The Hong Kong protests have garnered large support from Taiwanese citizens, especially young people who see in Hong Kong a picture of Taiwan’s future should it accept China’s offer of “one country, two systems.” The fear of such a future propelled voters to reelect Tsai in the Jan. 11 presidential elections, as she has strongly rejected China’s advances and supported the protests. In July, after the first protesters began arriving in Taiwan, she said these “friends from Hong Kong will be properly treated, based on humanitarian grounds.”
Yet Taiwan still does not have a refugee law that can provide asylum to Hong Kongers in Taiwan. Instead, protesters enter Taiwan with a 30-day visa that they can extend for up to six months. After that, if they wish to stay in Taiwan, they can enroll in a local university to receive a student visa or find a job to receive a work visa. Those with means can invest $192,000 or set up a business to apply for residency.
A group of Taiwanese lawyers—TW-HK Legal Help—has provided legal aid to about 120 newly arrived Hong Kongers. The group worked with the government to grant protesters greater leeway in missing documents, as some had left in great haste, and to allow protesters to extend their visas without leaving Taiwan.
Chen Yu-fan, spokesperson for the group, says it’s moving to see Hong Kong residents send notes and clothing to the protesters in Taiwan. One handwritten note from a 70-year-old man urged the young people to be safe and study. “Don’t worry, we will take care of Hong Kong,” he wrote.
“In order to gain basic rights, they are fighting and sacrificing themselves,” Chen said. “After coming to Taiwan, they want to keep going. It’s Taiwan’s responsibility to help them.”
Still, Taiwan’s ability to help is constrained due to the lack of a refugee law. Article 18 of Taiwan’s Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong and Macao Affairs states, “Necessary assistance shall be provided to Hong Kong or Macao residents whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons.” The vague wording makes it unclear if this includes providing asylum to Hong Kongers.
Chen noted that on the plus side, this gives the current administration room to maneuver without touching on sensitive sovereignty issues with China. Yet a more Beijing-friendly government in the future could reinterpret the law, jeopardizing the safety of the Hong Kong exiles. She hopes the government can at least pass an administrative regulation to specify what Article 18 entails.
Yang Sen-hong, chairman of Taiwan Association for China Human Rights (TACHR) and a radio talk show host, believes the plight of Hong Kong protesters could finally push the government to pass a refugee law that would settle refugees in either Taiwan or a third country.
But such a law has many hurdles to overcome.
Some fear that passage of the law would bring heavy retribution from Beijing. Refugees by definition are those fleeing to another country. Would accepting refugees from Hong Kong and mainland China thus mean that Taiwan sees itself as a separate entity from China? Others argue that by opening up Taiwan to refugees, Chinese Communist spies could come over as fake refugees.
But Chen says the law wouldn’t have to apply to Hong Kong protesters or Chinese dissidents but could still help them if the government applies the law’s rules and regulations to more vague laws such as Article 18. Yang argues that the screening process would be strict and that spies could already enter through other legal avenues.
Resettled refugees could also provide a needed human resource as Taiwan, with one of the lowest birthrates in the world, faces a shrinking workforce.
AS THE DEBATE CONTINUES, some activists hope to convince Hong Kong activists targeted by Beijing to move to Taiwan and work in opposition to the Chinese regime there.
“I persuade youngsters to start over in Taiwan rather than spend years in jail,” said Andrew To, a longtime Hong Kong democracy activist. He noted that in the earlier days, activists engaging in civil disobedience went to jail to let people see how repressive mainland China was. But today, he argues, the situation has changed: Everyone can see the repression of the government and the injustice of society.
“I would tell them they don’t have to spend a day in jail to be a political prisoner, there’s no use at all,” To said. “You don’t need to awaken the people in Hong Kong. We have all woken up already.”
That’s a plan the exiled protester Yu has taken to heart, although not by choice.
Although he is stuck in Taiwan for the time being, Yu plans to help the movement any way he can, including by working with Taiwanese nongovernmental organizations to help other Hong Kong exiles and tell the world what is happening in Hong Kong. He believes he may be able to do more in Taiwan as a spokesperson even though he wishes he were back home.
“From a macro view, what we are doing is fighting against totalitarian governments,” Yu said. “Hong Kong is a small place. We can’t keep going if we don’t have other people’s support.”