Throughout 2021, China’s unrelenting crackdown on liberty in Hong Kong continued to widen, with the mass arrests of democracy activists and the shuttering of the last few remaining independent media outlets in the Special Administrative Region (SAR). Under the draconian National Security Law (香港國家安全法) passed by China’s National People’s Congress (全國人民代表大會) in June 2020, the naked suppression of people’s civil rights was masked by authorities holding so-called “patriots-only” elections in December 2021 despite all pro-democracy candidates having effectively been barred from running. While the December election had the lowest turnout of voters in the SAR’s history, a record number of Hong Kong persons have been voting with their feet instead and emigrating to other countries, including Taiwan.
Wave of Hong Kong Emigrants to Taiwan Continues 2020 Trend in 2021
The number of Hong Kong people applying to establish residency or permanent residency has continued its notable increase from 2020 in 2021. Statistics from the Immigration Department of Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior show that from January to November 2021, there were 9,772 Hong Kong persons granted residence permits (居留許可), an increase of 271 from 9,501 over the same period last year. Similarly, 1,572 Hong Kong persons were granted permanent resident permits (定居許可), an increase of 175 persons from 1,397 last year. Both numbers break the all-time record. The January-November 2021 number represents a 67 percent increase from the 2019 full year number. (Notably, these figures do not reveal the total of number of applicants received.)
The emigration figures show a continuation of the significant increase of migrants from Hong Kong to Taiwan starting a year earlier. In 2020, Taiwan issued 10,813 resident permits to Hong Kong residents (for work, study, etc.) and 1,576 permanent residency permits. The 2020 count significantly exceeded the 5,858 residency permits that Taiwan issued in 2019—when the extradition law was first introduced—as well as the 4,148 issued in 2018 and 4,057 issued in 2016.
Hong Kong Students in Taiwan
In addition to the significant number of visitors from Hong Kong to Taiwan, which averaged well above 1 million on a yearly basis from 2013-2015, the significant increase in the number of emigrants since the beginning of anti-extradition law protests—while remarkable—does not capture the full extent of people-to-people flow between Hong Kong and Taiwan. According to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會)—a cabinet agency in charge of implementing the government’s cross-Strait, Hong Kong, and Macau policies—“[t]here were 10,960 Hong Kong and Macao students enrolled in Taiwan universities in 2020; Hong Kong students accounted for 7,807 of the total, representing the largest share of overseas Chinese, Hong Kong, and Macao students studying in Taiwan. […] Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and border control measures, about 105,100 Taiwanese people traveled to Hong Kong and approximately 162,000 Hong Kong residents traveled to Taiwan in 2020.” This figure stands in stark contrast to the shrinking number of mainland Chinese students coming to Taiwan. Short-term and degree-seeking students from China dropped 76 percent to 6,036 in 2020 from 25,049 in 2019.
National Security Concerns
Public support in Taiwan for Hong Kong’s political struggle has been growing for several years, which reflects growing concern about its implications for Taiwan, as well as solidarity with the Hong Kong protestors. Yet these concerns are being checked by increased caution about the potential national security risks posed by unvetted migrants. Indeed, due to potential risks to “national security,” Taiwan has reportedly tightened its policy for vetting Hong Kong residents attempting to move to Taiwan. For instance, some people born in China, or who have worked for Chinese-state owned companies or the Hong Kong government, have been subjected to tighter scrutiny.
Despite enhanced scrutiny, the top leadership in Taiwan continues to express support for Hong Kong’s plight. Underscoring this high-level support, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) spoke again on the crisis in Hong Kong to the Taiwanese people in her 2022 New Year’s Address:
The pursuit of democracy and freedom is not a crime, and Taiwan’s position in support of Hong Kong will not change. Aside from showing our concern, we will cherish our own hard-earned freedom and democracy even more deeply. We will make Taiwan even better. We will show the world that democratic Taiwan has the courage to step out from the shadow of authoritarian China, and that we will not bow to pressure.
Even though support for Hong Kong may be rising, the Taiwanese public at large remains unsure at best about what to do about Hong Kong. A recent survey of Taiwanese citizens’ views revealed somewhat ambivalent attitudes about Hong Kong immigration. According to a survey conducted in Taiwan in May 2021 by researchers Lev Nachman, Shelley Rigger, and others, “about 36 percent of Taiwanese support Hong Kongers immigrating to Taiwan while only 23 percent oppose it. Still, the largest group—42 percent—are ambivalent.”
