China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Friends from Hong Kong: Taiwan’s Refugee Problem

Hong Kongers looking for asylum in Taiwan are hostage to the island’s 2020 presidential politics.

By Lev Nachman and Brian Hioe for
Friends from Hong Kong: Taiwan’s Refugee Problem

People’s hold Taiwanese flags as they join others at a rally to mark Taiwan’s National Day, in the Tsim Sha Tsui district in Hong Kong, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Over the course of Hong Kong’s “Summer of Unrest,” Taiwan’s government has offered more than just solidarity — it has welcomed fleeing Hong Kong protesters as political refugees. Tsai Ing-wen, who is up for re-election in January, went so far as to say that “friends from Hong Kong” will be considered for asylum on humanitarian grounds. Even the Kuomintang (KMT) — the party in Taiwan that supports closer relations with China — has expressed support for the protesters and condemned the excessive use of force by Hong Kong’s police. Over the summer, two solidarity marches were held in Taipei that were attended by 10,000 and 100,000 people respectively. Given apparent bipartisan support for Hong Kong’s protesters, and seemingly significant public support, will be Taiwan become a safe haven for Hong Kongers looking for asylum? 

So far, the answer from the Taiwanese government appears to be no. While establishing an asylum application process for Hong Kongers was one of the demands of the September 29 march, and despite seeing a 28 percent increase in immigration to Taiwan from Hong Kong in August, the Tsai administration has failed to take steps to create concrete procedures for Hong Kongers. 

Refugees in Limbo

Taiwan does not have a refugee law. The Taiwanese government has thus far relied on ad hoc measures like extending Hong Kong protesters’ residency status on a monthly basis. This case-by-case approach relegates people to bureaucratic limbo, unable to obtain work or pursue education because of their unusual visa status. The lack of action by the Tsai administration has even pushed some Hong Kongers that fled to Taiwan to return to Hong Kong. Some refugees are secondary school students below the age of 18 and have fled to Taiwan without formal passports since Hong Kong residents need to be legal adults to apply for passports on their own and would otherwise require parental permission to do so. 

If the current cohort of political refugees residing in Taiwan had stayed in Hong Kong, they would face possibly up to 10 years in jail on charges of “rioting,” five years imprisonment on charges of “illegal assembly,” and other charges.

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To date, Lam Wing-kee, one of the Causeway Bay booksellers, is the only Hong Konger that has fled to Taiwan in recent months to have openly come forward with his identity. It is unknown how many Hong Kong refugees are currently in Taiwan, though the South China Morning Post reported in July that there were up to 60 Hong Kong asylum seekers in Taiwan

One of the issues that makes it difficult to estimate how many Hong Kongers have fled to Taiwan in the past few months is that some have been afraid to approach the government, NGOs, or civil society organizations in the absence of any open and transparent process for applying for asylum from the government for fear of being deported. Some are young enough to have arrived in Taiwan without a clear understanding of Taiwan’s lack of asylum process, simply assuming that Taiwan would be willing to accept them as refugees.

According to Huang Chun-sheng, the head pastor of the Che-lam Presbyterian Church– the only organization in Taiwan to publicly state that it is assisting Hong Kong protestors and a major source of protest supplies sent to Hong Kong from Taiwan — the Taiwanese government is still trying to figure out means to deal with Hong Kong asylum seekers. In the meantime, Taiwanese NGOs have adopted rough division of labor, with some NGOs handling visas for Hong Kongers that have fled to Taiwan, while others provide places of refuge, or mental counseling services for those in need of it. 

In Huang’s words, “The government has agreed to our way of handling things […] Up until now, things have gone smoothly.” To date, the number of Hong Kongers that have arrived in Taiwan has been sufficient for this alliance of NGOs to cope with. But, Huang says, in the event of a large wave of Hong Kongers arriving in Taiwan, “If us NGOs are unable to cope with it, the government will be unable to either.” It is possible that as protests continue to escalate in Hong Kong, another wave of Hongkongers could flee to Taiwan, with the largest initial wave to date having occurred after an abortive attempt by protesters to occupy Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in July.  

A Refugee Law is Not Coming Soon

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and KMT, Taiwan’s two largest parties, are unlikely to put their differences aside for legislation on Hong Kong refugees. Both parties have attempted to use this summer’s protests to attack the other. The DPP, which historically supported Taiwanese independence, has claimed that Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” is exactly the kind of system the KMT wants to sell to Taiwan, given the party’s support of political unification with China. Meanwhile, the KMT has tried to portray President Tsai as an authoritarian ruler with tendencies equal to those of Carrie Lam, and claimed that the DPP’s support of Taiwanese independence is what would lead to one country, two systems in Taiwan. This impasse makes it is unlikely for there to be bipartisan legislation on the issue of Hong Kong asylum seekers by the two parties anytime soon.

