Interview: 'My Plans to Move Freely Have Come to Nothing'

Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei says security concerns have marred his trip to Taiwan following attacks on former student protest leaders.

Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kei (R) is shown with Taiwan Foundation for Democracy international visiting fellow Bei Ling, Feb. 7, 2017.

Lam Wing-kei, one of five Hong Kong booksellers detained by the Chinese authorities for selling "banned" political books to customers across the internal border in mainland China, is the only one of the five to speak openly about his experiences in detention and about threats to his personal safety since his release last year.

Two of Lam's colleagues at the now-shuttered Causeway Bay Books store, Lee Bo and Gui Minhai, are foreign passport-holders who went missing outside China's borders: Lee Bo from his workplace in Hong Kong and Gui Minhai from his holiday home in Pattaya, Thailand. Colleagues Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, like Lam, were detained as soon as they crossed the border into China. While Gui remains in an unknown location, Lui, Cheung and Lam were released with a set of instructions from China's state security police: to reappear in Hong Kong, refute reports of their disappearance, and claim to be voluntarily helping police with their enquiries.

Only Lam refused to to stick to that script. He spoke to RFA after arriving in Taiwan this week to speak publicly about his experiences under the "one country, two systems" arrangement that Beijing also hopes to extend to the democratic island. He was immediately offered 24-hour police protection.

RFA: So what are the security arrangements like around you?

Lam: I am in someone else's home right now, and there are four or five police officers stationed in the alleyway out back. There were more than 10 of them following our car. I feel sorry, as a guest, that I am causing them so much trouble, and that things have gotten this way whenever Hong Kong and Taiwan try to have such exchanges.

RFA: Why so much security?

Lam: I think the Taiwan authorities are really worried about anything untoward happening. Ultimately, this is all because of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party. Even if [all this security] isn't necessary, [my hosts] would still feel unsettled. It's not good for me, either. All my plans to move around freely have come to nothing. How can I move around anywhere freely?

RFA: What kind of a visa do you have?

Lam: Initially they told me I could get a month, but that was cut to just two weeks, then they must have started to worry, and they said I could only have a week. I had planned just to come here and then extend it, and I asked them about that, but the Taiwan authorities said I couldn't do that. I have been cleared for a single return trip. It used to be that you got a little booklet that was good for several trips, but now there are security concerns, because of [the attacks on pro-democracy leader] Joshua Wong [last month].

I heard that this means there's a lot of pressure on the chief of police here, who could lose his job if anything happens to me on this trip.

RFA: What do your hosts, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and Independent PEN have to say about this?

Lam: The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy said to me that perhaps I could limit the number of media interviews I give. I said that would be very difficult, because everyone knows I am here; it's public knowledge. Anyway, I'm not doing anything illegal. How about if I only speak to the media if they ask me something? But I will take their concerns into consideration. I can't just act as I please as if I were in Hong Kong.

RFA: Are you going to avoid the topic of Hong Kong independence too?

Lam: If I'm asked about it, I will speak about it, but I will be careful what I say.

RFA: What is the state of freedom of publication in Hong Kong right now, would you say?

Lam: It's very clear that there are some things you can't publish. For example, a couple of months ago a Malaysian woman wrote a book, but no publishing house in Hong Kong or Taiwan dared to publish it, because they were too worried about the impact in mainland China. To put it another way, they were afraid of annoying Beijing. They had a book that they wanted to publish, and they could have done so before the Causeway Bay Books incident. But they don't dare, now that this has happened. So this shows us that of course things have changed.

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.