Updated: Jul 19, 2020
While many pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong (HK) say "They will never forget" or "They will never forgive the Police" or "Never give up", some people have chosen to flee the city.
How would you feel about going into exile?
Should more Hong Kong people become refugees?
HK activists have become increasingly defiant in recent years amid fears of creeping interference from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) despite a guarantee of a high degree of autonomy made in the Joint Declaration.
Scores of activists have been jailed on various charges including contempt of court and public nuisance. Critics are saying that HK authorities are politically persecuting freedom fighters by prosecuting them to stifle freedom of expression and assembly.
HK authorities deny persecuting activists.
In April, 2019, however, a HK court jailed four leaders of the 2014 “Occupy” pro-democracy civil disobedience movement. Also, three other high-profile activists were arrested in August, 2019 during a wave of HKPF arrests. Young activist Joshua Wong has been jailed a couple of times for his active defence of democracy. Wong, is on record for shouting encouragement to his supporters before prison officers led him away after one sentencing hearing, describing the jail term he faced as “a piece of cake”, compared with that of other activists.
In December, 2019 Police froze bank accounts in the name of Spark Alliance, a charity group set up after a successful crowdfunding campaign raised HK$80 million in support of arrested and jailed demonstrators.
Then, in February, 2020, media tycoon Jimmy Lai and two other pro-democracy activists in HK were arrested on charges of “unlawful assembly” for their participation in largely peaceful mass protests on 31 August, 2019.
Where would you go to escape persecution?
In May, 2019 it was announced through media, that Germany had granted refugee status to two HK activists facing rioting charges at home in HK, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. Ray Wong, 25, and Alan Li, 27, both told Reuters by telephone that they had been granted refugee asylum status in Germany in May 2018.
“We have become the first two political refugees [from HK] in Europe,” said Li.
Wong and Li, former members of Hong Kong Indigenous, a group advocating HK’s independence from China, were charged for rioting linked to a protest in Mongkok that turned violent in February 2016. The pair later skipped bail and fled to Germany in 2017 via Taiwan.
“Our success in gaining political refugee status reflects [that] the situation in HK is worsening in the eyes of the international community. HK has changed completely from the past,” Li said.
Both Wong and Li speaking from Germany said they decided to break their silence because they were alarmed at a proposed extradition law intended to extend Beijing’s control over the financial hub.
“They would make use of the extradition law to suppress the democratic movement (and) dissidents,” said Wong. Wong said freedoms in HK had been destroyed by Beijing and the HK government since the city was handed back from British rule under a “one country, two systems” deal meant to ensure freedoms not allowed in mainland China including an independent judiciary.
The pair lived in three refugee camps in Germany for more than 10 months until August last year (2018). They said they shared a room with up to 10 people at times, including ethnic Uighur and Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution in China.
Living quietly in Taiwan are several dozen young HK protesters who, one night in July, 2019 vandalised HK's Legislative Council facility (LegCo) during ongoing anti-government protests. Their arrival in Taiwan has revived a fierce debate on the small, self-ruled island over whether it can — or should — accept Chinese citizens seeking safety.
Taiwan's proximity to mainland China has long made it a desired safe haven for dissidents and other Chinese looking for a better life. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were nearly a dozen cases of desperate mainland Chinese citizens hijacking commercial jets and crash-landing them in Taiwan, seeking asylum. Most were imprisoned in Taiwan or sent back to mainland China.
Now, as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control grows over HK, Taiwan is again becoming a destination for political refugees from across greater China — especially from HK. Taiwan is treading carefully. It is wary of provoking Beijing's ire, and fears a more permissive refugee policy will open Taiwan's doors to mainland Chinese spies and conspirators. "China will take advantage of that kind of freedom, liberty and democracy," said Luo Chi-cheng, a lawmaker with Taiwan's majority Democratic Progressive Party. "A democracy like Taiwan has different concerns, sitting next to authoritarian China, than other ordinary democracies."
Those who do flee to Taiwan often face difficulties. Taiwan has no formal refugee law, so political refugees are unable to work legally. Many of the HK protesters, who are staying in Taiwan on monthly tourist visas, are so young they have not even graduated from high school — making them ineligible for longer-term student visas. An informal network of churches and nonprofit organisations supports them financially, and a volunteer group of Taiwanese lawyers has pledged free legal consultation.
YOUNG AND UNPREPARED
"They were not prepared at all. They are so young," said Lam Wing Kee, one of five booksellers detained in HK and spirited into mainland China by Chinese security officers in 2015. All were accused of selling banned political books. Lam is the only bookseller who went public with allegations that he had been abducted, and he refused to be taken back to mainland China.