Taiwan’s third largest political party, the New Power Party (NPP), is the only party to have proposed any sort of legislation on behalf of the Hong Kong protesters. After Joshua Wong visited Taiwan in September, NPP party chair Hsu Yung-ming called on the DPP to join them in a push to establish a formal refugee law and to clarify Taiwan’s law pertaining to the status of Hong Kongers and Macanese. The DPP Party Secretary Chang Li-jun responded that there was no need to do so, because existing mechanisms were already sufficient. Since then, the NPP has dedicated a series of online posts explaining why Taiwan’s current mechanisms are insufficient and why new laws are needed. Taiwanese human rights NGOs active regarding China-related issues such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, among the cluster of NGOs which played a pivotal role in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, have also been among those to join the call for an asylum application process to be enacted in Taiwan. 

Why is Refugee Legislature Difficult to Pass? 

Like every political issue in Taiwan, refugee law and immigration more broadly is connected to the island’s relations with China. If Taiwan were to take in Hong Kong refugees, what would its obligations then become to Chinese who want to flee from China? Some worry that by introducing formal refugee legislation, a slippery slope may form that makes Taiwan too attractive to those who want to escape from China. Others worry that if Taiwan welcomes all of China’s refugees along with those from Hong Kong, it may only serve to further provoke China. Some have also raised security concerns regarding Chinese spies potentially mixing in with Hong Kong asylum seekers. The Tsai administration tried to propose a basic refugee law in 2016, but it failed to gain traction in parliament. 

Because Taiwan has never had asylum laws or institutional channels for asylum applicants, those seeking refuge on the island have always struggled. In May, the Taiwanese government floundered with how to cope with five asylum seekers in Taiwan, consisting of three Hong Kongers and two Chinese nationals. Two Chinese asylum seekers with attested records of political dissidence were marooned in Taoyuan International Airport for over 100 days by the Tsai administration. Rather than tire of this limbo and return to China, one of the asylum seekers attempted to kill himself in the airport, though he survived and was eventually allowed to enter Taiwan.

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Hong Kong asylum seekers themselves might not be opposed to their cases being handled on a case-by-case basis, seeing as few would be seeking Taiwanese citizenship. At the same time, as with previous cases of Chinese asylum seekers in Taiwan, the Taiwanese government may simply hope for Hong Kongers seeking asylum in Taiwan to eventually decide to return to Hong Kong on their own, as some already have. 

Security concerns regarding Chinese spies mixing in with Hong Kong asylum seekers do not seem valid. Issues with Chinese espionage are already widespread in Taiwan given that it is relatively easy for Chinese to visit Taiwan as part of tour groups, as students, or for work. 

The Tsai administration is no doubt wary of rocking the boat with China. China could potentially retaliate by detaining Taiwanese in China on trumped-up charges or even by detaining Taiwanese in Hong Kong. The latter seems increasingly a possibility after Taiwanese activist Lee Meng-chu was detained by the Chinese government after participating in protests in Hong Kong and crossing into Shenzhen, leading the Tsai administration to issue a travel warning for Taiwanese citizens traveling to Hong Kong and China. 

However, the Tsai administration’s response has been relatively low key in its responses to recent revelations that three Taiwanese are currently detained in China on charges of endangering state security. Apart from Lee Meng-chu and Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-che, who has been imprisoned by China for over two years, it recently emerged that Taiwanese pro-unification advocate Tsai Chin-shu has been held by China for over 420 days on similar charges regarding Chinese state security. 

After the Tsai Chin-shu case come to light, increasingly speculation is that dozens of missing Taiwanese over the past three years could potentially be imprisoned by the Chinese government. The Tsai administration’s subdued response could be due to fears that China will begin actively targeting Taiwanese in China and Hong Kong, instead of going after relatively obscure activists. This could likely influence the Tsai administration’s relative inaction on Hong Kong asylum seekers.

The Tsai administration is likely also afraid that pushing for legislation for Hong Kong asylum seekers would open it up to political attacks from the KMT. Article 18 of Taiwan’s Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong & Macao Affairs states that “Necessary assistance shall be provided to Hong Kong or Macau Residents whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons.” It is unclear whether this is legally sufficient to allow for provisions to allow for asylum by Hong Kongers or whether further amendments to the law would be necessary.

