By Serena Chow
TAIPEI, TAIWAN–On the eve of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential elections, I visited Che-lam Presbyterian Church (濟南教會), the only organization in Taiwan to publicly assist the Hong Kong protestors and a major supplier of protest equipment sent to Hong Kong from Taiwan. The congregation is part of an informal coalition of NGOs and other civil society groups that aid Hong Kongers as they continue to resist Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics to encroach upon the city’s political freedoms.
When I arrived at the church, the premises were completely dark except for a few back offices still lit where volunteers sorted through and packaged donations of protest equipment. During my visit, I met with Kong Chao-ksun, the secretary to Che-lam head pastor Huang Chun-sheng. Kong oversees the collection and donation of hard helmets, gas masks, air filters, and other protective items to Hong Kong. In the brief time we had, Kong shared with me how his congregation has become invested in supporting the Hong Kong protestors and how many Taiwanese view Hong Kong’s activism as closely linked to their own.
Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the democratically governed island of Taiwan since the two split during a civil war in the 1940s, and has threatened the use of force, if needed, for unification. The Hong Kong protests, which began in June 2019 in response to a now-withdrawn extradition bill, has refueled debate among Taiwanese about the island’s de-facto independence and how close Taiwan should align with its authoritarian neighbor. The slogan “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan” has grown increasingly common, suggesting that Taiwan could one day be in the position of Hong Kong if it reunifies with mainland China. Hong Kong was returned from British colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with the promise that it would have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. But since the handover, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has attempted to chip away at the city’s autonomy through practices like abducting Hong Kong booksellers who sold anti-CCP literature. Hong Kongers have also voiced fear and frustration over the apparent cultural erosion of the city as classrooms have witnessed a shift away from Cantonese to Mandarin and the academic implementation of new Chinese nationalist materials. The now-withdrawn extradition bill, which protestors affirm would further undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence and endanger dissidents, was seen as the CCP’s latest attempt to encroach upon Hong Kong’s political freedoms. As the conflict has escalated, protestor demands have also broadened to include the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police brutality, the release of arrested protestors, and universal suffrage.
Che-lam began to formally collect and send donations of protest equipment to Hong Kong after holding a prayer meeting in June to discuss the police’s extreme tactics used to subdue protestors. Kong told me that many young people attended the meeting, distraught by watching endless video footage of bloody scenes of repression in Hong Kong. Kong added that some of the young people even thought about sending over their moped helmets to protect demonstrators from serious injury.
While he was unable to offer exact statistics of how many goods were sent to Hong Kong through the church’s initiative, Kong estimated that from June 2019 to January 2020, the church had already sent an estimated 16 million (NT) or (HK $4.1 million) worth of gear to Hong Kong–approximately $533,333.
Since the streets of Hong Kong have now become sites of violent clashes between police and demonstrators, many Taiwanese have expressed an outpouring of sympathy and a groundswell of support. Taiwanese president incumbent Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has also taken to various social media platforms to throw her support behind Hong Kong’s “freedom-loving” protesters.
While Tsai and her administration has worked toward reducing trade dependency with China, the opposing Kuomintang (KMT) party favors closer ties with Beijing, believing a tighter relationship with mainland China will better secure Taiwan’s economy. Supporters of Tsai see her as best able to safeguard Taiwan’s freedoms and fear that a KMT administration will result in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s desire for Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China. This is especially true for Taiwan’s young people, who have grown up in Taiwan as a democracy.
After visiting Che-lam Presybterian Church, I made my way to Tsai’s final campaign rally before election day where supporters waved green and pink flags and championed large black banners with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” Some Hong Kongers even carried signs warning Taiwanese not to vote the China-friendly KMT party into power. One masked individual at the rally held a sign that read “I am from Hong Kong. Are you OK with allowing your children to be forced to commit suicide and become floating corpses? Use your vote to protect Taiwan.”
On January 11th, Taiwanese voters re-elected President Tsai Ing-Wen with the highest number of votes ever seen in the country’s presidential elections. Tsai defeated her challenger Han Kuo-Yu of the KMT party with 57.1 per cent of the vote, garnering 8.2 million votes. According to final results, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party also retained control of the legislature with 61 of the 113 seats.
“I hope that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically-elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation,” Tsai said in her victory speech. “I believe many democratic countries in the world, and many friends in Hong Kong, will feel happy about our collective decision.”
Tsai’s victory has come as a resounding rebuke to Beijing’s continued threats of forced unification and a hopeful development among the Hong Kong protests. However, despite Tsai’s words defending freedom and democracy, the Taiwanese government has been surprisingly slow moving in extending meaningful aid to Hong Kongers in the form of asylum.
