Hong Kong closes Taiwan office amid rise in diplomatic tensions

Suspension of operations comes amid tension over Hong Kong’s National Security Law, activists moving to the self-ruled island.

Taiwan said Hong Kong's suspension of operations of its representative office in Taipei was regrettable [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Hong Kong’s government has suspended operations at its representative office in Taiwan in a sign of escalating diplomatic tension between China’s self-governing territory and the democratically-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.

A Hong Kong government representative did not provide on Tuesday an explanation for the decision to halt operations at the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office, adding only that the decision was not related to the recent rise in coronavirus cases in Taiwan.

Tension between Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government and Taiwan has risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 and China responded by imposing a sweeping national security law in the city that prompted many activists to leave, some for Taiwan.

Taiwan’s government said that while it respected the decision, it also regretted it.

“We express deep regret at today’s unilateral decision by the Hong Kong government,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement.

Taiwan has criticised the security law Beijing imposed in Hong Kong and opened an office in Taipei to help people who may want to leave.

In August last year, China intercepted a boat carrying 12 people from Hong Kong, who had all faced charges related to the anti-government protests, and were apparently trying to escape to Taiwan.

Protesters stand on a Chinese flag during a rally in Taipei calling on China to release 12 Hong Kongers arrested at sea by mainland authorities [File: Ann Wang/Reuters]

Last year, Taiwan officials in Hong Kong were told their visas would not be renewed unless they signed a document supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan under its “one China” policy, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said this month there were only eight Taiwanese staff members left at its de facto consulate in Hong Kong, and that all their visas were due to expire this year.

Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said the suspension in operations meant requests for assistance from Hong Kongers in Taiwan would be handled through hotlines and via a Hong Kong government website.

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of “one China” and has not ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control.

China has proposed that Taiwan be ruled under a “one country two systems” arrangement that would be similar to the one offered to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

All of Taiwan’s main political parties have rejected the idea.

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee takes part in a protest march with pro-democracy lawmakers and supporters in Hong Kong
Bookseller Lam Wing-kee, centre, is one of the Hong Kongers who has found a new home in Taiwan [File: Bobby Yip/Reuters]

Hong Kong has long served as an important trade and investment conduit between Taiwan and China, which have no diplomatic relations.

The security law in Hong Kong punishes what China broadly defines as subversion, secession, “terrorism” and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Critics of the law fear it will crush the wide-ranging freedoms promised when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule. Supporters say it has restored the stability that is essential for its economic success.

Source: Reuters