If Tsai attempts to change anything within the Republic of China constitution, even Article 18, it could become ammunition for the KMT to accuse her of pushing a pro-independence agenda. Because of how controversial constitutional changes can be for any DPP administration, it even further disincentivizes Tsai to push for major reform. With the upcoming presidential election, an attempt at reforming Article 18 could easily backfire and become a major talking point for the KMT.

What Does This Mean for 2020?

Though the DPP has control over both the Legislative Yuan and the presidency at present, it has still failed to push for any sort of formal legislature to help Hong Kongers. Although the DPP declined to work with the NPP, there is still a possibility the DPP could propose its own version of a Hong Kong assistance bill in the future if it maintains its position in parliament. Currently, Tsai is ahead in the polls ahead of KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu in the polls — though the possibility of a split vote leading to a KMT victory still looms, if third parties in either the pan-Green or pan-Blue camps decide to run candidates. 

The Legislative Yuan is a different story. Currently the KMT is likely to retake many of the seats it lost in 2016. If Taiwan’s powers are split between a DPP presidency and KMT controlled Legislative Yuan, the likelihood of formal legislation on Hong Kong asylum seekers decreases even further.

Although the NPP has been more proactive on pushing for asylum legislation, chances at cooperation between the NPP and DPP are quickly fading. The NPP, which formed out of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, currently has a rocky relationship with the DPP. Although they are both pro-Taiwan parties insofar as they both oppose the KMT and its pro-unification political agenda, the NPP does not see the DPP as sufficiently progressive. The NPP and DPP cooperated in the 2016 election, but today the NPP currently faces sharp internal splits on whether to take a more hawkish approach to DPP cooperation. So far they have decided not to directly work with the party, nor have they endorsed Tsai Ing-wen for re-election. Due to strained relations, cooperation over important legislature such as this is likely going to be slowed. 

Although the DPP is likely to continue to utilize the Hong Kong protests to further the party’s electoral goals in 2020, it is unlikely the party will actually push for legislative change on behalf of the cause. Fears of Chinese repercussions, anti-immigration sentiments, and internal party politics are all stopping Taiwan’s ability to be a true ally to Hong Kongers in their time of need. At the very least, Tsai’s re-election will allow for some Hong Kongers to continue to exist in a gray zone status of non-resident but non-refugee. 

If the KMT were to win the election, it would potentially be even more disastrous for Hong Kongers. KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu earlier this year made a trip to Hong Kong and met with Carrie Lam to sign trade deals and express interest in tightening relations with pro-CCP politicians and organizations. Although the KMT as an organization has expressed sympathy to Hong Kong’s protesters, it seems the party would actually be more interested in growing relations with the very people Hong Kongers are protesting. 

The lip service offered by the KMT seems to be a facade to appeal to moderate voters in Taiwan rather than an official party position. Their initial criticisms of the Hong Kong coincided with the party’s presidential primaries. Taking a critical approach to Hong Kong was a moderate position taken by the party likely to appease a wider range of voters. Weeks after the primary, however, the KMT went back to its normal pro-China agenda once the Hong Kong protests were no longer a fresh news story in the Taiwanese news cycle. 

Domestic support for the protests themselves is also inconsistent. Although the two mass marches were both successful, they are the only two major events to take place in Taiwan this summer. Although smaller events have been put on by Hong Kong student associations in Taiwan, only a couple hundred at most have attended. September’s impressive turnout demonstrates a rising solidarity with Hong Kong in Taiwan, but protesters are yet to demand any institutional change from Taiwan’s parties. 

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The fate of Hong Kong asylum seekers is held hostage by Taiwanese elections. It seems unlikely that the issue will see any sort of redress until after elections at the very least, if the issue is taken up at all. Both parties, especially the DPP, are likely to evoke the protests to rally voters to the ballot box this coming January. DPP politicians have been quick to condemn police brutality and the Hong Kong government’s refusal to engage with the Hong Kong protesters. Their actions, however, are not any louder than their words. On the one hand, it may seem pragmatic for the DPP to wait until after January’s election before pursuing major reform. On the other hand, if the DPP waits and loses its position of power in the Legislative Yuan, which it is likely to, then the odds of them being able to successfully change any legal rules or create new institutional channels will only diminish after the election. 

Lev Nachman is a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California Irvine.

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan founded in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. He has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018.