Amid tightening crackdown, many Hong Kongers are now seeking refuge on the island.
But without any formal asylum laws, Taiwan has relegated Hong Kongers to a confusing state of limbo, leaving NGOs and other groups like Che-lam to shoulder the efforts of helping Hong Kongers navigate a path to remain in Taiwan.
With their visa extended on a month by month basis, Hong Kongers are often unable to study or find employment. Many are not yet 18 and have fled to Taiwan without licensed passports since Hong Kong residents are required to be legal adults to personally apply for the document.
This dilemma has also gained greater urgency amid Taiwan’s new travel restrictions due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Since February 6th, travel restrictions have been implemented from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, with Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre reporting that the restriction would remain in effect until the virus has been brought under control.
Hoping to understand more about Taiwan’s asylum status, I reached out to Brian Hioe, one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan. In our conversation, Brian noted that given that Taiwan has yet to implement any refugee law, thinking of Taiwan as a beacon of democracy can actually be dangerously misleading for asylum seekers.
“That’s actually one of the funny things is that the Tsai administration has used this for election year, raising the fear of China in order to raise its electoral chances, but has not actually taken sufficient action on what would be needed to help Hong Kongers,” Brian continued in our conversation. “In the case of some of these younger asylum seekers who might be under 18, they might not have actually looked into asylum laws in Taiwan. They might come to Taiwan expecting one thing but finding that they aren’t being accepted.”
The New Power Party (NPP), Taiwan’s third largest political party, is the only party to propose legislation on behalf of the Hong Kong protestors. Following a visit in September from Joshua Wong, a prominent student activist from Hong Kong, NPP chair Hsu Yung-ming urged DPP to implement a formal refugee law. As reported by The Diplomat, the DPP Party Secretary Chang Li-jun dismissed NPP’s call to action, citing that existing mechanisms were already sufficient. The NPP has since created a collection of online posts dedicated to educating why current regulations are insufficient and why new laws are needed.
It is difficult to estimate how many Hong Kongers have fled to Taiwan as many are wary of disclosing their status in the absence of any formal asylum process. Further complicating things, a New York Times report that has stirred controversy in Taiwan for potentially divulging too much about underground efforts to aid Hong Kong asylum seekers, claims that over 200 young protestors have fled to Taiwan since the beginning of the movement.
For Hong Kong protestors seeking asylum in Taiwan, remaining in Hong Kong means potentially facing a slew of charges, including “rioting,” illegal assembly, arson, possession of weapons, among others. Protestors convicted of “rioting” face up to 10 years in prison.
Since June, more than 7,000 people have been arrested, 40 percent of whom are secondary school and university students. Hong Kong police are reported to have fired over 16,000 tear gas rounds, 10,000 rubber bullets, 2,000 beanbag rounds, and 19 live rounds–with totals continuing to rise. On China’s National day on October 1st, Hong Kong police released six live rounds, hitting an 18 -year-old protestor in the chest at close range.
Bryan Chong, a Wesleyan international student from Hong Kong, has participated in some of the earlier protests in June and shared with me the gravity of what many protestors experience on the ground in Hong Kong. Since returning to Wesleyan, Bryan has had an active role in organizing campus discussions and solidarity rallies for the protests.
“When I went in the dead of night, there was this sense of lawlessness and fear that came with rebelling against the state. You know if the police see this, they are going to crack down…We had reached Causeway Bay–another major commercial hub. People had completely occupied the streets and were tearing up bricks to essentially establish barricades. The police arrived and it was crazy. This sort of mass occupation of the streets was nothing like I’ve ever seen before.”
With rising reports of police brutality during demonstrations and behind prison bars, groups like Amnesty International have conducted investigations into the Hong Kong Police’s excessive use of force. In an extensive report published in September 2019, Amnesty International documented “a clear pattern of police officers using unnecessary and excessive force during arrests of protesters, with anti-riot police and Special Tactical Squad (STS), commonly known as “raptors,” responsible for the worst violence.”
From September 5-12th, Amnesty International conducted a total of 38 interviews, featuring 21 people arrested during protests, as well as lawyers representing arrested individuals and medical professionals working the front lines of the protests. Amnesty International reported that it “reviewed photographic and video evidence of many specific events described during interviews” and critically noted that “delegates also observed firsthand an often indiscriminate and reckless police response to protesters, onlookers and members of the media during incidents in Mong Kok on the night of 7 September and in Causeway Bay on the night of 8 September.”
One of the interviews Amnesty International conducted was with a young woman arrested at a protest in Sheung Wan in July who was one of the many demonstrators who recounted being clubbed from behind with a police baton as she attempted to retreat. Struck to the ground, she remembers police officers continuing to beat her after her hands were zip-tied.