Lam is at the heart of HK's continuing mass anti-government protests. In April, 2019 he left HK for Taiwan, believing a proposed HK law might send him back to mainland China. The bill set off the protests that have roiled the SAR, causing HK leader Carrie Lam to shelve the legislation indefinitely. Even so, Lam is not returning to HK anytime soon.
"Hong Kong has no rule of law anymore. If I were to return, I need to guarantee I also have the freedom to leave. But I cannot guarantee my personal safety there anymore," he told NPR in an interview in Taipei, Taiwan's capital. He has become a mentor to the newest and youngest wave of HK arrivals, many of whom declined NPR's interview requests.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen and Foreign Minister Joseph Wu have said they support allowing the HK protesters to stay.
"When we see a very touching story of 1 million people, 2 million people coming out to fight for their freedom and democracy, of course our hearts are with them," Wu told NPR. "If [the protesters] want to stay in Taiwan for a longer period of time, we do have a legal basis for that," he says, citing Taiwan's regulations regarding HK and Macau. Those regulations contain a vague provision that allows Taiwan to provide "necessary assistance" to residents of HK or Macau "whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons." But critics say the law does not provide implementation details and is not sufficient in providing a pathway toward legal residency for asylum seekers.
However, efforts to pass a refugee policy that welcomes all political refugees, including mainland Chinese citizens, remain unpopular. When refugee laws have been proposed, they are voted down. Opposition to such a policy is rooted in discrimination against mainland Chinese, who are often seen in Taiwan as ill-mannered opportunists.
"Mainland Chinese immigrants are even lazier than [Taiwanese] locals. They come [to Taiwan], and they are useless," said Guan Renjian, a newspaper commentator who has written strongly against accepting political refugees. Guan also fears CCP spies could overwhelm Taiwanese immigration authorities.
"They only have to send 1 million more mainland Chinese over and our democratic values would be disrupted," Guan said. "We need to have strict screening methods for immigrants and especially political refugees."
Whether to accept mainland Chinese citizens is overshadowed by historical tensions between Taiwan's indigenous residents and those who descend from the 2 million or so Chinese Nationalist soldiers and their supporters who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the ruling CCP.
Taiwan's Nationalist party, or Kuomintang, confiscated indigenous assets and seized political power in Taiwan, ruling the island under dictatorial martial law until 1987.
"A refugee law would be reminiscent of the events in 1949. Many people will say that when Taiwan received all the Nationalists that year, those political refugees mismanaged Taiwan for a long time," said Keng-Wei Chang, a Taiwanese financial entrepreneur who wrote a Facebook post criticizing a young mainland Chinese student, Li Jiabao, currently seeking asylum in Taiwan. The post was shared thousands of times.
This sort of antipathy has not stopped some mainland Chinese from seeking safe haven in Taiwan. In January, 2019 two Chinese dissidents arrived without an entry permit and were stranded in Taipei's international airport for four months before being allowed to enter on "humanitarian visas" after an outcry from local activists.
In July, 2019 a family of six from China's Sichuan province, who had arrived in Taiwan as tourists and overstayed their visas, decided not to return to mainland China, alleging they are part of a persecuted Christian congregation, the Early Rain Covenant Church.
Gong Yulian, who served two years of hard labor in China beginning 1994 for supporting mainland China's 1989 democracy movement, has been living in Taiwan since 2015.
"After being released, I was unable to stand the day-to-day monitoring, harassment, intimidation and being invited to 'drink tea' with the CCP" said Gong, using a euphemism for being contacted by state security. He arrived in Taiwan while transiting through Taipei on a flight to Japan, but has been told by Taiwanese authorities he does not qualify for Taiwanese residency without a refugee law in place.
"IT'S NOT THE MOMENT"
Lawmakers from Taiwan's activist New Power Party have repeatedly and unsuccessfully proposed a refugee law — in 2016, 2017, and most recently, in July, 2019. But as it was then election season in Taiwan— voters went to the polls in January 2020— any talk of a refugee policy was deemed too sensitive. Freddy Lim, a death-metal rocker who helped found the party and was running in 2020 as an independent, dropped his commitment to supporting such a law.
"I think it's not the moment, not the right moment, to encourage [HK protesters] to go into exile," he tells NPR, because passing a refugee law "will be like practically saying that their movement is a failure and ask them to abandon HK."
The issue is complicated by a legal twist as well. Under the complex political relationship between mainland China and Taiwan — China treats Taiwan as if it is part of China — mainland Chinese citizens are technically citizens of Taiwan, though they lack the rights of Taiwan's residents, such as the right to work and to vote. To accept mainland Chinese formally as refugees would mean disrupting the status quo and calling China and Taiwan two separate countries, a conceptual stance that underpins Taiwan's existence, but one that Beijing and Washington do not agree with.
