Written by Adrian Chiu.
The National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong implemented by the Beijing government in June 2020 has triggered a new wave of emigration from Hong Kong. According to Hong Kong government’s statistics, almost 90,000 residents left the city in the 12 months since – more than four times higher than the previous year. To be fair, emigration waves in Hong Kong is not a new feature – it happened in the 1990s when the Chinese handover in Hong Kong was eminent. Indeed, Hong Kong has always been an immigrants’ city, given the many Chinese immigrants who moved to Hong Kong throughout history. What is unique about this wave of emigration is its motivations. Rather than responding to the potential fear and danger of the CCP, people are reacting to the tangible insecurity brought by the National Security Law in Hong Kong itself. The emigration destination is also no longer Canada or Australia, where previous emigrations are often destined, but the UK and Taiwan. Despite the fact that both arguably enjoyed the closest emotional connection with Hong Kong, they have taken a very different approach towards Hong Kong immigration.
In response to the NSL, the UK government introduced a formal system in receiving Hong Kong immigrants announced in late May last year and began this January. This is partly due to the legacy of British colonial rule in Hong Kong, where an estimated 5.4 million people or more than 70 per cent of the population in Hong Kong are eligible to apply for British National Overseas (BNO) citizenship before the 1997 handover as a way to maintain connections with the UK. While BNO holders were only allowed to stay in the UK for six months without a visa, the new system massively expands the rights allowing citizens and their close families to apply for two periods of five years to live and work in the UK. This process eventually allows for British citizenship application. The British government’s generous offer was expected to be attractive for many Hong Kong residents looking for emigration destinations. According to Home Office’s estimates, nearly 300,000 Hong Kongers will take up the offer over the next five years. So far, more than 65,000 have applied in the first five months of the scheme.
Apart from the colonial legacy mentioned above that allows the UK to introduce such drastic changes to immigration policy, political and economic considerations are probably at the back of the government’s calculations. In the post-Brexit world, British foreign policy seeks to re-orient away from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region. As the integrated review of Foreign policy published earlier this year made clear, the UK will ‘pursue deeper engagement’ to counter China’s growing assertiveness. The recent Aukus military partnership with the US and Australia and British warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea was evidence of such policy shift. Thus, the BNO visa policy should also be interpreted in such light. It is a gesture to signal the UK’s stance of protecting human rights against China.
Economically speaking, immigration has always been a sensitive issue for the government because of its potential socio-economic impacts on the domestic population. Brexit has arguably happened because of the impact brought by Central and Eastern European immigration under the freedom of movement rules – driving down wages and putting pressure on public services. However, the government’s thinking is that Hong Kong’s immigrants will be different. Apart from the fact that the number is estimated to be far lower than EU migration in the 2000s, Hong Kong is also a more prosperous country that could bring skills and capital rather than cheap labour to the UK workforce. In other words, pure economic impetus does not offer a strong pull factor for migration, which will also cause fewer fluctuations to the labour market. That is why UK ministers are willing to take that gamble.
On the contrary, rather than introducing a bespoke settlement for the new wave of Hong Kong immigrants, Taiwan relied on existing immigration routes in response. Despite President Tsai Ing-wen’s warm rhetoric towards Hong Kong, the current rules are strict towards accepting immigrants from Hong Kong. For those who could not afford millions to qualify for immigration via investments or obtain a job that is double Taiwan’s minimum wage to apply for a work visa, Hong Kongers could only rely on the ‘humanitarian assistance’ route provided by the special office set up in July 2020 to deal with Hong Kong immigration. These cases are usually assessed on a case-by-case basis without specifying the formal criteria for eligibility. As a result, many are stuck in limbo, unable to work or study even for successful applicants.
Nevertheless, the government has so far resisted the calls from opposition parties and activists to introduce a formal political asylum system that offers a route for exiles and immigrants to gain permanent residence and citizenship. That is why despite being the most popular choice of exile, the immigration number to Taiwan remains modest, according to Taiwan’s Immigration Agency. Indeed, 10,813 resident permits and 1,576 settlement permits were issued in the whole year of 2020, though it was doubled compared to 2019.
Politics (both cross-Strait and domestic) is probably the dominant factor behind Taiwan’s decision to keep things informal. Firstly, the government would like to keep employing current rules to deal with Hong Kong immigration to avoid infuriating Beijing. This is because the legal basis of the current arrangements is on ‘Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong & Macao Affairs’, which was enacted before 1997 under the constitution of ROC. Being arguably under the ‘One China’ framework is certainly more acceptable to Beijing than introducing a political asylum system to receive Hong Kong immigrants as a third country. Moreover, Tsai has made clear repeatedly that she does not want Taiwan to be the troublemaker in the region.
Secondly, because of its historical context and geographical location, Taiwan is always suspicious of Chinese agents infiltrating Taiwan. As the deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council put it, opening up the immigration system risks inviting national security threats to Taiwan amid Beijing increasing grip on Hong Kong,
Finally, it is doubtful whether the Taiwanese society will be receptive to many Hong Kong immigrants residing in their country. Although the public was generally supportive of Hong Kong during the 2020 election, one of my research participants told me that Taiwanese were previously not friendly towards immigrants. This is because the latter could affect Taiwanese livelihoods and property prices, raising the case of South-East Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. Thus, it is always beneficial for politicians to err on the side of caution when it comes to popularity and electoral chances. Nevertheless, Tsai will be glad that Hong Kong is no longer high on the political agenda of Taiwan domestic politics.
As a researcher, the new wave of emigration from Hong Kong offers a huge opportunity for a new research agenda that focuses on the different Hong Kong diaspora communities worldwide and how that compares with previous Chinese diaspora. For instance, in this comparative case study between the UK and Taiwan, it would be fascinating to know the different demographics and compositions of these immigrants between the two countries, along with their contrasting immigration systems. A survey has found that those who moved to the UK were primarily young working professionals in sectors such as financial services. Other research questions about their politics, such as their identity and political orientation, may also impact how they see themselves in a foreign country and their future political participation concerning Hong Kong and local politics. It would be a timely project to explore these themes further in a community that is fresh in their experience.
Adrian Chiu is a PhD candidate at the SOAS Department of Politics and International Studies. His working title of the PhD project is “Party interactions between Hong Kong and Taiwan in post-handover years”. He is also the assistant editor of Hong Kong Journal of Social Sciences.
This article was published as part of a special issue on UK and Taiwan