A man arrested at a protest in Tsim Sha Tsui in August similarly described retreating as the police charged at the assembled protestors,” telling Amnesty International that the “raptors” managed to hit him from behind with batons on his neck and shoulder. He said:
“Immediately I was beaten to the ground. Three of them got on me and pressed my face hard to the ground. A second later, they kicked my face … The same three STS kept putting pressure on my body. I started to have difficulty breathing, and I felt severe pain in my left rib cage … They said to me, ‘Just shut up, stop making noise.’”
After evaluating the level of abuse continually perpetrated in Hong Kong, Amnesty International affirmed that the “Hong Kong Police Force is no longer in a position to investigate itself and remedy the widespread unlawful suppression of protestors.” The report concluded with a formal call for “an independent, impartial investigation aimed at delivering prosecutions, justice and reparation.”
Amnesty International has since conducted a similar report into allegations of sexual assault committed by the Hong Kong police against arrested protestors.
Speaking together on Wesleyan’s campus, Bryan weighed on the severity of the unrest in Hong Kong and how the high level of risk involved in protest threw his future, like returning to campus for the fall semester, into uncertainty.
“There was a very real chance that me and other Wesleyan Hong Kong students just simply would not have been able to make it back to school, as we easily could have been arrested or endured serious personal injury,” Bryan said.
Bryan is certainly not alone in confronting this uncertainty. Young protestors have already begun to carry their wills in their back pockets before venturing to the front lines of protests, many prepared to give their lives for this movement.
Responding to criticisms of protestors’ more extreme tactics, Bryan addressed the power dynamics underlying these struggles between police and civilian demonstrators.
“I don’t think that these people contend with the reality that on one side it is an institution in which public trust is invested in the police and government in a system of liberal democracy”, Bryan challenged. “This system only works when we the people give them that power. When these institutions abuse that power, they should be doubly punished and held accountable.”
Taiwan has regulations containing provisions that allows Taiwan to provide “necessary assistance” to residents of Hong Kong or Macau “whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons.” However, many challenge that the law does not provide details on implementation and is not sufficient in providing a pathway toward legal residency for asylum seekers.
Efforts to implement asylum laws have been met with considerable resistance. Critics have expressed a pervasive fear that offering asylum to protestors and issuing a formalized asylum bill could anger Beijing and exacerbate Taiwan’s already fraught relationship with mainland China.
To examine the legitimacy of these concerns, I contacted Ming-Sho Ho, a professor of sociology from National Taiwan University whose scholarship focuses on studying social movements such as Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, the city’s previous pro-democracy movement.
In our conversation, Professor Ho addressed these concerns, commenting that likely “one of the reasons that the Tsai administration is hesitating to grant political asylum to people in Hong Kong is that it would be really challenging and provoking to Beijing”. However, while Professor Ho acknowledged the fear of infiltration from mainland China, he critically noted that these forms of assaults against democracy are already existing and not a sufficient excuse against denying support to protestors.
Responding to a question about the potential security threats posed by introducing asylum legislation, Asylum Access countered that “this concern is not unique to Taiwan. Every country fears that individuals who present a security threat could gain access via immigration systems, including asylum.” Asylum Access continued by explaining that asylum processes are expected to require thorough vetting to ensure that an asylum claim has a “credible, well-founded fear of serious danger if they return home.” Through these channels, government officials will be able to dismiss those who do not have credible claims.
Asylum Access encouraged Taiwan to consult “proven techniques for assessing credibility, analyzing corroborating evidence, and evaluating the genuineness of an individual’s claim.” The nonprofit added that “Taiwan is significantly behind other modern democracies when it comes to asylum and refugee rights…Taiwan’s current lack of an asylum system conflicts with article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that all persons have the right to seek and enjoy asylum.”
But Taiwan, which is not a member of the United Nations, has not signed the UN Refugee Convention. Since the UN renounced Taiwan and admitted the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) in 1971, Beijing has actively blocked Taiwan from participating in international forums, likely concerned that Taiwan’s participation would bring the democratic island one step closer to achieving formal independence.
While the UN has addressed the violence in Hong Kong, the international organization has not issued a statement regarding the case of Hong Kong asylum seekers in Taiwan.
As authorities have grown more repressive and protest tactics have escalated, the political middle ground in Hong Kong is crumbling. Countless families have experienced internal divides and generational rifts.
Bryan Chong shared with me the reality of the startling displacement of youth from their homes in Hong Kong over opposing political views in an increasingly polarized city. Bryan spoke about the experience of his friend in Hong Kong who was kicked out of her home for her involvement in the movement by her mother who is staunchly against the protests. She is now bunking in a college dorm, which Bryan noted as lucky as universities have limited space and displaced youth often do not have that option. Bryan explained that many of these young protestors often don’t feel like they would be supported or that they could call their parents if they’ve been arrested because of their divergent political beliefs.
