• Taiwan said that almost 6,000 people from Hong Kong received residence permits last year
  • Hong Kong is viewed by Taiwan as a bulwark against China
  • Beijing opposes any Taiwan interference in Hong Kong

Taiwan is preparing for a ‘surge of refugees’ from Hong Kong who seek to escape a draconian new security law to be imposed by China.

Lam Wing-kee, a bookstore owner who fled Hong Kong as a political refugee last April, told Nikkei Asian Review that he thinks more people from Hong Kong will try to relocate to Taiwan.

"A surge of refugees is coming," he said.

Reportedly, Taiwan has received a spike in requests from Hong Kongers seeking to move there since China announced its security law.

While the Taiwanese government of President Tsai Ing-wen has condemned China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, it is unclear if Taiwan – a nation of 24 million located about 500 miles across the water from Hong Kong – will be able to accommodate a sudden increase of new arrivals.

Taiwan's National Immigration Agency said that almost 6,000 people from Hong Kong received residence permits last year, a 40% jump from 2018. However, residence permits, which are typically linked to employment, investment or school enrollment, do not necessarily allow for long-term stays. Moreover, the absence of an asylum law in Taiwan further confuses the matter.

Nonetheless, Hong Kong is viewed by Taiwan as a bulwark against China – if China were to seize total control of Hong Kong, that would likely make Taiwan more vulnerable to invasion by the Chinese.

“Taiwanese people are really worried about the Hong Kong situation,” said Kirk Yang, chairman and CEO of Kirkland Capital, a private equity firm. “Because if the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ doesn’t work in Hong Kong, it will be difficult for the Taiwanese to accept that also.”

Taiwanese law includes a passage in Article 18 of the Act Regarding Hong Kong and Macao Affairs, which states "necessary assistance shall be provided to Hong Kong and Macao residents whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons."

But Chen Yu-Jie a global academic fellow at Hong Kong University's law school, said Article 18 is vague and 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."

Chen suggests that either Article 18 should be revised of the Taipei government should pass a comprehensive new law applicable to asylum-seekers from Hong Kong.

Last week, President Tsai formed a task force to address the rights, accommodation and care for people from Hong Kong seeking asylum in Taiwan – whom she referred to as “shelter seekers” instead of “asylum seekers.”

But Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, thinks it will not be easy for Taiwan to accept Hong Kong residents.

"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."

Tsai is very popular now since her reelection in January due largely to the government's successful management of the coronavirus pandemic.

But China looms over everything in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

"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."

The South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kongers seeking to move to Taiwan will face a strict screening process.

Chen Ming-tong, head of Taiwan’s policymaking body, the Mainland Affairs Council, said only those who meet the requirements under Article 18 will be eligible to apply for residence. Such applications would be closely examined by the authorities from Taiwan’s security, interior, intelligence and justice departments.

Chen suggested that not all applicants will be allowed to settle in Taiwan.

Chen’s comments appear to somewhat contradict President Tsai who said her government will devise a formal plan to accept Hong Kong immigrants.

“If the situation in Hong Kong worsens, and its autonomy and human rights are further suppressed, we will resolutely voice our concerns… We will continue to support Hong Kongers’ determination to strive for democracy and freedom which are paramount to its peace and stability,” Tsai wrote.

The United Kingdom has also offered help to Hong Kong citizens who hold the British National (Overseas), or BNO, passport, a document that was given to Hong Kong citizens just before the city was handed over to China in 1997.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the U.K. government may increase visa rights for more than 300,000 BNO passport-holders.

BNO passport holders are not British citizens, but they have the right to stay in the U.K. for six months.

On Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson went a step further by declaring he was prepared to offer 3 million Hong Kong citizens the right to live and work in the U.K. However, it’s unclear if Britain’s government ministers would really allow all 3 million to settle in Britain on a temporary visa.

Raab himself seemed to suggest that entry into the U.K. would be limited, while the Prime Minister seemed more welcoming of an influx from Hong Kong.

Johnson wrote in The Times of London: “Britain would have no choice but to uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong… If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change its immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the U.K. for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights including the right to work which would place them on the route to citizenship.”