"The United States and China say if you dare change any of status quo, then it will be seen as a provocation," said Wuer Kaixi, who was a student leader in China's 1989 Tiananmen labor and pro-democracy movement. Wuer has called Taiwan home for more than two decades. Like many activists, he sees the prospect of a refugee law for HK protesters and mainland Chinese dissidents as a sign of pan-Asian, democratic solidarity.
"Today's HK, tomorrow's Taiwan," echoes Fan Yun, one of the island's most respected democracy activists and a sociology professor at National Taipei University. She was also one of the few candidates running for a Taiwan legislative seat who supports a more concrete refugee law: "We should fight to protect democracy in Taiwan and to support HK and their people's fight for their democracy." Doing so, she says, "will help Taiwan."
Is BNO a cause for hope?
The British National Overseas passport [BN(O)] was a type of British passport first issued in 1987, 10 years before the return of sovereignty over HK from Britain to China. The document replaced the British Dependent Territories citizens passport. BNO passports allow a holder to visit the UK for 6 months, but they do not come with an automatic right to live or work in the United Kingdom. You could register for a BN(O) passport right up until June 30, 1997. After the handover on July 1, 1997, permanent HK residents who were also Chinese nationals became eligible for the HK Special Administrative Region passport. In HK today many people still hold their BNO passport and it has become a source of hope for some wishing to find safe haven away from the CCP outside of the SAR.
Unfortunately though, a BN(O) passport bearer has even less rights in the UK than EU nationals under current terms, as they cannot work or study without obtaining a visa like other foreign nationals. The fact that BN(O)s have such limited rights shows a real problem now when many HKers are fearing their safety in their own homes.
In July, 2018 it was revealed that Britain had exerted pressure on Portugal in 1985 not to grant full citizenship to Macau residents. It was an attempt to dissuade HK people from demanding the same rights for themselves as BN(O) holders. This prompted concern groups to describe those efforts as “shameful”. Such a move has definitely not helped the UK's popularity in HK.
Craig Choy Ki of the Progressive Lawyers Group in HK said: “The BN(O) is the last nail in the coffin to deny full citizenship of the United Kingdom to HKers, which was consistent with the UK’s policy towards its former colonies.
In 2020, however, it is still hoped that the UK might do more to defend HKers’ universal rights and provide them with a safe sanctuary as they continue to fight for a democratic future. It is not without difficulty. Firstly lawmakers in Britain have been distracted for months with the very drawn-out Brexit negotiations, and secondly the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic puts the plight of HKers lower down the priority list of UK government action.
Many HKers feel that the UK has a moral obligation to help the people of the SAR. Through the Joint Declaration, the UK promised HKers that upon the end of British rule, they would retain the freedoms and way of life that is unheard of in mainland China for at least 50 years. The Declaration specifies that “the current social and economic systems in HK will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style, rights and freedoms. Yet, many of these vital rights have since been taken away (see our blog on the Breach of the Joint Declaration).
The chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Committee in the UK suggested giving HK citizens full nationality as a show of support, saying it should have happened in 1997. As has been pointed out, however, doing so amidst the current civil unrest in HK would most likely have repercussions for China-UK relations. They are something that has to be taken into consideration.
UK parliamentarians wrote a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in November, 2019 calling for bold action to correct a "historical error". It was signed by eight parliamentarians, including a number of prominent political figures in the House of Lords, among them Norman Tebbit, a former chairman of the prime minister’s own Conservative Party. “The BN(O) passports were a historic error," it was stated in the letter, because, "Unlike in other colonies, the UK unilaterally revoked the residency rights of all Hongkongers without consulting them. This included people who fought in the British army and who served in the police force,” the letter stated.
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So, Taiwan, Germany or the UK might still be options for those who really want to put themselves into exile.
The CCP's failure to uphold the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration is a dishonest betrayal to HKers, to mainlanders who deserve better, to international stakeholders and to the rest of humanity. It is also a betrayal to the UN where the Joint Declaration was lodged after the agreement was signed in 1984 - more of a betrayal given that China is a member of the UN Security Council.
Since China has breached the Joint Declaration it signed with Great Britain, the UK with the support of the G7 heads of government, must not fall silent when the CCP echoes its much repeated whinge about "interference in internal affairs". After all, HKers know very well how the CCP meddles in HK matters!
HK is in a sorry state because of failures in proper and just governance (see our blog about lost trust). The CCP and the CE must both understand fully what the protest ‘crisis’ in the SAR is really about. It is about opposition: partly to the ideology of the central government, but also to its encroachment on HK's civil liberties.
