Why you should care
Taiwan's presidential elections on Saturday could also impact the territory's approach to a growing number of Hongkongers who see it as a democratic beacon of hope.
Outside Che-lam Presbyterian Church in Taipei, Post-it notes from Taiwanese children and teenagers cheer on the pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong since last June. “Free Hong Kong,” says 12-year-old Jessie’s red-colored sticky note, with a heart. “Hong Kong, jia you!!” says 16-year-old Kai. “Jia you,” which literally means “add oil,” is a term of encouragement.
To the church, the notes are representative of broad support in Taiwan for Hong Kong’s protest movement. “What we’re doing is a humane thing,” says CH Kong, secretary to the church’s pastor, Huang Chun-sheng. “Taiwan is a democratic society. We’re doing this humane, most basic care.” But the crisis in the Chinese semi-autonomous territory has also allowed Taiwan’s government to contrast its democratic credentials with China’s authoritarian regime in the run-up to Saturday’s presidential elections — by taking in a rapidly increasing number of people from Hong Kong.
According to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, responsible for relations with China, applications from 4,352 Hongkongers for residency in Taiwan were approved during the first 10 months of 2019, an increase of 21 percent compared to 2018. Statistics from Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency suggest that the number of Hong Kong applicants rose by double-digit percentages from June to November.
We like Taiwan still as Taiwan. … Don’t let it be changed by China.
Cheung, a Hong Kong protestor now in Taiwan
Taiwan’s education ministry has asked several universities in the self-governing territory to accept students from Hong Kong universities who would like to continue their studies in Taiwan because protests at home might have affected their studies there. President Tsai Ing-wen, who’s contesting in the elections for a second term, has considered giving asylum to Hongkongers on humanitarian grounds. And even her opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang — which prefers closer cross-strait ties with Beijing — has rejected the “one country, two systems” arrangement that Beijing deploys in Hong Kong, though critics say it took him too long to make such a statement.
“President Tsai Ing-wen [has] wanted to present Taiwan as though it were positioning itself as a major place of refuge for Hongkongers for the sake of electioneering and as a way to distinguish [between] Taiwan and China,” says Brian Hioe, an expert on Taiwanese politics and founding editor of New Bloom, a Taiwan-focused cultural and political magazine.
On a global scale, China’s economic might has allowed it to whittle down Taiwan’s allies — only 14 countries and the Holy See recognize Taipei over Beijing. But for Hong Kong’s protesting youth, Taiwan’s attraction is real. One of them is a 21-year-old who spoke on condition that only his surname, Cheung, be revealed. He was a third-year university student in Hong Kong before he left his family and studies for Taiwan last July. The support that Tsai — who is leading in polls ahead of the elections — has shown for Hong Kong’s protestors is a source of comfort, he says. But the shared battle Hong Kong and Taiwan have waged to protect their identity from communist China is also a bond. Cheung says he hopes Taiwan never accepts China’s “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong. “We like Taiwan still as Taiwan … Don’t let it be changed by China for the sake of getting rich, [for] money by sacrificing our freedom, democracy and the youth’s future,” he says.
A 2019 survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong concluded that Taiwan has emerged as the third most favored destination for Hong Kong respondents after Canada and Australia. “Hongkongers see Taiwan as a democratic goal that one day they hope to achieve,” says Lev Nachman, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Irvine, and a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s linguistic, cultural and geographic proximity to Hong Kong, compared to Western countries, also increases its appeal, says Hioe.
To be sure, Tsai’s government is treading a careful line, signaling support for Hong Kong residents seeking refuge without creating the perception that it is actively aiding their protest movement. Taiwan has neither a formal refugee policy nor an asylum law and at the moment is allowing Hongkongers in through regular immigration channels — such as those coming for investment, entrepreneurship or to pursue higher education — and on a case-by-case basis. Their stay is extended on a month-by-month basis, leaving many in a state of limbo. It’s an approach that will benefit wealthier Hongkongers or students, but not the teenagers — many not even 18 years old — who have been active in the protests.
This approach isn’t rooted only in fears over provoking China too much. There are also worries that an open immigration system could see China flood Taiwan with spies posing as asylum seekers.
Yet where Taiwan’s politicians are cautious, civil society is stepping up. A volunteer group of Taiwanese lawyers has promised free legal consultation to Hongkongers.
At Che-lam Presbyterian Church during a prayer meeting in June, says Kong, Taiwanese youth brought up how Hong Kong police “beat” protesters and proposed that the church send over helmets to help them. The church sent about 800 helmets to Hong Kong a week later. It subsequently sent protestors gas masks, ice packs for the summer, wet tissues to clean blood stains and Christmas cards and cookies.
With the protests now in their seventh month, Kong says the church is keen to help find local universities for Hong Kong students whose education has been disrupted. They also want to provide medical care and counseling for ones affected by tear gas or post-traumatic stress disorder. “The real heroes in Taiwan are civil society organizations that have stepped up to help the protesters,” Nachman says.
If the Hong Kong protests are eventually “successful” in pushing back China’s creeping efforts at strengthening its stranglehold over the territory, Cheung says he would like to return home. “We are very clear that this is Hong Kong’s last war,” he says. Until then, he’s counting on Taiwan.