Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen told reporters on Friday that her government would treat “friends from Hong Kong” humanely in response reports that dozens of pro-democracy protesters are seeking political asylum in the island nation.
Millions throughout Hong Kong have consistently taken the streets in the past two months demanding autonomy from an increasingly overbearing Chinese Communist Party. At their peak, the protests attracted 2 million people, or nearly one out of three people living in Hong Kong. Protesters originally began organizing against a legislative bill to allow China to extradite anyone present in Hong Kong if it accused them of breaking China’s repressive communist laws.
Tsai, on a tour of allied Caribbean states, told reporters that “relevant departments are keeping abreast of the situation” regarding potential Hong Kong refugees.
“These friends from Hong Kong will be treated in an appropriate way on humanitarian grounds,” she promised, according to the South China Morning Post.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) published a report Thursday revealing that as many as 30 Hong Kong residents, who are technically Chinese citizens, have fled to Taiwan. Many of those who left, according to the outlet, were involved in the storming of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) at the beginning of the month. Following Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s announcement that the government had tabled, but not withdrawn, the extradition bill – which allowed lawmakers to revive it at any time – a large crowd broke through the glass exterior of the LegCo headquarters building and destroyed the legislative floor, spray-painting anti-China slogans all over the building and destroying the equipment necessary to hold parliamentary sessions. The protesters were careful not to destroy any areas housing historical artifacts and police reported no incidents of looting.
Despite this, the Chinese government – through hand-picked local Hong Kong authorities – called the incident a “riot” and vowed to imprison the participants.
“The young protesters, many of whom are students, could face jail terms of at least five years if they are convicted of ‘rioting’ in a Hong Kong court,” RFA reported. “But they also face formidable difficulties in applying for formal political asylum, as they are unable to prove that they were part of the storming of LegCo, because they were wearing masks to avoid detection at the time.”
Apple Daily, another Hong Kong outlet, reported similarly that dozens of Hong Kong protesters were fleeing to Taiwan. Some, the reports agreed, were seeking permanent residency in Taiwan, but others had traveled there on a temporary basis, entering the country as tourists.
“Some protesters are in the process of applying for student visas, but are still awaiting approval. Others are seeking some form of asylum, despite Taiwan’s lack of formal refugee laws,” the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported, citing the other outlets. “Most protesters have received legal advice and some have met among themselves.”
Taiwan National Cheng Kung University professor Leung Man-to told the HKFP that many of those who left Hong Kong “are just here in Taiwan as tourists, for a month or so, for the time being, to wait and see what happens.”
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which would oversee the Hong Kong protester influx since Hong Kong remains legally a part of China, did not offer much more detail regarding the protesters than Tsai did.
Without saying whether it is in contact with the alleged protesters or the exact number in Taiwan, the MAC said if Taiwan receives applications from Hong Kong residents for political asylum, relevant government agencies will handle the cases in accordance with the law based on the principle of protecting human rights,” Focus Taiwan reported. The council did confirm that it would aid those “whose safety and freedom are threatened due to political factors.”
Taiwan’s government which – which China insists on treating as a provincial government under its control rather than a sovereign nation – has processed and protected Chinese political refugees in small numbers in the past. As recently as this week, Taiwan accepted applications from members of the persecuted Early Rain Covenant Christian Church for extended stays in the country. The worshippers attended their first free Christian service upon arriving in Taiwan after the communist government raided their church this year. At least one of the families that arrived in Taiwan seeking refuge will apply for political asylum in the United States.
The anti-communist protests in Hong Kong have brought its people closer to Taiwan. A recent poll found record levels of support for Taiwan’s independence in Hong Kong despite widespread and incessant Chinese communist propaganda claiming Taiwan to be a rogue state. Tsai’s government has also made efforts to express solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders have planned another protest against the Communist Party for Sunday, one already facing resistance from authorities despite being legally registered as a march.