Taiwan is enjoying a golden age of international diplomacy after hosting an 89-member Czech delegation led by Senate president Milos Vystrcil. This came a month after the arrival of the US Health Secretary Alex Azar, the highest-ranking US official to visit the island in four decades.

Taiwan’s coronavirus success, global mask donations and refusal to buckle in the face of threats from China have also raised its international profile significantly this year. As it basks in the glow of increased international support and recognition, this is an ideal time to confront certain glaring issues with the way it treats foreigners.

taiwan flag tiananmen vigil june 4 victoria park (7)
File Photo: May James/HKFP.

First, the worsening political situation in Hong Kong has led to an increase in Hongkongers moving to Taiwan, attracted by cultural familiarity, a liberal society and cheaper home prices. But besides those applying through formal channels for residency, some Hongkongers have fled to Taiwan to seek asylum for political reasons, especially for taking part in the ongoing pro-democracy protests.

At least 200 Hongkongers are estimated to be seeking asylum in Taiwan. They have so far been allowed to stay on the island while being helped by religious and civic organizations. The official response, however, has been somewhat disappointing.

It is understandably difficult for Taiwan to openly offer asylum to Hongkongers fleeing political persecution. This risks provoking China, which claims sovereignty over the island and has threatened to use military force to reclaim it.

Nonetheless, Taiwan did open the Taiwan-Hong Kong Office for Exchange and Services in Taipei, supposedly to help Hongkongers seek asylum on a case-by-case basis, as well as those looking to study, move businesses or invest there.

But in the case of teenage activist Tony Chung, the office was reportedly unable to help him come to Taiwan before he was arrested by Hong Kong authorities at the end of July. As things stand, Hongkongers can only settle in Taiwan for business purposes or if they have Taiwanese family.

This is why the statement from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, after 12 Hongkongers were arrested by Chinese authorities for trying to flee to the island by boat, is disappointing. The council urged Hongkongers to come to Taiwan only through legal means. The implied message is that Taiwan will only help Hongkongers if they are already on Taiwanese soil. Otherwise, they are completely on their own.

Even then, the surreptitious sheltering of over 200 Hong Kong protesters in Taiwan is a special case. In general, Taiwan does not have a formal refugee law nor support refugees. In the past, it has turned away mainland Chinese dissidents seeking asylum in Taiwan, even making two of them spend over 100 days inside Taoyuan Airport, due to fears of exacerbating tensions with China.

Meanwhile, people from other countries who do turn up to seek asylum can only turn to NGOs for help, without any support from the authorities. This is disappointing for an island that often touts itself on being progressive and “friendly.”

Taoyuan International Airport
Taoyuan International Airport. Photo: Wikicommons.

Beyond the humanitarian aspects, there are pragmatic reasons for Taiwan to open up. It is predicted to become an aged society in 2025, meaning that 20 percent of its population will be over 65. A smaller workforce will have to bear a greater social burden by contributing to healthcare and other services for retired citizens. Taiwan’s birth rate of 1.218 children per woman is the lowest in the world, according to a 2019 report.

In the first half of this year, Taiwan’s death rate exceeded its birth rate. It is likely this will also be true for the whole year, meaning Taiwan is already, demographically speaking, shrinking. As such, it will become an ageing and shrinking society, unless it experiences a – highly unlikely – baby boom or encourages more immigrants.

In addition, attracting more foreign talent will help make the workforce more international and society more multicultural. This will have the added effect of bolstering Taiwan’s security by making it more likely to receive assistance in case of an attack from China. With China’s increasingly belligerent behavior in 2020 and its ramped-up militarization such as building up its naval fleet, such an attack is a very worrying possibility.

To this end, Taiwan has expressed ambitious, if somewhat idealistic, hopes of becoming a financial center as Hong Kong is increasingly stifled by Beijing. Before it can even contemplate this prospect, the government must first resolve some mundane issues for foreign professionals already in Taiwan.

Taiwan Taipei
Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Wikicommons.

While there are a fair number of foreigners living and working in Taiwan, they face numerous obstacles. Local banks often bar them from applying for credit cards, or they cannot sign up for certain mobile phone plans or online shopping services.

This is ironic given Taiwan’s hopes of luring finance professionals from Hong Kong.

In addition, most foreign residents are not eligible for stimulus measures such as consumption vouchers issued by the government this past summer.

But one of the biggest obstacles faced by foreigners who want to stay in Taiwan long-term is a restriction on dual citizenship.

As it stands, Taiwan does not allow dual citizenship for foreigners wanting to gain Taiwanese citizenship, even though Taiwanese are allowed to keep their citizenship while holding another country’s passport. The only exceptions are “high-calibre” talents such as scientists, academics and prize-winning artists, as well as a handful of elderly priests who have been in the island for decades.

Republic of China Taiwan passport
File photo: Tzuhsun Hsu via Flickr.

This one-way banning of most foreigners from holding dual citizenship while allowing the Taiwanese to be dual citizens is unusual. Almost all countries that ban dual citizenship, such as Japan and Singapore and even China, do so for their own citizens as well as foreigners.

Not surprisingly, this shuts out the chance of naturalization for many foreign residents, some of whom may have lived, paid taxes, married locals, raised families, and even opened and run businesses in Taiwan for many years. Since December 2016, only 149 foreigners have been granted Taiwanese citizenship without having to give up their own country’s passport.

While the authorities are aware of this issue, they will need to take bigger steps rather than slight changes.

taiwan tsai ing-wen in palau
Photo: TaiwanGov’t.

Blue-collar foreign workers face even tougher restrictions. Over 500,000 such foreigners work in factories, fishing boats, construction and elderly care but cannot apply for permanent residency, a restriction that is similar to Hong Kong’s own regulations. There is even a limit to the number of years they can work in Taiwan.

The government has drawn up a bill to allow certain skilled blue-collar workers to apply for residency, but there are strict licensing and salary requirements that are very hard to meet.

Having earned an international spotlight in 2020, Taiwan now has extra motivation to open up and internationalise its society.

When Taiwan can accept more foreigners as immigrants, refugees and naturalised citizens, then it will be able fully to live up to its claim as one of Asia’s most liberal nations.

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Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.