FEATURE: Hong Kongers reflect on Taiwan, an imperfect exile

For Lam Wing-kei (林榮基), a Hong Kong bookseller who was detained by police in China for five months for selling sensitive books about the Chinese Communist Party, coming to Taiwan was a logical step.

A nation just 640 km from Hong Kong, Taiwan is close not only geographically, but also linguistically and culturally. It offers the freedoms that many Hong Kongers had become accustomed to before Britain returned the territory to China.

Lam reopened his bookstore in Taipei. His move in 2019 presaged a wave of emigration from Hong Kong, after tensions between the territory’s Western-style liberal values ​​and China’s authoritarian political system culminated in explosive pro-democracy protests that year.

Photo: Johnson Lai, AP

“It’s not that Hong Kong doesn’t have democracy, there isn’t even freedom,” Lam said in an interview. “When the British ruled Hong Kong, they didn’t give us real democracy or the power to vote, but the British gave Hong Kong people a very large space of freedom.”

Hong Kong and Chinese leaders are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the territory’s return to China this week.

In 1997, some people were ready to give China a chance. China had promised to rule the territory under “one country, two systems” for 50 years, meaning Hong Kong would retain its own legal and political system, including freedom of speech.

Photo: Johnson Lai, AP

However, following the 2019 protests, China imposed a national security law that left rights defenders and others to live in fear of being arrested for speaking out.

Hong Kong still looks the same. The malls are open and the skyscrapers are shining.

However, artist Kacey Wong (黃國才), who moved to Taiwan last year, said he constantly worries about his own arrest or those of his friends, some of whom are now in jail.

“From the outside it’s still beautiful – the sunset seen from the harbor – but it’s an illusion that makes you think you’re still free,” he said. “In reality, you are not. The government secretly watches and follows you.

Although Wong feels safe in Taiwan, life in exile is not easy.

Despite its similarities to Hong Kong, Wong found her new home to be a foreign place. He doesn’t speak Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) and the laid-back nation stands in stark contrast to the fast-paced financial capital that was Hong Kong.

The first six months were difficult, Wong said, adding that traveling as a tourist in Taiwan is completely different from living there in self-imposed exile.

“I didn’t establish a relationship with the place, with the streets, with the people, with the language, with the shop downstairs,” he says.

Other exiles less prominent than Wong or Lam have also had to navigate a system that has not established laws or mechanisms for refugees and asylum seekers, and which has not always been welcoming.

This issue is further complicated by Taiwan’s growing distrust of the security risks posed by China and Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong.

For example, some Hong Kongers, such as public school teachers and doctors, have been denied permanent residency in Taiwan because they work for the Hong Kong government, said Sky Fung, general secretary of the Hong Kong Outlanders. , a group that defends Hong Kongers in Taiwan.

Others struggle with the stricter requirements and slow processing times for investment visas.

In the past year or so, some have chosen to leave Taiwan, citing a clearer route to immigration to the UK or Canada, despite the greater language and cultural divide.

Wong said Taiwan had missed a golden opportunity to retain Hong Kong talent.

“The policies and actions, and what the government is doing…are not proactive enough and have caused uncertainty for these people – that’s why they are leaving,” he said.

The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) defended its case, saying it had discovered that some Hong Kong migrants had hired immigration companies that had adopted illegal methods, such as withholding investments and hiring locals they had promised on paper.

“We in Taiwan also have national security needs,” MAC Vice Minister Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正) said on a TV show last week. “Of course, we also want to help Hong Kong. We have always supported Hong Kong people in supporting freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”

According to the National Immigration Agency, about 11,000 Hong Kongers received residence permits in Taiwan last year, and 1,600 were able to obtain permanent residency.

Last year, the UK granted 97,000 applications to Hong Kong holders of British National Overseas passports in response to China’s crackdown.

Imperfect as it is, Taiwan gives rights defenders a chance to continue carrying out their work, even if the direct actions of the past are no longer possible.

Lam is one of five Hong Kong booksellers whose seizure by Chinese security agents in 2016 sparked global concern.

He often lends his presence to anti-China protests, most recently attending a June 4 memorial in Taipei to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Similar protests in Hong Kong and Macao, until recently the only places in China allowed to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, are no longer permitted.

“As a Hong Konger, I have not stopped my resistance. I always continued to do what I had to do in Taiwan and participated in my events. I didn’t give up fighting,” Lam said.

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