Written by Jieh-min Wu.
Image credit: Taiwanese Support for Hong Kong Democracy Protestors by midnightbreakfastcafe/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.
The uneasy post-Cold War partnership between Taiwan and Hong Kong has undergone a profound transformation in recent years. The U.S. cancelled its similar preferential customs status for Hong Kong in 2020 after crackdowns on protesters and mass arrests indicated that the PRC was reneging on its commitment to the “One-Country, Two Systems” policy. Congress hurriedly enacted laws to enhance human rights protections for Hongkongers and impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. This development has subtly but significantly affected Taiwan’s Hong Kong policy. Lacking the U.S. government’s political clout, the Taiwanese government nevertheless offers low-profile humanitarian aid to Hongkong exiles, much of it through civic groups or through joint efforts with NGOs. The estrangement between Taiwan and Hong Kong at the government level has gone hand-in-hand with closer civil society ties. It reflects heightened U.S.-China rivalry amid significant geopolitical changes in the region.
Hong Kong’s civil movement and interaction with Taiwan since 2012
2012 was the critical year when the civil societies of both polities started interacting closely. With both sides feeling the heat of China’s impact, civic groups from Taiwan and Hong Kong began engaging with each other through increasingly frequent visits, interviews, workshops, and conferences. Worried by these exchanges, Beijing and its Hong Kong-based proxies adopted pre-emptive moves. Several veteran democracy advocates who had visited Taiwan were accused of engaging with Taiwanese activists to promote a “dual independence movement.” The China factor has also encouraged academic exchanges between intellectuals from both places. Taiwanese wanted to learn how to guard against China’s united front work, while Hongkongers wanted to tap into Taiwanese resistance under martial law. In 2014, a Hong Kong University student journal Undergrad published a volume On the Hong Kong Nation, which included a chapter written by a Taiwanese scholar specialising in nationalism.
Both Hong Kong and Taiwan have undergone a political transformation in the shadow of China. Not incidentally, the 2012-2014 protest cycles in Taiwan and Hong Kong brought about the first round of civil society interplay across borders, but with divergent outcomes. The Umbrella Movement was thwarted in part by line struggle, leadership competition and a lack of solidarity, but the Sunflower Movement opened a new space for youth politics in Taiwan. In its wake, the new generation established political parties. At the same time, scores of activists were absorbed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party or joined the new government (which defeated the KMT in the 2016 national elections). Inspired in part by the success of Taiwan’s youth politics, Hong Kong activists organised new parties and devoted themselves to elections at different levels, achieving salient gains. Unfortunately, lively exchanges between young activists on both sides attracted unwanted attention. When Joshua Wong and Nathan Law visited Taiwan in 2017, they were followed and threatened by pro-China groups (later found to have gangland connections) that have been cultivated over the years to counter the democracy movement and attack activists.
The Anti-Extradition Movement and Taiwan’s support
In spring 2019, an amendment bill triggered fears of Hong Kong residents being extradited to China and ignited a new protest cycle. This Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement erupted into an unprecedented scale of mobilisation that summer as multiple rallies of over one million people filled the streets. When news of the Anti-Extradition protests reached Taiwan, Taiwanese youth and NGO activists rushed to mobilise rallies, sit-ins and petitions and set up Lennon Walls on campuses around the country. Organisers also collected donations to purchase sets of anti-tear gas gear and shipped them to Hong Kong while urging the Taiwan government to aid young protesters seeking refuge there.
“Standing with Hong Kong” is not merely a street slogan but a popular mandate. Public opinion and geopolitical urgency have pushed Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to adopt more robust measures for possible humanitarian relief in the face of the bankruptcy of “One Country, Two Systems.” Global media have widely reported Taiwanese support for Hong Kong’s civil resistance, but some criticise the government’s lukewarm or limited support. Treading a fine line between defending a besieged Hong Kong and avoiding an overreaction from Beijing, the government has opted for collaboration with civic groups. In 2019-2021, some 100 young Hongkongers found sanctuary in Taiwan, receiving housing, education, and financial aid. Meanwhile, new immigration avenues have resulted in an influx of Hong Kong migrants in recent years.
The Anti-Extradition Movement coincided with Taiwan’s presidential election year (with election day scheduled for January 11, 2020), following the ruling DPP’s trouncing by the KMT in local elections the previous year. In that year, Taiwan’s younger generations felt deep angst at losing their country (wangguogan) under China’s intense information warfare and “forceful unification” threat. The wangguogan translated into momentum for collective action on Hong Kong’s behalf because it also meant fighting for their own country. Chants of “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan” filled the air.