For Bryan, and so many others, the strong emotions raised by months of sustained protest have carried well beyond the boundaries of Hong Kong. Since coming back to Wesleyan, Bryan told me he has grappled with the reality that friends and family back home are still engaged in a struggle threatened by government crackdown.
“What I think about the most in regards to the protest, as someone who is so far away from it, is my friends who are there and on the front lines, which is the most worrying thing, because they are the most likely to be arrested, beaten, sexually assaulted,” Bryan said. “Beyond telling them don’t be stupid and to be careful, there is not much I can personally do to prevent anything from happening to them. It is something that is difficult for me to process and carry with me day to day.”
In a time when Beijing has gone to extreme lengths to crackdown on political dissent and advance its censorship apparatus, many have expressed fear over opposing the government in any capacity.
When I asked Bryan why he risks participating in such a high level of political dissent, he brought up the death of a young protestor. Chow Tsz-lok, a 22-year-old student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was reported to have died after sustaining injuries after falling from a parking garage where police officers clashed with protestors. However, with a collapse in trust of Hong Kong’s institutions to ensure safety and deliver justice, some have even begun to question the legitimacy of the protestor’s reported cause of death.
“I can imagine that if I could not leave for the United States for education, because my parents weren’t rich enough to do it, I could have in some future ended up like him,” Bryan said. “And it’s the recognition of that, that it’s simply luck that I’m here and I’m not having to be fearful of tear gas and bullets every day when I go out and speak truth to power. Also it’s seeing the little kids who are sometimes just barely taller than my knee that are going out there, wearing masks and speaking truth to power. And that’s crazy that little kids have had the courage to do that and they are fighting for my right to speak. And when they’re doing that, how can I not. It is simply unacceptable and untenable.”
Since the beginning, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has ignited political awakenings and defied expectations. For Byran Chong, the movement has sparked further reflection on systems of democracy and movement politics, inspiring him to be a prominent voice for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States.
“Being away from home at this particular time, obviously it’s difficult, but also it’s really propelled me to divert my activist energy elsewhere. And what I’ve done is get involved in American politics. I think one thing I can concretely feel, and this is something that I’ve wanted to say to most Americans is, I know what it’s like to live in a similar society like this one–similar level of development, industrialization, and modernity. I feel like I can see this government actively trying to screw with its people and we can see it happen, but we have actually no way of fighting back, which is what makes all of this so terrifying. And you guys haven’t lost that, you guys are not at the brink yet. You can still turn this around.”
Nearing almost a year of sustained protest, Hong Kong has become a laboratory of political resistance. Protestors are constantly adapting their techniques of resistance in the face of government repression and evading censors with encrypted messaging apps.
For Professor Ho of National Taiwan University, he told me that he has learned a tremendous amount as a social movements researcher by witnessing “the strength and bravery of the Hong Kong people who are becoming more tactical and resourceful in their challenge against a formidable government that is willing to resort to anything to crackdown”. Examining Hong Kong’s recent history of social movements, Professor Ho observed that the dynamic repertoire of protest strategies seen emerging in this current movement are astounding, already making the organization of the 2014 Umbrella Movement pale in comparison.
This time of unrest has been significant not only for the mass unprecedented numbers it has drawn out but also for the global connections people have forged even during a period where trust can be difficult to give.
The strengthening of Taiwanese and Hong Kong solidarity has been a powerful emergence during this period of unrest and marks a pivotal turning point in resistance against the Chinese government. A survey conducted by the Hong Kong-based Public Opinion Research Institute found that 44% of Hong Kongers support Taiwan independence—a significant turnaround from 14 years ago, when less than 10% of Hong Kongers supported Taiwan independence.
Increasingly, Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are seeing a convergence in their activism and a coalescing of efforts to extend solidarity to one another. With President Tsai’s recent victory, the overwhelming majority of the Taiwanese people have demonstrated their hope to defend freedom and democracy domestically and abroad.
Taiwan NGOs and activist groups have gone even further than the government–demonstrating that a commitment to freedom and democracy requires taking action in supporting Hong Kongers seeking refuge amid crackdown.
While developments surrounding Taiwan’s asylum laws have proven to be slow moving, activists continue to organize acts of solidarity with Hong Kong, urging international audiences to keep watching and holding governments accountable for human rights abuses. In the meantime, these acts of solidarity powerfully communicate that you do not have to be facing the threat of tear gas and bullets to stand with the Hong Kong people.