Taiwan has indefinitely delayed a scheme that would have made it easier for professionals from Hong Kong and Macau to become permanent residents or citizens, after concerns from politicians about possible infiltration by Chinese agents.
The scheme by the island’s Mainland Affairs Council would have allowed professionals who had worked for five years in Taiwan and earned an income at double the national minimum wage to apply for more permanent status. They would also not have been required to renounce their Hong Kong or Macau citizenship if they applied to become Taiwanese, unlike ordinary citizens of China.
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Most foreign professionals can apply for permanent residency after five years of employment but people from Hong Kong and Macau were required to meet other criteria such as having Taiwanese family, a Taiwanese spouse, or working in specific industries.
Legislator Lo Chih-cheng, who heads the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) international affairs department, said lawmakers were concerned that it was difficult to determine who was a real “Hong Konger” or “Macanese”.
“Some people in Taiwan tend to see the so-called Hong Kong people as different from the Hong Kong people they used to know,” he said. “There are concerns about China’s infiltration into Hong Kong society and there are also concerns about Hong Kong people working for Beijing.”
Taiwanese were vocal supporters of Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests, which have been credited with giving a boost to President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 re-election campaign, which had been struggling in the months before the demonstrations began.
The protests and their aftermath have carried extra significance to Taiwanese as an example of how Beijing’s promises cannot be trusted.
Limits to support
Former European colonies, Hong Kong and Macau were returned to Chinese sovereignty in the late 1990s and until recently enjoyed certain rights and freedoms not found in the mainland under the so-called “one country, two systems” framework that Beijing also offered as a potential governance structure for Taiwan, which it claims as its own territory.
For Hong Kong, “one country, two systems” was supposed to protect the territory’s special position and guarantee that people could continue their “way of life” with all its rights and privileges for at least 50 years.
But while some of those involved in the protests have found refuge in Taiwan, the opposition to migration is an indication that even in Taiwan there are limits to how far it wants to go in supporting those fleeing Beijing.
Legislators from Tsai’s DPP and the pro-Taiwan independence New Power Party have been some of the most vocal in their concern about potential security risks.
“There’s a lot of almost unanimous symbolic support for Hong Kongers in the sense where Taiwanese can look at what’s happening in Hong Kong and be like ‘we don’t want that to happen to us, and we feel bad for what’s happening to Hong Kongers,’” said Lev Nachman, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center.
“But that’s qualitatively different from say, substantive support in terms of policy. We see a lot of variation, meaning that not everyone wants a pro-Hong Kong policy,” he said.
Nachman led a research team in 2021 that surveyed 1,000 Taiwanese people about their feelings about Hong Kong and found that while most were sympathetic that did not translate into a desire for legislative action, according to results published in Foreign Policy.
Ever since their return to Chinese rule and the relaxation of visa requirements, Hong Kong and Macau have emerged as popular destinations for mainland Chinese. Hong Kong’s population has swelled by one million since its 1997 handover while Macau’s population has grown 50 percent from around 418,000 in 1999 to nearly 650,000, according to World Bank data.
Lo said many Taiwanese were also concerned about the potential competition posed by Hong Kong’s highly educated workforce, despite the likely boost for the island’s economy.
“Personally, I think we should take this opportunity to recruit the best talents from Hong Kong given the deterioration of human rights and freedom in Hong Kong, it is the best opportunity for Taiwan to recruit to attract the best talent,” he said.
Taiwanese have aired their scepticism about the new immigration scheme online, particularly from social media accounts associated with pro-Taiwan independence views, said Chen-en Sung, the deputy CEO of the Taiwan New Constitution Foundation, a government-aligned legal group.
🚨New survey data🚨
How do Taiwanese actually feel about Hong Kongers? Taiwan supports Hong Kong symbolically, but when it comes to support for policies towards Hong Kongers, opinions become complicated.
— Lev Nachman (@lnachman32) August 5, 2021
He told Al Jazeera many of their concerns about Chinese infiltration by people from Hong Kong and Macau were hypocritical because Taiwanese have also worked on behalf of Beijing’s interests.
“Even if [new immigrants] are pro-China originally, I think Taiwan is an open society, and we have the capacity to accommodate those views, not to mention that a lot of our own citizens have pro-China and anti-independence views,” he said.
Eric Tsui Sing-yan, a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History, however, says there is reason for caution, despite having fled the city himself in 2020 for fear he could be investigated for two books he wrote on Hong Kong.
“This question is complicated. People from Hong Kong are not 100 percent safe because Hong Kong is a complex place with all sorts of people,” he told Al Jazeera, citing a decades-long infiltration campaign by the Chinese Communist Party from Hong Kong’s trade unions into the upper echelons of society.
Tsui said the issue largely comes down to demographics: most people under 30 are likely to be low risk due to their well-documented dislike of Beijing and pro-Hong Kong feelings, while older people with potential business ties to the mainland were higher risk.
He said Taiwan’s current policies unintentionally courted the second group by focusing on professionals and people capable of making substantial financial contributions.
“The current policy attracts high-risk groups and drives away the low-risk groups,” Tsui said. “Yes, there is a security risk, but it is not equal among all Hong Kongers. The risk is different in different generations.”
In 2020, Taiwan established an office to help those fleeing political prosecution in Hong Kong after about 200 former protesters fled there, according to activist estimates. Since then, the office has helped some 100 protesters, according to government media, although efforts have been hampered by two years of strict border controls to contain COVID-19.
The government is also not obligated to help any potential refugees as it is not party to any international refugee conventions due to Taiwan’s disputed political status.
Recently, however, measures were loosened to allow students from Hong Kong and Macau to study at Taiwanese high schools and vocational schools, while many already study at Taiwanese universities.
These measures do not directly apply to professionals from Hong Kong and Macau who are already working in Taiwan and would like to remain permanently.
About 11,000 people from Hong Kong moved to Taiwan last year, according to government data, a fraction of the 89,000 who left the city between June 2020 and June 2021.
The vast majority have instead chosen to move to the United Kingdom, the territory’s former colonial ruler, where anyone born before the 1997 handover – about 5.4 million people – is eligible for a special immigration scheme. The UK Home office says more than 100,000 people have applied for the scheme since January 2021.