TAIPEI, Taiwan (TSWT) — For Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller who was detained by police in China for five months for selling sensitive Communist Party books, coming to Taiwan was a logical step.
An island just 640 kilometers (400 miles) from Hong Kong, Taiwan is close not only geographically but also linguistically and culturally. It offered the freedoms that many Hong Kongers were used to and saw disappearing in their hometown.
Lam’s move to Taiwan in 2019, where he reopened his bookstore in the capital Taipei, presaged a wave of emigration from Hong Kong as the former British colony fell under the tighter grip of the Chinese central government and his long-ruling communist party.
“It’s not that Hong Kong doesn’t have democracy, there isn’t even freedom,” Lam said in a recent 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 will mark the 25th anniversary of his return to China next week. At the time, some people were willing to give China a chance. China had promised to rule the city under “one country, two systems” for 50 years. This meant that Hong Kong would retain its own legal and political system and freedom of speech which does not exist in mainland China.
But in the decades since, growing tension between the city’s Western-style liberal values and mainland China’s authoritarian political system culminated in explosive pro-democracy protests in 2019. In the aftermath, China has imposed a national security law that left activists and others living in fear of being arrested for speaking out.
Hong Kong still looked the same. The malls were open, the skyscrapers were shining. But well-known entertainer Kacey Wong, who moved to Taiwan last year, said he constantly worried about his own arrest or those of his friends, some of whom are now in jail.
“From the outside it’s still just as beautiful, the sunset over the harbour. 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 her similarities to Hong Kong, Wong has found her new home a foreign place. He does not speak Taiwanese, a widely spoken Fujian dialect. And the laid-back island is a stark contrast to the fast-paced financial capital that was Hong Kong.
The first six months were difficult, Wong said, noting that traveling as a tourist to Taiwan is completely different from living on the island 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 mistrust of the security risks posed by China, which claims the island as its renegade province, and Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong.
For example, some people such as teachers and doctors in public schools have been denied permanent residency in Taiwan because they worked for the Hong Kong government, said Sky Fung, general secretary of Hong Kong Outlanders, a group that defends Hongkongers in Taiwan. . Others struggle with the stricter requirements and slow processing of investment visas.
In the past year or so, some have chosen to leave Taiwan, citing a clearer path to immigration to the UK and 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, which is why they are leaving,” he said.
The island’s Mainland Affairs Council defended its record, saying it had discovered that some Hong Kong migrants had hired immigration companies that had adopted illegal methods, such as withholding investments and luring them. hiring locals they had promised on paper.
“We in Taiwan also have national security needs,” Chiu Chui-cheng, vice minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, said on a TV broadcast last week. “Of course we also want to help Hong Kong, we have always supported Hong Kong people in their support for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
Some 11,000 Hong Kongers were granted residency permits in Taiwan last year, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency, and 1,600 were able to obtain permanent residency. Last year, the UK granted 97,000 applications to British National Overseas passport holders in Hong Kong in response to China’s crackdown.
Imperfect as it is, Taiwan gives activists a chance to continue carrying out their work, even if the direct actions of the past were no longer possible.
Lam was one of five Hong Kong booksellers whose seizure by Chinese security officials in 2016 sparked global concern.
He often lends his presence to protests against China, most recently attending a June 4 memorial in Taipei to mark the anniversary of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. similar to Hong Kong and Macao, until recently the only places in China allowed to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre, are no longer allowed.
“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.