taiwan’s economy, which is even more problematic given the fact that bookstores all over the world are already struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the digital revolution. Lam said that many of the independent bookstores he visited in Taiwan, though well established and long running, were facing financial difficulties serious enough to cause a shutdown.
And to make matters worse, the Taiwanese public has not shown much interest in Chinese history or politics. “Taiwan and mainland China [sic] have been apart for too long,” said Lam, adding that many young people in particular feel little attachment to the kind of topics covered in the literature sold at Causeway Bay Books.
That is in line with what Bao Pu, the founder of New Century Press in Hong Kong, told me last autumn: That many potential customers in Taiwan simply view Chinese history or policy development as a “foreign matter.”
According to Lam, a branch of his bookstore in Taiwan would have “the Chinese speaking world” as its target market. But the lack of interest among locals, combined with the dwindling numbers of Chinese tourists, will no doubt have a negative effect on sales.
As for the Taiwanese government, Lam is hoping it would treat Causeway Bay Books just like “any other bookstore.” There are no legal obstacles for opening a store in Taiwan specializing on literature banned in China, and Lam would be very surprised if the authorities made any opinions against this, even after taking into account the recent turmoil in the relationship between Taiwan, China, and the U.S.
On the other hand Lam neither expects nor wants any support or special treatment from the government. “We should simply have to rely on our own business performance, just like it used to be in Hong Kong,” he said.
Mind the word “used,” as the kidnappings and “confessions” of Lam and his colleagues sent ripples through the entire publishing industry in Hong Kong, where sales of politically sensitive books were flourishing after travel restrictions for Chinese tourists were relaxed in 2003.
In the early stage, Chinese authorities were primarily trying to stop the spread of banned books in China proper by targeting Chinese printing houses and bookstores involved in a growing pirate industry. From about 2009, bookshops in Hong Kong also became targets themselves, and when Xi Jinping became president in 2013 he soon launched a campaign to stop the “poisonous” literature from Hong Kong reaching China.
As a result of the kidnappings, many Hong Kong printing houses and bookstores distanced themselves entirely from politically sensitive literature, mainly out of fear of losing out on business opportunities on the Chinese mainland.
According to Bao Pu of New Century Press, the campaign included instructions to Chinese travel agencies to warn their customers that bringing back banned books to China proper was “at their own risk.” Closer inspections were accompanied by large signs at border checkpoints. After the televized confessions of Lam and his colleagues, Chinese tourists began to associate the books with clear danger — “almost like smuggling drugs,” Bao Pu told me last fall.
This was reflected by the 80 percent dip in sales experienced by New Century after the Causeway Bay Books kidnappings. Normally, Bao Pu publishes about a dozen books a year, but by last fall he had only published two. 2016 was also the second year since its establishment in 2005 that New Century Press recorded financial losses.
Furthermore, as a result of the kidnappings, many Hong Kong printing houses and bookstores distanced themselves entirely from politically sensitive literature, mainly out of fear of losing out on business opportunities on the Chinese mainland. Singaporean bookstore Page One discontinued the sales of such literature immediately, stating “safety concerns” for its staff. Bao Pu himself had to spend a great deal of 2016 looking for a new printing house, since his old one suddenly pulled out after a decade working with him, without explanation.
An opportunity for Taiwan
In light of these developments, an opportunity has emerged for Taiwan to replace Hong Kong as a hub for printing and selling of political and historical literature that is banned in China. The government could seize this by implementing various sorts of funding or subsidies. In my native Sweden, for instance, the Ministry of Culture is responsible for handing out “literary support” to smaller publishers to ensure a diverse literary production.
Besides the challenges mentioned above regarding the target market, Lam also draws attention to potential difficulties with sending books to customers in China by mail.
“From Hong Kong, I developed a method that made 99 percent of the dispatched books reach the customers,” Lam said, adding that while this would likely be possible from Taiwan, he is not yet sure how this can be accomplished.
If and when Causeway Bay Books opens in Taipei, Lam says he will not be involved in its daily operations. The project is made possible thanks to funding from an anonymous group of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and Lam is at this point only providing advice in the start-up phase.
Besides, Lam has repeatedly stated that he will not seek political asylum in Taiwan or in the U.S., even if it is very likely he would be granted asylum after being kidnapped and detained in China. Instead, he remains committed to bringing about democratic change in his native Hong Kong through non-violent resistance.
Lam also says he feels safer in Hong Kong than in Taiwan. If he were injured or went missing again in Hong Kong, he says, the Chinese authorities would be held accountable. “But if somethings happens to me in Taiwan, the Chinese government can just waive it away by saying it has nothing to do with,” he said.
This threat was made particularly tangible when a group of Hong Kong legislators and activists were threatened and attacked at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport during a visit to Taiwan earlier this year. Many suspect the assault was carried out by gangsters with ties to or under the pay of organizations close to Chinese authorities.
Top photo: hk01.com