This ambivalence may also be reflected in the rejection rate of Hong Kong applicants immigrating to Taiwan. Although the Mainland Affairs Council noted that the percentage of Hong Kong people who were rejected was “extremely low,” this could be attributed to the bar being set prohibitively high, thereby deterring some migrants from even applying. In addition to “national security concerns,” the MAC stated that the main reason for the rejection was that the parties did not provide supplementary information as required, or that there was a situation of “fake investment and immigration.”
As indicated in its “Analysis Report: 24 Years After Hong Kong’s Handover,” which the MAC published in September 2021:
Relevant government agencies are now reviewing certain provisions of the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macao to effectively prevent the CCP from infiltrating Taiwan through capital or personnel exchanges coming from Hong Kong and Macao. Article 60 of the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macao, i.e. a clausula rebus sic stantibus (a legal doctrine which allows laws to become inapplicable as a result of a fundamental change of circumstances), has the nature of an emergency order. It expressly stipulates that application of this provision would require situations “endangering the security of the Taiwan Area.”
The Taiwan government’s concerns about potential national security risks have been reinforced by a number of high-profile espionage cases and alleged spies in recent years, as well as a long history of Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) infiltration into Taiwan through Hong Kong and mainland agents. One recent prominent example was the 2019 case of self-professed Chinese spy Wang Liqiang (王立強), who alleged that the Chinese military’s General Staff Department (中國人民解放軍總參謀部) had used two Hong Kong-listed companies to control media in the city and recruit agents among the territory’s students. The indictments of Xiang Xin (向心) and Xie Xizhang (謝錫璋), who were allegedly involved in money laundering and setting up a spy-ring while masquerading as businessmen from Hong Kong, are two other cases that underscore the national security risks of those may be seeking to exploit an open-door attitude in Taipei toward Hong Kongers.
The ongoing exodus from Hong Kong to Taiwan is happening against the backdrop of some indications that Hong Kong is on the precipice of another wave of emigration—similar if not exceeding past displacements in the 1960s. Indeed, Hong Kong saw a net outflow of 89,200 residents year over year in June 2021. As COVID restrictions ease, continued—if not increased—migration is to be expected in 2022 and beyond.
Since there are no asylum laws currently on the books in Taiwan that would consider those seeking refugee status, this makes Taipei an easy target for criticism that it is not doing enough to assist those seeking political asylum from Hong Kong. Such a law, advocates claim, should spell out conditions for letting Hong Kong people stay for political reasons. There are at least 470 Hongkongers currently seeking asylum abroad according to data gathered between 2019 to May 2021.
In response, some local lawmakers in Taiwan argue that the country’s existing legal mechanisms are sufficient and that promulgating an asylum law would pose additional national security risks, as it could potentially also apply for persons claiming to be refugees from the PRC. For its part, the Taiwan government appears to be trying to thread the needle of trying to help Hong Kongers while also ensuring its national security. Taiwan’s administrative procedures for processing residency requests by persons from Hong Kong are handled in accordance with the “Regulations Governing Permits for Hong Kong and Macao Residents Entering the Taiwan Area and Setting up Residence or Registered Permanent Residence in ROC” (香港澳門居民進入台灣地區及居留定居許可辦法). The new “Law on the Acquisition and Employment of Foreign Professionals” (外國專業人才延攬及僱用法), which also applies to Hong Kong students studying in Taiwan, would extend from 3 years to 5 years the duration of those students’ eligibility to remain in Taiwan if they are employed.
In a speech delivered at a virtual event organized by Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan in December 2021, Hong Kong activist-turned-politician Nathan Law (羅冠聰) warned, “Taiwan is the next target of the CCP’s attack on the free world.” Law—who was granted political asylum by the United Kingdom—also appealed to the Taiwan government to conscientiously address the plight of Hong Kong protesters stranded in Taiwan. He called on the Taiwan government to amend its laws so that Hong Kong people can live, work, and even naturalize, allowing those people to live and contribute to Taiwan’s society. Ultimately, these migrants could use their own experiences to help maintain Taiwan’s democratic defense mechanisms, and work to defend democracy and freedom internationally, according to Law.
The main point: The number of Hong Kong people applying to establish residency or permanent residency in Taiwan has continued its notable increase from 2020 in 2021. Despite public support within Taiwan for Hong Kong, these concerns are being checked by increased caution by the government about the potential national security risks posed by unvetted migrants.