Beijing has built a “Berlin Wall” separating Hong Kong from the world
On June 30, 2020, the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a National Security Law (NSL) specific to Hong Kong with immediate effect. The U.S. government revoked part of Hong Kong’s special trade status on the same day, and the activist group Demosistō was declared disbanded. On July 1, the Taiwanese government opened a “Taiwan-Hong Kong Exchange Office” for humanitarian relief. On July 2, Hong Kong police arrested 370 people, including ten suspected of violating the NSL; Nathan Law, a legislator and founding member of Demosistō, fled Hong Kong; U.S. Congress passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act. By July 6, the rules for implementing the NSL were already in place, with some thought to target Taiwan.
Many activists have been forced into exile and put on wanted lists. Scholars accused by the pro-China media, or facing arrest, chose to leave Hong Kong, while others decided to stay in Taiwan. Long-established civic organisations such as the Professional Teachers’ Union, the Civil Human Rights Front and Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (representing more than 93 affiliated organisations) have been forced to disband. The HKCTU is one of few civil society organisations that had close interaction with Taiwan’s trade unions before 2012. A support group for prisoner rights founded after the Anti-Extradition Movement, Wall-fare, was also forced to close.
The NSL putsch has caused a deterioration in Hong Kong’s political relations with Taiwan. In May 2021, the Hong Kong government abruptly shut its office in Taipei. Macao followed suit the next month. In June, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) announced it had withdrawn its officials from Hong Kong after their visas expired. The Hong Kong government had made signing a “One China Pledge” a condition for visa renewals. Given the unlikelihood that Taiwan’s representatives would sign a document that implicitly acknowledged the PRC’s sovereignty claims over Taiwan, this requirement was clearly a pretext for severing Taiwan’s ties with Hong Kong.
In sum, the NSL has legalised a police state and installed a quasi-martial law regime. Apart from sporadic rescue operations, sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials (imposed by the U.S. government), and a new visa route made available to people from Hong Kong who have British National (Overseas) status, Western democracies have looked on helplessly as Beijing has built a “Berlin Wall” separating Hong Kong from the rest of the world.
Conclusion: Creation of a long-distance resistance movement
The deterioration of the situation over the last two years has been largely shaped by the global geopolitical environment, with growing Sino-American tensions or the “New Cold War” playing a critical part in Beijing’s decisions on Hong Kong. Given that the Xi regime is the source of Hong Kong’s political authority, the situation is unlikely to change unless Beijing loosens its grip.
Even so, things can be done to preserve a glimmer of hope for the future of democracy in Hong Kong. Taiwan can do more than relief efforts, although highly constrained under continuous pressure from China. Taiwan’s decade-long civil society engagement with Hong Kong has been tamped down, but exchanges and assistance are likely to continue. People will act in more careful and low-profile ways to protect those involved and help preserve the embers of democracy in Hong Kong. For example, the Economic Democracy Union, a prominent civic organisation, co-published a magazine Flow HK with overseas Hong Kong activists.
Hong Kong’s current opposition is akin to Taiwan’s under martial law (1949-1987). During much of that period, overseas Taiwanese organisations kept the world informed of KMT repression. They lobbied Western governments, trained activists, and organisers, published banned books, connected with dissidents in their homeland, and helped them flee. These overseas activities proved vital for the continuation of resistance during authoritarian rule. Today, Hongkongers are keen to learn about Taiwan’s past experiences: How to wage a “war of position” after exhausting confrontations; how to resist brainwashing in schools and media and preserve historical memory; how to deal with an “émigré regime” that still needs legitimacy; and how to nurture offshore civil society and connect it with domestic fighters. In this regard, the Taiwanese can contribute to the future liberalisation of Hong Kong.
*This article was abridged from one originally written for Limes and published in Italian, “Hong Kong Deve Studiare la Lezione di Formosa,” Limes: Rivista Italiana di Geoplolitica (2021, 9), pp. 147-158. https://www.limesonline.com/cartaceo/hong-kong-deve-studiare-la-lezione-di-formosa?prv=true. The author thanks Chiang Min-yen and Lin Cheng-yu for research assistance.
Jieh-min Wu is a research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He is the author of Rival Partners: How Taiwanese Entrepreneurs and Guangdong Officials Forged the China Development Model (forthcoming, Harvard University Asia Centre) and co-editor of China’s Influence in the Centre-Periphery Tug of War in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indo-Pacific, with Brian Fong and Andrew Nathan, 2021, Routledge.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Hong Kong Connection.