By Linn Wu, Mandy Yim, Wayne Chang and Jasper Cao
“I was accused of illegal assembly, so I had to obey bail conditions: curfew, regularly report to the police station, not to leave Hong Kong…,” says Andy, a 22-year-old Hongkonger, who declines to disclose his full name.
He was arrested on August 11, 2019, the day when a female protester was shot in the right eye. The woman, who may be left permanently blind in one eye, became a figurehead of the faceless and leaderless anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong.
According to a government press release, as of Mar 2, 2020, among 7,549 people who were arrested during the movement, 3,091 were students. Most arrested protesters are facing charges of unlawful assembly, rioting and possession of offensive weapons.
Fearful of being arrested, treated unfairly in court, or sent to jail, many frontline Hong Kong protesters who engaged in the movement have fled to Taiwan to seek refuge.
“Usually they take Tai Feis (大飛speed boats),” Andy reveals. “Finding a way to flee is actually not that difficult. After you have been arrested, someone will contact you and offer help,” he said, adding that he had no idea about any of this until he was arrested.
Unlike the majority of protesters, Andy, due to his unusual status – he is a student of National Taiwan University of Art who was admitted in 2017 – successfully applied for a change of bail conditions to let him stay in Taiwan after submission of supportive documents such as flight tickets, his student identity card and proof of dormitory residence.
Andy adds, “I could freely enter Taiwan, but those without the identity as a student studying in Taiwan are in a very different situation. They flee to Taiwan clandestinely.”
There is a trade-off for seeking asylum in Taiwan. Protesters choose to sacrifice Hong Kong residency to avoid political trials but there is no guarantee that they are safe once they embark on the journey.
“If you enter Taiwan illegally, it is possible for the Taiwanese government to handle it according to immigration rules, rather than regarding it as a special case. And if an arrest warrant is issued, you are a wanted person. Don’t even think about returning to Hong Kong,” Andy explains.
Bookseller of Causeway Bay Books Lam Wing-kee fled to Taiwan in April 2019, fearing that he could be extradited to mainland China under the proposed government bill which is now withdrawn.
Activist Lee Sin-yi fled to Taiwan in January 2017 ahead of the Mong Kok riot trial, leaving behind court hearings and an arrest warrant in Hong Kong. Both Lam and Lee had flown to Taiwan with a travel visa.
“To arrested protesters, at present time, if you arrive in Taiwan, you see heaven. If not, you see a dead end,” Andy says.
Assistance after the boat journey
Alvin Chang, spokesman for Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy, says, “Actually, the Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan has consistently supported Hong Kong protesters who flee to Taiwan. The council is not revealing details in public to minimise the risks of exposing these people.” He adds that NGOs and some other supporting units in Taiwan have privately contacted the council.
NGOs in Taiwan work closely with one another to exchange information and organize democratic activities to help Hong Kong protesters in Taiwan. In a bid to show their support, National Students’ Union of Taiwan, Hong Kong Outlanders, Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy and Taiwan Citizen Front organised a “929 Taiwan Hong Kong Grand Parade – Support Hong Kong, Fight Against Totalitarianism” with more than 100,000 participants.
Besides holding protests, NGOs have continuously pressured the Taiwanese government through petitions, posts on Lennon Walls and social media platforms such as Telegram, LINE, Facebook and Instagram. “Our protests give Hong Kong protesters mental and emotional support, and that is the assistance that they need most after arriving here,” Chang says.
He adds that since the council, as a governmental institution, can provide neither material nor promotional assistance, NGOs can fill the service gap.
The Ministry of Education and educational institutions in Taiwan have also introduced measures to ensure that student protesters’ learning is not disrupted amid the movement.
During class suspension in Hong Kong in November and December 2019, universities in Taiwan allowed Hong Kong university students, regardless of nationality, to audit classes in Taiwan. A few even opened up application for students to transfer to their universities.
At universities in Taiwan, two kinds of special programmes, targeting students from Hong Kong universities, regardless of nationality, have been launched. One is the visiting student programme, which allows students to start auditing courses instantly without credits offered. Another programme is for transfer to a Taiwan school or university. Students can apply directly through the Ministry of Education.
