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How Hong Kong’s Most Wanted Bookseller Escaped to Taiwan and What's Next

FILE - Freed Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee is pictured prior to a news conference in Hong Kong, June 16, 2016.

Three years ago authorities in China were expecting Lam Wing-kee to get his PC, and then return across the border for the final stages of a criminal investigation.

One of five Hong Kong booksellers whose disappearance caused a stir in 2015, Lam was wanted for selling books in Hong Kong that are effectively banned in mainland China.

Now the 63-year-old who spent eight months in detention in mainland China lives in Taiwan. He’s free on the democratic, ethnic Chinese island as long as he renews his visa periodically by leaving and coming back. He plans eventually to open a bookstore in Taiwan -- and enjoy a lack of restrictions on book content.

Beating the extradition law

Lam reached Taiwan after defying China’s order to return to the mainland in 2016. He was at first comfortable staying in Hong Kong. Although the world financial center has come under China’s rule since 1997, the territory lacks an agreement with the mainland to extradite criminal suspects.

Then, in February, Hong Kong began considering an extradition law. The proposed law set off the wave of mass protests that has kept Hong Kong on edge from June through until the present.

“I never thought the Hong Kong government would handle things like this,” he told the VOA over a coffee in Taipei on Saturday. “It’s clear that...Hong Kong is being managed by mainland China.”

Eight months of detention

Lam had sold politically sensitive books from a physical store in Hong Kong's densely populated, touristy Causeway Bay district. He was detained at the border with Shenzhen and first taken to a detention center in Ningbo, a city near Shanghai. He lived alone in that room for five months before being moved to a hotel in Shaoguan in Guangdong province.

During his time in mainland China, Lam said he was interrogated “viciously” several times a week though never physically abused. "You couldn't speak of politeness," he said.

His rooms were “clean,” but the one in Ningbo had such small, high windows he couldn't see much outside.

Chinese police ultimately let the bookseller back into Hong Kong to get his computer, which may have contained telltale files, Lam said. “If you take your computer back, then they have extract content from it,” he said.

Lam moved into a specific Hong Kong hotel, as agreed upon with Chinese authorities. “I told them that hotel was a good one,” he recalled. “They had never been to Hong Kong.”

In June 2016 Lam told a Hong Kong news conference he would not return. But after Hong Kong’s government began in February this year discussing a law that would allow extraditions, he fled to Taiwan. That was in April.

Taiwanese read in Chinese and many people on the self-ruled island dislike China. Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan and insists that the two sides eventually unify.

Protests over the proposed extradition law touched off a so far unbroken series of mass street protests in Hong Kong from June 9. Some fear China’s paramilitary police will crack down to stop the protests.

Plans for Taipei bookstore

Lam must leave Taiwan, which has no asylum law that might otherwise give him a longer-term visa, by October. He plans to visit Germany for a book show and then see about returning to Taiwan for a longer stay.

He aims to open a bookstore here after a crowdfunding drive. “I don’t have any money now,” he said.

Lam said he won’t necessarily sell the same titles here that got him in trouble with China. He estimated one book had earned more than 30 million Hong Kong dollars (US$3.83 million) across multiple sales channels.

Mainland Chinese people had boosted sales by buying the book during their ravels outside the mainland, including in Hong Kong.

Taiwanese often feel less interested in the minutiae of China's government, preferring to read instead about Japan or the West.

Lam previously took printed “exposés” about Chinese leaders into mainland China and mailed them to clients, advocacy website says.

A Taiwan-based bookstore would probably prosper only at the start, said Andy Chang, a China studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“In the short term, there shouldn’t be major difficulties, because of his unique profile, so Taiwanese including some common people will go read the books, but in the mid-term and longer them it’s going to get tougher,” Chang said.

Sellers are struggling in Taiwan overall against other types of media, said Yang Lian-fu, a Taiwanese publisher of local history books.

“Bookstores aren’t in a boom phase, so sales aren’t going that well,” Yang said. “Book readers are very few. There are too many channels to get information. They can get the internet by computer and need not rely on bookstores, so if he wants to open a store in Taiwan, I don’t think he’s quite going to succeed.”