China threat tempers Taiwan’s welcome of Hong Kong exiles

Hong Kong protesters who escaped to Taiwan have become entangled in a web of restrictions designed to protect the democratically governed island from an increasingly assertive China.

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen offered refuge to a wave of fleeing Hong Kongers after Beijing moved to crush dissent in the former British colony. But many feel let down by the Taiwanese government as they struggle to build a new life across the strait.

“Tsai’s rhetoric towards the protesters has been very positive,” said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University researching political protest movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “But there is a disconnect between her words and what the government is doing to help.”

In May 2020, Tsai declared Taiwan would provide “Hong Kong’s people with necessary assistance” after China imposed a tough national security law. “The solution is not bullets,” she said, “but to truly implement freedom and democracy.”

Tsai, however, has resisted calls to introduce a refugee or political asylum system that would pave the way for exiled protesters to gain permanent residence or citizenship, wary that it could “stir up trouble with China”, said Nachman.

Taiwan is worried about provoking Beijing by becoming an outpost for anti-Chinese Communist party activity just as the People’s Liberation Army steps up military posturing against the country.

Five protesters who travelled illegally to Taiwan by boat last July were quietly housed on a military base for six months before being granted entry to the US on humanitarian grounds.

“Taiwan has helped Hong Kongers. That is undeniable,” said Lam Wing-kee, the owner of Causeway Bay Books in Taipei, who was abducted by mainland agents in 2015. He fled after Hong Kong proposed an extradition law to China in 2019. “The question is whether more can be done to help.” 

Lam Wing-kee wants to know if more can be done for Hong Kongers who have fled to Taiwan © Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

In the first five months of 2021, Taiwan approved almost 4,000 temporary residence applications for Hong Kongers, a 44 per cent increase on the previous year. 

“Wealthy Hong Kongers have an easier time getting to Taiwan, but the more pressing group are the protesters, many of whom are young students,” said Nachman. 

The absence of a formalised refugee process means that many Hong Kongers have to transition from one temporary visa to another, making it difficult to find stable employment.

Jiang Min-Yan, a researcher from the Taipei-based Economic Democracy Union think-tank, said that “without being able to secure permanent residence or citizenship, it is impossible for Hong Kongers to feel like they belong in Taiwan”.

Supporters lobbying on behalf of Hong Kongers said Taiwan’s visa process was failing the exiles. To obtain a work visa, Hong Kong migrants must secure a job offer with a monthly salary twice that of Taiwan’s minimum wage. That requirement is difficult to meet for the young and working-class Hong Kongers who make up the bulk of the pro-democracy movement. 

Chiu Chui-Cheng, deputy minister at the Mainland Affairs Council, told the Financial Times that it dealt with each application for residency permits individually and provided extra support in extenuating circumstances. 

Taiwan opened a special office in July 2020 to co-ordinate humanitarian assistance for the Hong Kongers in response to the imposition of the security law a month earlier. The office provides financial, physical and mental health support to the exiled activists. 

Lunch at Aegis, a restaurant that offers work opportunities to Hong Kongers seeking asylum in Taipei
Lunch at Aegis, a restaurant that offers work opportunities to Hong Kongers seeking asylum in Taipei © Ann Wang/Reuters

The Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office criticised Tsai’s support of the protests as part of a “separatist plot” to promote independence movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to attack if Taipei seeks formal independence.

The influx from Hong Kong has also heightened fears in Taiwan that Chinese agents who infiltrated the pro-democracy movement may have also made it to the island. 

“Taiwan is very sensitive about anything in relation to China,” said Simon, a Hong Konger who came to Taipei following the passage of the national security law and requested the use of a pseudonym.

Simon has been waiting a year to hear if his retired mother could join him. Her application hit a roadblock when authorities found out she worked at a Hong Kong technology company that had been acquired by a mainland Chinese competitor. 

Sang Pu, a lawyer who runs an organisation helping Hong Kongers apply for residency in Taiwan, said that authorities reject applicants who have worked at mainland Chinese-owned companies. 

Chiu defended Taiwan’s cautious approach. “Hong Kong has changed and is now controlled by the CCP,” he said, “so we have to protect against the possibility that China is taking advantage of our looser policies towards Hong Kong immigration to infiltrate Taiwan.”

Taiwan has started making contingency plans for losing on-the-ground official representation in Hong Kong as relations between the territories continue to deteriorate. Activists are concerned that Tsai will revoke the city’s special status, which has made it easier for Hong Kongers to move to the island than mainland Chinese residents. 

“Taiwan’s door to Hong Kong is slowly closing,” said Sang. “Before it does, Taipei should enable supporters of democracy to come in.”

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