Echoes of May Fourth In the Resilience of Causeway Bay Books

Echoes of May Fourth In the Resilience of Causeway Bay Books
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

The case of Lam Wing-kee shows that the ghosts of May Fourth still haunt the political circumstances in China today.

By Nicholas Haggerty, Milo Hsieh, Sydney Ko

A century after the May Fourth movement in China, a student- and worker-led protest that sought self-determination, its legacy remains unclear. But the case of Lam Wing-kee illustrates the movement’s ambiguous yet enduring power.

Lam, the founder of Causeway Bay Books, recently held the grand opening of his bookstore in Taipei. That day he stood in the corner of his bookstore and signed books, undisturbed by a scrum of customers.

Before its opening in Taipei, Causeway Bay Books was located in Hong Kong. Founded by Lam in 1994, the bookstore sold political tabloids “sensitive books” related to leaders of the Chinese Communist Party.

The bookstore attracted attention from Beijing as its prominence grew in Hong Kong. “Not just the locals, a lot of mainlanders came to Hong Kong and get books from there,” said Emily Law, a researcher on Taiwan issues.

This was the case until late 2015, when five members of the bookstore reportedly disappeared, drawing international attention. Chinese authorities later confirmed that they had been detained because of their alleged involvement in a traffic case with Gui Minhai, one of the shareholders of the bookstore.

Gui, a Swedish citizen, was presumably kidnapped from a resort in Bangkok, Thailand in late 2015. He later came out to confess that he voluntarily returned to China to face charges for a drunk driving incident. His Chinese citizenship was “re-instated” by a Chinese court in 2018. In February 2020, Gui was sentenced to 10 years in imprisonment.

Photo Credit: CNA
Lam Wing-kee at the grand opening of Causeway Bay Books in Taipei on April 25, 2020.

“After the crackdown on Causeway Bay Books, many other bookstores in Hong Kong, even ones owned by Singaporeans, such as Page One, removed these sensitive books,” Law said.

After monthslong detention, Lam himself was released in June 2016. The media suspected that Chinese security services were operating in Hong Kong and abducted the owner.

Lam is among one of many Hongkongers who have sought asylum in Taiwan in recent months.

“Young Hongkongers… they could at least go to school here [in Taiwan],” Lam told The News Lens. “Many of the ones their age still in Hong Kong have already been jailed. They could make a living, have housing, and feel safe here.”

Lam considers Causeway Books a sanctuary for both himself and Hongkongers. The bookstore, alongside Whisky Anonymous (保護傘), a restaurant that also opened in Taipei in April which employs exiled Hongkongers, is under police protection because of the possibility of physical assault.

Those who support the CCP may see Lam as a tool of imperial interests. The ghosts of May Fourth still haunt the political circumstances today, but with the party borne of the revolutionary forces now transformed into an authoritarian regime. Some scholars of the Chinese Revolution have argued that the CCP came to power because they claimed the mantle of nationalism and anti-imperialism that took root with the May Fourth generation.

The CCP has since rejected the legacy of its grassroots uprising, both in its authoritarianism and in becoming a force that silences any signs of dissent. Today, May Fourth and its most famous figurehead, Lu Xun, are referred to in state media in only the most sanitized manner. Democracy, what May Fourth dissidents hoped to bring forth to China, is now portrayed there as an alien and imperialist idea.

It’s dissidents like Lam who are the true inheritors of this spirit of protest and questioning authority.

The regime that May Fourth participants were protesting against was not powerful enough to restrict speech, or even take interest in a bookseller in the way that Lam was silenced. Lam’s work has attracted Beijing’s attention, showing the power of ideas to threaten a regime. This may be the most enduring legacy of May Fourth.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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