According to National Taiwan University (NTU), which accepts most visiting students, almost 500 students have applied for the Special Visiting Student Programme, which started last December, including 200 Hongkongers and others from 16 different countries.
Community with a shared future
To Taiwan’s NGOs, supporting Hong Kong was not their original purpose. “In the past, very few Taiwanese people were concerned about Hong Kong. Not until news reports of the massive pro-democracy demonstration on June 12 did they realise the political threat is actually very close to them,” Chang recalls.
As demonstrations against the proposed extradition bill morphed into criticism of the lack of political legitimacy and police accountability, he witnessed Taiwanese people’s growing awareness of “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan”.
“We have a common enemy,” Chang says.
“Hong Kong and Taiwan are in the same boat. It is not Taiwan backing Hong Kong but Hong Kong shielding Taiwan,” says Josh, a fourth-year Taiwanese university student who declines to reveal his full name. He volunteers to work at Chè-lâm Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, where material supplies from different parts of Taiwan are collected, and delivered to protesters in Hong Kong.
Helpers at the church have been calling for support for the movement on the internet, providing shelters to protesters seeking refuge in Taiwan and delivering various supplies to frontline protesters in Hong Kong, including protective gear, external medicines such as normal saline, respirators and anti-tear gas cartridges. “Only supporting or sharing articles online is far from enough now,” Josh says.
Like many other Taiwanese, Josh considers the fate of Hong Kong and that of Taiwan are closely related. “Hong Kong and Taiwan have the same oppressive neighbour [China], who keeps using politics to override rule of law and freedom, and still wants to persuade and deceive others… I loathe it,” he says.
As the movement has continued for more than half a year, more and more Hongkongers have fled to Taiwan in fear of political persecution. Josh worries some of them will not seek help, and whether the assistance available can really meet their needs. “The real challenges start after they safely flee to Taiwan. Problems in seeking jobs, going to school or security follow,” he says.
A sustainable system
Josh thinks Taiwan lacks a comprehensive system for political sanctuary. Most of the support Hongkongers receive comes from NGOs, which have limited sources and are highly dependent on public support.
“I hope the government can introduce measures to help Hongkongers, or else we can only help case by case, which I don’t think is enough,” he says.
Goobear Chen, Chairman of the National Students’ Union of Taiwan, says, “The fundamental mission of Taiwan NGOs is to put pressure on the government to amend the refugee law.” He thinks that since information flow is limited and operations have to be under the table, it is difficult for any organisation to help.
Taiwan NGOs will not be able to provide financial assistance to Hongkongers on a long-term basis. Therefore, lawfully accepting fugitives would be the most effective measure.
Concerning amendment of the refugee law, Chen believes there is a certain degree of consensus among Taiwanese. He does not think it is a difficult problem. “But I am quite pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future after the movement. The whole issue is hard to cope with.”
The open secret
“It is neither the Taiwanese government’s nor Taiwan NGOs’ responsibility to help us,” Andy says while acknowledging the help he gets from Taiwanese civic society.
“Fleeing to Taiwan has become a hot topic in Hong Kong, arousing concern of both governments,” Andy says. He believes increasing media exposure of NGOs like Chè-lâm Presbyterian Church and district councillors like Daniel Wong Kwok-tung (The ‘Protective Umbrella’ Project) may have alerted the governments.
He foresees that there will be more frequent government interference aimed to stop the concerted effort made by NGOs in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“At this moment, Taiwan is already an extremely hard choice for fleeing,” Andy says with a frustrated tone.
The ‘Protective Umbrella’ Project, initiated by Daniel Wong Kwok-tung, Kowloon City District Councillor, aims at raising funds for Hong Kong people who fled to Taiwan and want to set up small businesses such as restaurants and second-hand boutiques in Taiwan to earn their own living. He also helps protesters to apply for work visas.
A little faith, a big controversy
Under the current policy, the Taiwan government refers to Article 18 of the Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong and Macau Affairs when dealing with Hong Kong people seeking asylum in Taiwan.
The regulations state: “Necessary assistance shall be provided to Hong Kong or Macau residents whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons.” So far, no resident from Hong Kong or Macau has received official assistance from the Taiwan government under this provision.
“At this stage, the act already provides a solid legal foundation,” Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s current President, stated on December 4 2019. “Revising the refugee law is unnecessary.”