Hong Kong’s umbrella protests reached Europe at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October where a vigil was held for the Hong Kong-based Swedish-Chinese author, publisher and bookseller Gui Minhai, who was abducted and imprisoned in 2015 after incurring the wrath of the Chinese government for publishing and selling books critical of the regime.
Supporters gathered outside one of the fairground’s halls bearing aloft umbrellas bearing the hashtag #FreeTheWords in a protest jointly organised by the Börsenverein (the German publishers and booksellers association), Amnesty International, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF), the International Publishers Association (IPA), PEN-Zentrum Germany and PEN International.
Speakers at the vigil included Lam Wing Kee, the Hong-Kong-based bookseller now living in exile, and Börsenverein CEO Alexander Skipis who said: “Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly are basic human rights and, as such, they are non-negotiable. While citizens in Hong Kong continue to fight for their freedoms, the Chinese regime persists in its efforts to build the perfect dictatorship. This is not something we can accept, nor will we stand idly by without raising our voice.
“We hereby declare our solidarity with Gui Minhai and the freedom fighters in Hong Kong. We call for the immediate release of the author, bookseller and publisher Minhai, and we also demand freedom for all imprisoned artists and culture professionals worldwide. We call on Germany’s federal government to refuse to subordinate free and democratic values – such as the freedom of expression – to economic interests. We call on the government to take an uncompromising position in support of freedom – in China, in Turkey and across the globe. As members of the creative and cultural industries, we carry a special responsibility for society and in particular for the freedom of expression. We call on all of civil society to demand that human rights be respected, so that we can all continue to thrive in the future. This is especially true for the economic and business elite, who would do well to remember that they owe their tremendous wealth of development opportunities to the basic human freedoms that apply in our country. Indeed, the greatest enemy of freedom of expression is inaction”.
The umbrella protests first began in Hong Kong in 2014 over proposed changes imposed by China on the city’s electoral system. The protests returned on a larger scale earlier this year over changes to the legal system that would see citizens accused of crimes extradited to China. Protests carry umbrellas to protect them from tear gas and pepper spray used the police. Since then, umbrellas have been adopted as a symbol of protest.