TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — For Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookstore owner who was detained by police in China for five months for selling sensitive books about the Communist Party, coming to Taiwan was a logical step.
An island just 640 kilometers (400 miles) from Hong Kong, Taiwan is close not only geographically but also linguistically and culturally. It offered the freedoms many Hong Kongers were used to and saw disappear in their hometown.
Lam’s move to Taiwan in 2019, where he reopened his bookstore in Taipei, the capital, heralded a wave of emigration from Hong Kong as the former British colony came under the tighter control of China’s central government and its long-standing Communist Party.
“It’s not that Hong Kong doesn’t have democracy, it doesn’t even have freedom,” Lam said in a recent interview. “When the British ruled Hong Kong, they didn’t give us true democracy and the power to vote, but the British gave Hong Kongers a very big space to be free.”
The leaders of Hong Kong and China will mark the 25th anniversary of their return to China next week. At the time, some people were willing to give China a chance. China had promised to rule the city within the “one country, two systems” framework for 50 years. That meant that Hong Kong would maintain its own legal and political system and freedom of expression that does not exist in mainland China.
But in the decades that followed, a growing tension between the city’s Western-style liberal values and mainland China’s authoritarian political system culminated in explosive pro-democracy protests in 2019. China subsequently imposed a national security law that has left activists and others living in fear of being arrested for speaking out.
Hong Kong still looked the same. The malls were open, the skyscrapers gleamed. But well-known artist Kacey Wong, who moved to Taiwan last year, said he was constantly worried about his own arrest or that of his friends, some of whom are now in jail.
“Outside it is still beautiful, the sunset in the harbor view. But it is an illusion that makes you think that you are still free,” she said. “Actually you are not, the government is secretly watching you and following you.”
Although Wong feels safe in Taiwan, life as an exile is not easy. Despite his similarities to Hong Kong, Wong found his new home a strange place. He does not speak Taiwanese, a widely spoken Fujianese dialect. And the laid-back island is in stark contrast to the fast-paced financial capital that was Hong Kong.
The first six months were difficult, Wong said, noting that traveling to Taiwan as a tourist is completely different from living on the island in self-imposed exile.
“I have not established the relationship with the place, with the streets, with the people, with the language, with the store below,” he said.
Less prominent exiles than Wong or Lam have also had to navigate a system that has no laws or established mechanisms for refugees and asylum seekers, and has not always been welcoming. That problem is further complicated by Taiwan’s growing wariness of security risks posed by China, which claims the island is its rogue province, and Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong.
For example, some people, such as public school teachers and doctors, have been denied permanent residence in Taiwan because they had worked for the Hong Kong government, said Sky Fung, general secretary of Hong Kong Outlanders, a group that defends Hong Kong. Hong Kongers in Taiwan. . Others struggle with the stricter requirements and slow processing of investment visas.
In the past year, some have chosen to leave Taiwan, citing a clearer immigration path in the UK and Canada, despite the widening gap in language and culture.
Wong said that Taiwan has missed a golden opportunity to retain talented people from Hong Kong. “The policies and actions, and what the … government is doing is not proactive enough and it created uncertainty for these people, that’s why they are leaving,” he said.
The island’s Mainland Affairs Council has defended its record, saying it found some Hong Kong immigrants hired immigration firms that adopted illegal methods, such as not carrying out investments and hiring locals who had promised on paper.
“We in Taiwan also have national security needs,” Chiu Chui-cheng, vice minister of the Council for Mainland Affairs, said on a television show last week. “Of course we also want to help Hong Kong, we have always supported Hong Kongers in their support of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
Some 11,000 Hong Kongers obtained residence permits in Taiwan last year, according to the National Taiwan Immigration Agency, and 1,600 were able to obtain permanent residence. The UK granted 97,000 applications to overseas British national passport holders from Hong Kong last year in response to China’s crackdown.
As imperfect as it is, Taiwan gives activists the opportunity to continue their work, even if the direct actions of the past were no longer possible.
Lam was one of five Hong Kong booksellers whose seizure by Chinese security agents in 2016 sparked global concern.
He often lends his presence to anti-China protests.most recently he attended a June 4 memorial in Taipei to mark the anniversary of a bloody crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Similar protests in Hong Kong and Macau, until recently the only places in China allowed to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre, are no longer allowed.
“As a Hong Konger, I haven’t really stopped my resistance. I always continued to do what I had to do in Taiwan and participated in my events. I have not stopped fighting,” Lam said.