In the early 1950s in Taiwan, 19-year-old Tsai Kun-lin was arrested and jailed after joining a book club. The young man spent more than a decade on Green Island, building the prison that held him as a political enemy of the authoritarian rulers who would hold Taiwan under martial law until 1987.
Decades later, a 90-year-old Tsai is living in Taiwan’s thriving democracy, but says a book club has once again become an act of resistance.
This month the publisher and activist, alongside exiled Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, will address the Katthveli book club, exploring political activism, free speech and democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan, two places under extraordinary threat from an increasingly belligerent People’s Republic of China.
Tsai tells the Guardian he agreed to join Katthveli because “once there were such people in Taiwan who risked their lives to read books and pursue the truth”.
“Especially when Hong Kong is facing persecution from China, and Taiwan is threatened by China. It’s important to advise young people what kinds of books they should read.”
Participants from around the world can join via Jitsi, an encrypted communication app that requires no sign-in. Users are sent a link and advised to use false names if they have personal safety concerns, says festival curator Aephie Chen.
The measure for the online club, an initiative of the Taiwan UK Film Festival, were deemed necessary given the topics and the expectation it would be probably be monitored by Chinese authorities. In Hong Kong, to discuss topics such as independence and activism is possibly illegal now, and the security measures reflect the growing threat to those who advocate democracy.
In the past 18 months Hong Kong has changed dramatically, wracked by pro-democracy protests and a resulting crackdown by Beijing with a national security law (NSL) that has in effect outlawed dissent. The crackdown had the support of the Hong Kong government, and since then more than 10,000 people, mostly young, have been arrested, with dozens held under the NSL. At least 2,300 have been prosecuted for a variety of protest-related charges. Advocating for independence or protesting against the government is now largely illegal, and sensitive books have been removed from shelves.
Taiwan has become a refuge for a small but growing number of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, with president Tsai Ing-wen promising “necessary assistance” to the people there earlier this year.
‘You will understand why China is China today’
Beijing insists it will “unify” with Taiwan, which it considers a rogue province of China, though Taiwan’s government is resisting. “Taiwan lived through the White Terror before it came to this peaceful new era today,” says Tsai. “However, since 1997 Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, I am more pessimistic [about Hong Kong].”
There are mutual lessons for the two locales as Hong Kong moves away from semi-autonomy to strict Beijing-control, while Taiwan leaves its period of martial law further and further behind.
The film festival’s curator Aephie Chen, says she sees Tsai’s persecution happening again with the youth of Hong Kong. “Every generation has to reimagine … the concept of freedom,” she said.
Chen, the daughter of an environmentalist father forced to leave Taiwan during martial law, has watched in horror at the crackdown in Hong Kong, and then sadness as she felt the world start to lose interest. She felt driven to share its story and how Taiwan could help, but said adding a Hong Kong film to the festival’s line-up wouldn’t do it justice. The book club was born to explore the history of danger in both places by giving people the time and space to read and research.
Chen invited Lam Wing-kee to speak to the club. The 64-year-old Hong Kong bookseller was abducted and detained by Chinese authorities in 2015 for selling banned books on the mainland, and has lived in Taiwan in self-imposed exile since last year. Lam told the Guardian it was important “to delve deep in these clubs to get to know the whole context of the problem, not just the surface”.
He chose seven books for discussion including titles on the history of the Chinese government, the Jewish diaspora, and the cultural influence of the Chinese Communist party in Taiwan.
“It’s important to understand the history and culture of all of it so you will understand why China is China today,” he said.
The book club will launch on 1 December with an interview with Lam. Tsai will speak on 12 December. The Taiwan UK Film Festival runs from 28 November to 12 December, hosting socially-distanced cinema screenings and online films, live Q&As, short films, live music, dance and spoken word performances.