isIn the early 1950s in Taiwan, 19-year-old Tsai Kun-lin was arrested and jailed after joining a book club. The young man spent over a decade on Green Island, building the prison that held him a political enemy of the authoritarian rulers who would keep Taiwan under martial law until 1987.
Decades later, a 90-year-old Tsai lives in Taiwan’s thriving democracy, but claims that a book club has become an act of resistance again.
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 the extraordinary threat of an increasingly bellicose People’s Republic. China.
Tsai told the Guardian that he agreed to join Katthveli because “in the old days there were such people in Taiwan who risked their lives to read books and seek the truth.”
“Especially when Hong Kong faces persecution from China and Taiwan is threatened by China. It is important to tell young people what kinds of books they should read. “
Participants from all over the world can join through Jitsi, an encrypted communication app that requires no connection. Users receive a link and are encouraged to use fake names if they have personal security concerns, says festival curator Aephie Chen.
The measure for the online club, an initiative of the Taiwan UK Film Festival, was deemed necessary given the topics and the hope that it would likely be overseen by Chinese authorities. In Hong Kong, discussing topics such as independence and activism may now be illegal, and security measures reflect the growing threat to those who advocate democracy.
Over the past 18 months, Hong Kong has changed dramatically, ravaged by pro-democracy protests and the resulting crackdown by Beijing with a National Security Act (NSL) that effectively banned dissent. The crackdown had the backing of the Hong Kong government, and since then more than 10,000 people, most of them young, have been arrested, including dozens held under the NSL regime. At least 2,300 have been prosecuted on various charges related to the protests. Pleading for independence or protesting the government is now largely illegal, and sensitive books have been taken off the shelves.
Taiwan has become a haven for a small but growing number of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, with President Tsai Ing-wen pledging “necessary assistance” to the people earlier this year.
‘You will understand why China is China today’
Beijing insists it “will unify” with Taiwan, which it sees as a rogue province of China, although the Taiwan government resists. “Taiwan lived through the White Terror before arriving at this new peaceful era today,” Tsai said. “However, since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, I have been more pessimistic [about Hong Kong]. »
There are mutual lessons for the two localities as Hong Kong shifts from semi-autonomy to tight control over Beijing, while Taiwan increasingly abandons its period of martial law.
Film festival curator Aephie Chen says she sees Tsai’s persecution happening again with young people in Hong Kong. “Each generation must reinvent… the concept of freedom,” she says.
Chen, the daughter of an environmentalist father forced to leave Taiwan during martial law, watched in horror the crackdown in Hong Kong, then sadness as she felt the world began to lose interest. She felt motivated to share her story and how Taiwan could help, but said adding a Hong Kong film to the festival’s lineup wouldn’t do her 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 at the club. The 64-year-old Hong Kong bookseller was kidnapped and detained by Chinese authorities in 2015 for selling banned books on the mainland, and has been living in Taiwan in voluntary exile since last year. Lam told The Guardian it was important “to dive deep into these clubs to get the full context of the problem, not just the surface”.
He chose seven books for the 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 this in order to understand why China is China today,” he said.
The Book Club will launch on December 1 with an interview with Lam. Tsai will speak on December 12. The Taiwan UK Film Festival runs from November 28 to December 12 and hosts social-distanced online cinema and film screenings, live Q&A, short films, live music, dancing and shows. oral creations.