In the film Casablanca, there is an epic scene in which French refugees sing La Marseillaise and chant Vive la France to drown out Nazi officers singing a German anthem.
In real life, something similar happened in Taiwan.
Lam Wing-kei (林榮基), a former manager of Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong, on Saturday last week reopened his business in Taipei.
His previous bookstore was forced to shut down for selling banned books detailing the secrets of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Lam and the bookstore’s other four stakeholders were arrested and incarcerated.
Days before the reopening in Taipei, three people attacked Lam with red paint. The motives behind this attack are still under investigation, but Lam believes that it was instigated by the CCP.
Of course, Taiwan is not like French Morocco, occupied by a foreign power. Instead of being shut down, Causeway Bay Books celebrated its rebirth with Taiwanese officials present and a congratulatory wreath from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
Just like Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca, Causeway Bay Books is expected to become a symbol of freedom for the Hong Kong diaspora and a milestone of Taiwan’s democracy.
Gui Minhai (桂民海), a Swedish citizen and one of Lam’s business partners who is incarcerated in China, in November last year received the Tucholsky literary prize from the Swedish government, an award named after German writer Kurt Tucholsky, who fled Nazi rule for Sweden.
As with the Nazi officers in Casablanca, some supporters of China’s “reunification” with Taiwan can also be aggressive. Multiple cases of harassment against Hong Kong activists in Taiwan have been reported over the years.
Denise Ho (何韻詩), a renowned Hong Kong singer and pro-democracy advocate for the territory, was also attacked with red paint at an event in Taiwan in September last year by a pro-unification party member.
On the day Lam was attacked he received a death threat from a pro-China Singaporean who claimed to have “many brothers in Taipei” who could kill him “in minutes.”
Lam’s efforts are strongly felt in Taiwan, a nation that has also experienced a dictatorship. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, which fled to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, used to call the nation “Free China.”
However, such language did not conceal the regime’s authoritarian nature and human rights abuses during its 38 years of martial law. Reformists’ civil rights were suppressed and dissidents lost their lives.
Causeway Bay Books in Taipei only occupies about 70m2, yet it resembles those places with humble appearances that played a central role in the lives of Taiwanese dissenters abroad.
Shinchimmi (新珍味), a ramen restaurant in Japan opened by Taiwanese activist Su Beng (史明), was a gathering place for Taiwan independence supporters in Japan. A three-story building in Washington, DC, is the headquarters of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), a grassroots organization that has advocated for Taiwan independence in the US Congress since 1982.
Today, the stories of overseas Taiwanese have become an exemplar for Hong Kong freedom fighters. With their legislation, members of the US Congress were a driving force, pushing to lift martial law and promote Taiwan’s international status.
Causeway Bay Books also embodies the historical bond between Taiwanese and Hong Kongers that shapes their democratic alliance against the common enemy of authoritarianism.
When Hong Kong was under British rule, many overseas Taiwanese were encouraged by the latest information about democracy and human rights that was heavily censored in Taiwan.
Over the years, rights groups from Taiwan and Hong Kong have visited each other to explore the possibility of political reform in their respective homes.
Seeing the bravery Hong Kongers demonstrated in the pro-democracy protests last year, FAPA invited Taiwanese and Hong Kongers in the US to take part in its annual congressional advocacy.
Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), who is secretary-general of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party Demosisto, has said that he hopes that advocacy groups such as the Hong Kong Democracy Council will become a FAPA for Hong Kong.
Lam has decorated his bookstore with two banners reading “Taiwan Independence” and “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now.”
Lam has said that he believes that Taiwanese should be unified by Beijing’s actions.
He also has said that his fellow Hong Kongers would join him in Taiwan as “resistance from the outside.”
Such a voice has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong. According to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute poll, there were more respondents in Hong Kong favoring Taiwan independence than those who opposed it, which was a first in the survey’s history.
This is a strong message from Hong Kongers of their grievances toward Beijing’s brutality as displayed in the police violence against protesters. It also expresses the hope of Hong Kongers to have a Taiwan independent from China’s rule as a safe haven should an exodus from Hong Kong become inevitable.
For years, Taiwan has become the destination for many freedom-loving Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur and Hong Kong political refugees to continue their advocacy or even as a second home. It is reminiscent of the stories of Jewish asylum seekers resettling in the US, and the contributions they made to its society.
There is thus discussion of the pros and cons of accepting Hong Kong asylum seekers in Taiwan.
Since the outbreak of the pro-democracy protests last year, the world has been amazed not just by Hong Kongers’ courage to fight for freedom, but by their impressive ability to communicate with politicians and media, and how their organized worldwide advocacy work exemplifies Hong Kong’s high quality of civic virtue.
In the past few years, Hong Kong has ranked high in indices such as the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which last year placed the territory fourth, and the World Economic Forum’s judicial independence index, which in its 2017-2018 ranking placed it 13th.
The world also sees the deteriorating conditions of freedom of the press (last year’s World Press Freedom Index ranked Hong Kong 73rd), political rights and civil liberties (Freedom House this year ranked it 117th).
Considering the potential contribution Hong Kong immigrants could make to Taiwan, a legal arrangement accepting them could be mutually beneficial.
However, the debate on creating a refugee act is still ongoing. The Taiwanese government argues that the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macau (香港澳門關係條例) already provides sufficient mechanisms for asylum seekers. Lam, for instance, is eligible for a work permit that would allow him to pursue permanent residency or even citizenship in Taiwan.
Nevertheless, Wong and the Taiwan Association for Human Rights are proposing more comprehensive legal arrangements, such as amendments to the existing law to provide “necessary assistance” to Hong Kong demonstrators or to create a refugee act.
The special relationship between Taiwan and China is another factor in the debate.
Even during the Holocaust, many Jewish refugees failed to relocate to the US due to the strict immigration restrictions that consider complex economic and social conditions.
Despite the humanitarian crisis in Hong Kong, the potential infiltration of Chinese spies disguised as refugees could also undermine Taiwan’s national security.
Hong Kong activists without Lam’s high profile might not meet the somewhat ambiguous standards of providing “valuable information” about China or making “special contributions” to Taiwan’s national security, international image or social stability.
Lam’s relocation to Taiwan and the ever-escalating Hong Kong police violence against pro-democracy protesters has raised the discussion on expediting the legislation to accommodate potential political refugees.
Since then, the government has not prioritized such legislation, considering the recent presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, international support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has largely been overshadowed by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong administration takes no holiday from stifling freedom. Beijing rang the death knell of the “one country, two systems” formula when its Hong Kong Liaison Office declared itself to be above Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution.
Behind the arrests of high-profile activists Martin Lee (李柱銘), founder of the Democratic Party, and Next Media Group founder Jimmy Lai (黎智英) are thousands of unknown protesters who have been arrested, prosecuted or even killed.
Taiwan, with well-recognized disease control achievements, could extend a helping hand to the freedom-loving Hong Kongers before it is too late.
On the wreath to the new Causeway Bay Books, Tsai wrote a line from the Bible: “But let judgement run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). Biblical references to righteousness and freedom are abundant throughout Taiwan’s history of democratization.
The cross in the middle of the flag of the Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan’s ruling party, is believed to be a symbol of bearing the cross of democracy. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Taiwan’s first democratically elected president, wished to be a Moses-like figure leading Taiwanese from suppression to freedom.
Taiwan has been called “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” in a strategic sense since the 1950s. Today, the nation can add another biblical reference, as the “Noah’s Ark” for all freedom-loving people who defy the sin of dictatorship.
Yang Kuang-shun is cofounder of US-Taiwan Watch.
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