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Hong Kong protests

Taiwan braces for 'surge of refugees' from Hong Kong

But political and legal concerns force Tsai administration to move cautiously

TAIPEI -- On a Tuesday night in an unmarked bookstore hidden away on the 10th floor of an office building in Taipei's bustling Zhongshan district, a handful of shoppers leaf through books while a phone in the windowsill plays mellow jazz.

This is not just any bookshop, it is Causeway Bay Bookstore, which has found a new lease of life in Taiwan after being shut down in Hong Kong. Its owner, Lam Wing-kee, is the highest profile political refugee to leave Hong Kong for Taiwan. At a 2016 news conference, he shocked Hong Kong when he revealed that eight months earlier he had been spirited to the mainland by Chinese security agents for interrogation. His crime? Selling books that were banned on the other side of the border.

The soft-spoken Hong Kong native said business has been good since he opened in late April. He was even visited at the end of May by Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, who left a message of support on a sticky-note stuck to a bookshelf.

"A free Taiwan supports freedom for Hong Kong," the handwritten note reads.

Lam, who fled to Taipei in April last year, told the Nikkei Asian Review that more people will follow him to Taiwan after the recent passage by Beijing of a national security law that many observers say sounds the death knell of the former British colony's semi-autonomy.

"A surge of refugees is coming," he said, adding that he was confident that Tsai's government would find a way to accommodate them. He may be right about the surge, but how prepared Taiwan is to handle the new arrivals is an open question -- one that will likely be shaped by domestic and cross-strait politics.

Taiwan's National Immigration Agency announced in May that 5,858 Hong Kongers obtained residence permits last year, an increase of 40% from 2018. Residence permits are often tied to employment, investment or school enrollment, however, and are not necessarily long term.

China's crackdown on Hong Kong has raised alarm in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese consider Hong Kong a front line against an expansionist China. If Hong Kong is cowed, the thinking goes, the chance of an emboldened Beijing attempting to invade democratic Taiwan goes up.

There is broad sympathy and support for Hong Kong in Taiwan. A new survey by Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology found that 73% of respondents do not consider China's government to be "a friend of Taiwan," compared with 58% in 2012.

More than 67% of respondents supported the Hong Kong protest movement that began last year with the tabling of an extradition bill that would enable Chinese authorities to forcibly extradite Hong Kong residents accused of acts that are illegal on the mainland. The bill, which was later withdrawn, spurred Lam's flight to Taiwan.

Lam is not the only resident of Hong Kong to seek shelter in Taiwan, but he is one of the more fortunate. An unknown number of student protesters and other people seeking long-term refuge are in Taiwan, and the lack of an asylum law means uncertainty for many. Lam secured a visa for himself by starting a company that owns the Taipei reincarnation of Causeway Bay Books. An online crowdfunding campaign raised $100,000 in its first day. Ninety percent of that was donations from Taiwanese," he said.

For those who can't conjure up that kind of investment money, the path to long-term residence in Taiwan is less clear.

Protesters at Taipei's main train station hold banners in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators at a rally on May 23.   © Reuters

Taiwan's handling of Hong Kong asylum-seekers is guided by Article 18 of the Act Regarding Hong Kong and Macao Affairs, which states that "necessary assistance shall be provided to Hong Kong and Macao residents whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons."

The current practice under Article 18 is for the Taiwan government's executive branch to determine whether to grant "necessary assistance" to individuals, said Chen Yu-Jie a global academic fellow at Hong Kong University's law school. Chen described Article 18 as "obviously inadequate."

"The process is full of uncertainties and usually unknown to the public," Chen said. "Article 18 does not offer specifics as to how to process asylum applications, what the standards of asylum should be, how long this process should take, what resources asylum-seekers should receive and where funding should come from."

Revising Article 18 or passing a more sweeping refugee law applicable to asylum-seekers from Hong Kong and elsewhere are the two most obvious ways of addressing current issues, Chen said, with the former likely to be the quickest solution.

Despite rare consensus among all five parties represented in the Legislative Yuan that Taiwan should support Hong Kongers, the Tsai administration is taking a cautious approach. On May 27, Tsai announced the formation of a task force to address rights, accommodation and care for Hong Kongers seeking asylum in Taiwan, but details have yet to be made public.

"We're currently coordinating interdepartmental meetings via the Executive Yuan and will soon put forward a concrete action plan," presidential office spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka told the Nikkei Asian Review. The government will explain the plan, which will facilitate the residence and resettlement of Hong Kongers in Taiwan "as soon as possible," she said.

A number of domestic political considerations could prevent Tsai's government from taking bold measures to welcome Hong Kong residents, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Immigration has always been a sensitive issue in Taiwan," Glaser said. "Perhaps Tsai is worried about starting off her second term by tackling a very challenging issue that could lead to a loss of popular support." Concerns that Hong Kongers could compete with Taiwanese for jobs may also be a concern, she said.

Tsai is currently riding high in opinion polls, following her landslide reelection in January and her government's successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

As with any issue in Taiwan, China is also a factor. While Taiwan's biggest security partner, the U.S., is roiled by protests against police brutality, Washington may be less capable of policing its strategic interests in East Asia. This could provide a window of opportunity for Beijing to ramp up its threatening posture toward Taipei.

"Beijing opposes any Taiwan interference in Hong Kong and would condemn efforts by Taiwan to formalize the asylum process for political refugees from Hong Kong," Glaser said. "It would confirm their view that Tsai's support for Hong Kong last year was not simply aimed at winning votes for reelection -- the Chinese increasingly view Taiwan as working jointly with the United States to pressure and weaken China."

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