In fact, since the Coronavirus pandemic has spread worldwide, the protests in HK have become more of a global concern. The pandemic has revealed to the world the difficulty of dealing with an authoritative dictatorship (see our blog about Xi Jinping's autocracy). The world’s dispute with China over its handling of the virus outbreak and influence in the World Health Organisation (WHO) is really a dispute with the CCP, and that is HK’s fight too (see our blog with a call for an international inquiry). People in HK hope that people elsewhere realise that the battles taking place in the streets and courts of HK are just as much part of your fight against the CCP as they are more personally ours (see our blog on the CCP violation of human rights). Around the world many are also of the view that the pandemic is triggering a wider paradigm shift, an awakening that is changing how people view the world, the environment, their government and broader global issues (see our blog on this paradigm shift).
Human rights and pro-democracy activists in HK have suffered political persecution from the Police and the courts in HK. For example, the Public Order Ordinance (POO) has been used as a weapon against activists at the request of the CCP, and the Chief Executive (CE), Carrie Lam, has been complicit in this tyranny (see our blog Lawfare not warfare). Since two young activists were granted political asylum by Germany, and through its connection to the European Union by other European countries, it proves that HK is seen as a rogue authoritarian regime, a police state. This echoes the calls made by many political leaders as well as internationally respected human rights organisations.
As you read this you should know that there is more unity in our opposition to the CCP than ever before. To begin with, protesters in HK of all ages, genders, religions, political leanings and sexual orientations, of different wealth and physical abilities were drawn together as protesters attending marches and rallies. It’s been an evolving process, with a shifting emphasis, although the protesters’ five demands have been a constant.
With the arrival of a serious health threat, a virus as the embodiment of the CCP in our midst, a new level of unity has been engendered in the SAR. Many now characterise the CCP as a virus that creates viruses, something that we should aim to eliminate completely (see our blog). People in HK, previously from opposing factions, have found reason to unite. They’ve joined in unison to demand border closures, to rally in support of frontline healthcare workers, and to oppose virus quarantine centres being set up within their housing estates. This unity is similar to the global unity felt across the world as every nation combats the invisible enemy, Covid-19.
While this battle for life and for good health goes on, ordinary HKers will keep up the good fight - the fight for better democracy, the fight for freedom and fairness, for accountability and justice. While we do not want to become prisoners or slaves to the CCP, nobody should be forced to consider a life in exile. We are simply not prepared to give up HK's standing in the world, our investment in our homes, our businesses, our way of life, our high degree of autonomy and our future!
A public referendum for the people of HK, as suggested by Wethepeopleofhk.com would provide a mechanism whereby the wrongs of the last 23 years can eventually be put right (see our blogs on referendums here and here). This is about releasing the CCP stranglehold on the city, ending tyranny and charting the way forward.
China has breached the Joint Declaration. Therefore, holding a referendum in HK, is the right thing to do. A referendum will recognise the wrong, and correct and cancel out the effect of the breach - so long as the will of the people reflected in the referendum result is heeded.
Such a referendum, endorsed by the British and Chinese, and then acted upon, would allow the Joint Declaration between HK and Beijing to continue.
What we want is a happy ending! Never give up. Join in the fight for it!
UPDATE: 27 January 2020, More than 80 Hong Kong protesters variously accused of hurling petrol bombs during anti-government demonstrations, storming the city’s legislature and physically attacking ideological opponents, have reportedly fled Hong Kong to Taiwan, police sources have told the Post.
UPDATE: 16 April 2020, Taiwan’s first #antiELAB café, Aegis, is now in operation after the first Hong Kong émigré was issued a work visa, it says on its Facebook page. Located near the National Taiwan University, the Aegis project aims to help those #antiELAB protesters who fled to Taiwan settle down. (Twitter and Reddit)
UPDATE: 28 May 2020, Taiwan will devise a settlement plan for Hongkongers who have been pushing for freedom and democracy, President Tsai Ing-wen has said, as a controversial national security law looms in HK. (HKFP)
UPDATE: 3 June 2020, In light of the CCP National Security legislation imposed on Hong Kong, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has opened the path to what he called one of the “biggest changes” to the British visa system, stating he was ready to offer a right to live and work in the UK to any of the nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for a British National Overseas passport.
23 May 2020, REDDIT, Google Trends for "Emigration" and "Taiwan" increase by 4x after China announced national security law for HK
24 June 2020, RTHK, Taiwan to lift border restrictions for fleeing HKers. Taiwan will ease its coronavirus border restrictions to allow in people from Hong Kong for humanitarian reasons, the government said on Wednesday, ahead of Taiwan's opening of an office to help people wanting to flee the SAR.