In late 2017, over 2,000 party members of the Chinese Communist government gathered to discuss China’s progress toward a “great reunification” with regions of greater China. Beijing’s One-China mission seeks to establish a single sovereign Chinese state ruling all of greater China, including the self-ruling regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan (Republic of China).
However, realizing the One-China vision has proven to be much more difficult than Beijing seems to have anticipated.
With Hong Kong experiencing a third month of almost continuous pro-democracy demonstrations, the island’s law enforcement agencies have reportedly made nearly 1,000 arrests. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has released multiple threatening videos of military personnel arriving in the region.
Hong Kong’s economy has tumbled amidst the chaos. The United Nations (UN) has publicly expressed grave concern over the increasing violence in the region, calling for an independent investigation.
Taiwan’s asylum offer for Hong Kong protesters
In July, soon after the Hong Kong protests began gaining international attention, President Tsai Ying Wen of Taiwan publicly offered asylum to “friends from Hong Kong”. Tsai insists that her statement adheres to the region’s legal obligations under Article 18 of Taiwan’s Act Governing Relations With Hong Kong And Macau, which stipulates that “Necessary assistance shall be provided to Hong Kong or Macau residents whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons.”
Ever since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Taiwan has kept ambiguous ties with mainland China, seeming to constantly seek ways to promote its own sovereignty. Some suspect that Taiwan’s legalization of gay marriage was partly intended as a demonstration of the region’s independence, and a way to advertise a more democratic image in comparison to the mainland.
Yet despite Tsai’s public offer of assistance to Hong Kong residents, Taiwan has yet to implement a formal system to deal with those seeking asylum.
How the Hong Kong protests originated
Ironically, the contentious – and now suspended – extradition bill that triggered the Hong Kong protest movement resulted from a murder case in Taiwan.
In 2018, Chan Tong-kai and his pregnant girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, were on a holiday in Taipei when Chan murdered Poon. He then dumped her body in a suitcase and fled to Hong Kong.
Chan has since admitted to the murder in court, but because Hong Kong courts have no jurisdiction over crimes committed in Taiwan, he can’t be tried in Hong Kong. And because Hong Kong has no extradition treaty with Taiwan, he also can’t be tried in Taipei. However, Chan has been sentenced to 29 months in prison in Hong Kong on money-laundering charges.
In an attempt to address this major “loophole” in the island’s legal system, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed law changes that would allow criminals to be more easily transferred between jurisdictions where no formal extradition treaties exist. The jurisdictions named in the amendment include not only Taiwan, but also mainland China.
The director of the Chinese office responsible for Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, stated that the amendment would prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives.
However, the extradition amendment sparked immediate outcry among Hong Kong citizens, as well as from foreign parties. Those speaking out against the proposal included the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and diplomats from the UK. After a century and a half of governing the island, the UK returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. Both the US and UK expressed grave concern over the amendment eroding the island’s relatively independent status.
Even after defenders of the proposal removed nine categories of financial crimes from the extradition agreement, including bankruptcy and intellectual property theft, the uproar within Hong Kong continued unabated. Among other crimes, the suspended bill still covers polygamy and robbery, which carry at least three-year prison sentences under existing laws.
Taiwan has stated that it will not enter into any extradition treaty with Hong Kong if the treaty suggests that Taiwan is part of China. Furthermore, Taiwan feared that the amendment, if enacted, would endanger any Taiwanese citizens in Hong Kong.
Assessing Taiwan’s asylum capacity
Recent history has caused many to wonder whether Tsai’s offer of asylum for Hong Kongers is a paper promise that Taiwan cannot fulfill. Although Tsai has declared that “These friends from Hong Kong will be treated in an appropriate way on humanitarian grounds”, Taiwan has previously struggled to handle just five asylum cases for Chinese and Hong Kong nationals.
However, Taiwan’s difficulties with processing asylum requests have not prevented the region from offering an open door to dissidents. Several vocal opponents of the Chinese government have been granted residency, and it is reported that as of December 2016, Taiwan had given residency to 71,263 former inhabitants of Hong Kong and Macau.
To emphasize the availability of other paths to Taiwan residency apart from asylum, the Tsai administration has encouraged Hong Kongers to seek employment in Taiwan, obtain entrepreneurship visas or pursue further education there. In response, the number of people moving to Taiwan from Hong Kong has risen rapidly – a reported 28 percent increase for the first seven months of 2019, compared to the same period last year.
These developments have not escaped the mainland’s notice. After the Tsai government offered “humanitarian assistance to Hong Kong people in need of help”, Beijing struck back in mid-August.
Ma Xiao Guang, spokesperson for the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office, demanded that Taiwan “cease undermining the rule of law.” He expressed concern that Taiwan’s offer of political asylum would lead to a “…cover up [of] the crimes of a small group of violent militants…”, encourage “audacity in harming Hong Kong” and turn Taiwan into a “haven for ducking the law.”
Spokesperson Ma isn’t the only Chinese official to condemn Taiwan’s offer. Geng Shuang, Spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, previously responded to Tsai’s comments by demanding that she “Save [her] false compassion.” China has also accused Taiwan of interfering in the Hong Kong situation.
In spite of the pushback from Beijing, the increase in immigration to Taiwan is expected to continue, since the tensions in Hong Kong show no sign of easing.