Taipei, Taiwan — For Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookstore owner who was detained by police in China for five months for selling sensitive books about the Communist Party, 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 had seen disappear in their hometown.
Lam’s move to Taiwan in 2019, where he reopened his bookstore in Taipei, the capital, presaged a wave of emigration from Hong Kong as the former British colony came under tighter control by China’s central government and its Communist Party.
“It’s not that Hong Kong doesn’t have democracy, not even freedom,” Lam said in a recent interview. “When the British ruled Hong Kong, they didn’t give us true democracy or the power to vote, but the British gave Hong Kongers too much space to be free.”
Hong Kong and Chinese leaders will mark the 25th anniversary of their return to China next week. At the time, some people were willing to give China a chance. China has promised to rule the city under a “one country, two systems” framework for 50 years. This meant that Hong Kong would maintain its own legal and political system and freedom of speech that does not exist in mainland China.
But in the following decades, a 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 imposed a national security law that left activists and others living in fear of being arrested for talking.
Hong Kong still looked the same. Malls were open, skyscrapers gleamed. But well-known artist Kacey Wong, who moved to Taiwan last year, said he was constantly worried about his own arrest or that of his friends, some of whom are now in prison.
“It’s still beautiful from the outside, the sunset overlooking the harbor. But it’s an illusion that makes you think you’re still free,” he said. “Actually you are not, the government is watching you and secretly following you.”
Although Wong feels safe in Taiwan, life as an exile is not easy. Despite its similarities to Hong Kong, Wong found his new home a strange place. He does not speak Taiwanese, a widely spoken Fujianese dialect. And the laid-back island is in 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 store below”, he said.
Other less prominent exiles than Wong or Lam have also had to navigate a system that has not established laws or mechanisms for refugees and asylum seekers, and has not always been welcoming. That issue is further complicated by Taiwan’s growing wariness 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 individuals, such as public school teachers and doctors, have been denied permanent residency in Taiwan because they worked for the Hong Kong government, said Sky Fung, secretary general of the Hong Kong Outlanders, a group that advocates for Hong Kongers. Kong in Taiwan. . Others struggle with stricter requirements and slow processing of investment visas.
Last year, some chose to leave Taiwan, citing a clearer immigration path in the UK and Canada despite the wider gulf in language and culture.
Wong said Taiwan missed a golden opportunity to retain Hong Kong’s talented people. “The policies and actions, and what the government is doing is not proactive enough and has caused uncertainty in these people, so they are leaving,” he said.
The island’s Mainland Affairs Council defended its track record, saying it found that some Hong Kong immigrants had hired immigration companies that adopted illegal methods, such as not making investments and 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 program last week. “Of course, we also want to help Hong Kong, we always support the people of Hong Kong in their support of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
About 11,000 Hong Kongers obtained residence permits in Taiwan last year, according to the Taiwan National Immigration Agency, and 1,600 were able to obtain permanent residency. The UK granted 97,000 applications to British national passport holders abroad from Hong Kong last year in response to China’s crackdown.
As imperfect as it is, Taiwan gives activists the chance to continue doing 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 agents in 2016 raised global concern.
He frequently lends his presence to anti-China protests, most recently attending a June 4 memorial in Taipei to mark the anniversary of a bloody crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Similar protests in Hong Kong and Macau , until recently the only places in China allowed to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre, are no longer allowed.
“As a Hong Konger, I haven’t actually stopped my resistance. I always continued to do what I needed to do in Taiwan and attended my events. I didn’t give up fighting,” Lam said.