Protests against Hong Kong’s National Security Law promise to reignite last year’s anti-extradition storm. Residents of Hong Kong are currently preparing for an end game now that Beijing is reaching for the nuclear option to crush Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms.
The people of Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC), are gazing at this spectacle in horror and fear. The Taiwanese know very well who is next. It will be their small island nation which has been claimed by Beijing since 1949.
But as this article will explain, Hong Kong’s fall is possibly Taiwan’s gain.
Taiwan is not as defenseless as Hong Kong. The HQ of the People’s Liberation Army’s is in the middle of Hong Kong Island and Hong Kong’s only weapon is peaceful protest. Taiwan, on the other hand, has a powerful, well-armed army, warm relations with Washington, and a strongly anti-CCP government.
However, its demographic situation, just like other East Asian countries, looks dire. Its dismal population statistics are on a par with South Korea; natural decrease is on the horizon with a fertility rate of 1.05 in 2019. Only 177,767 babies were born in a country of 23.6 million people, and 2020 could be its first year of population natural decrease.
This threatens the survival of an independent Taiwan. Military draft numbers have plummeted and compulsory military conscription is being phased out. Ageing populations are already draining Taiwan’s lauded national healthcare insurance and pension programmes. The government of President Tsai Ing-wen has had to pass very unpopular pension reforms in her first term which would have cost her job had not Beijing’s interventions in Hong Kong revived her popularity. Taiwan’s sluggish economic growth can also be partly attributed to a rapidly shrinking pool of labour.
Tsai’s government isn’t exactly ambitiously pro-natalist either. It is offering lacklustre childcare packages and does not seem to realise that the baby shortage is a national security issue. As Taiwanese shun procreation and the Taiwan project teeters on a demographic cliff, where does demographic salvation lie?
Looking for demographic salvation
The answer may start with Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a society built by exiles from China. Whenever China was in turmoil, be it civil war, famine or political unrest, people fled there. But when China negotiated with the UK for the handover, middle-class Hong Kongers fled to the English-speaking West.
Today Hong Kong is preparing for a second wave of emigration, this time by hundreds of thousands of young pro-democracy activists. These people do not have the wealth and resources many first-wave Hong Kong emigres to Vancouver had. They cannot afford the route of investment immigration as they are only starting out in their careers.
As of last year, nearly 6,000 people permanently moved from Hong Kong to Taiwan — a record. Some moved through Taiwan’s investment scheme but many more were young dissidents seeking refuge in the Chinese-speaking island which shares their culture and a love for democracy and freedom. They feared prison if they stayed and they are passionate supporters of Taiwanese independence.
Young Hong Kong men who become Taiwanese citizens can also fill the ranks of Taiwan’s military. They are in their 20s; they are eager to fight China and defend Taiwan; and they want training so that one day they can become freedom fighters for the liberation of their own city.
Contrary to popular fears in Taiwan, the arrival of these Hong Kongers will not drive up housing prices — unlike their first wave predecessors who have made Vancouver and Sydney some of the world’s most expensive cities for housing.
These young people are political emigres, and most of them simply do not have the cash to snap up apartment units in Taipei. But they are highly educated and can contribute to Taiwan’s labour shortage. Unlike many Mainland migrants, they are also more inclined to support Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which champions Taiwanese independence.
Immigration reform desperately needed
But to make this win-win situation a possibility, Tsai needs to step up her game in immigration reform. Taiwan still has no effective asylum or refugee law despite its boast of being a beacon of democracy in Asia. This puts it far behind South Korea and Japan. Of course, in all these societies, there is aversion to refugees and political asylum seekers. When hundreds of Yemenis used a loophole in South Korea’s system in 2018 and 2019, they created a political firestorm, with anti-immigration Koreans demanding their immediate deportation.
Taiwan has been mulling over comprehensive refugee legislation since 2005. But work on a bill has stalled despite repeated calls from human rights organisations and opposition parties.
These calls grew louder as Hong Kong burned. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai, who also happens to be a Catholic and the owner of Hong Kong and Taiwan’s most influential newspaper, Apple Daily, has been openly calling for Tsai to provide humanitarian measures to assist Hong Kongers who wish to move.
Lam Wing-kee, the Causeway Bay bookstore owner who fled Hong Kong last year to avoid persecution for publishing books banned in China, also favours an escape route. He has since been visited personally by President Tsai in his new bookstore in Taipei.
This writer believes that Tsai should craft a law tailored for Hong Kong, Macau and Mainland Chinese dissidents and emigres. This will make it unnecessary to attract migrants from other regions. It will also be hailed as part of Taiwan’s bid to defend Hong Kong. As long as it offers a realistic pathway, the bill will pass and Hong Kongers will be grateful.
Refugees from the Mainland
Mainland Chinese emigrants who decided to flee to Taiwan should also be included in the legislation package. Contrary to popular belief, there are Mainland Chinese who are sympathetic to Taiwan and need to move out of Mainland China due to their political convictions.
Just last year, several members of the Early Rain Covenant Church, an underground house church in Chengdu, China, fled to Taiwan after their church was closed down and their pastor jailed.
A Mainland university student named Li Jiabao also attracted media attention for openly criticizing Xi Jinping whilst he was studying in Taiwan. People feared for his safety and called for Taiwan to offer him asylum.
There have also been asylum seekers who have fled to Taiwan because they participated in groups calling for a return of the Republic of China government to rule over all of China again. Some of them paddled from the Mainland to the Taiwan-ruled frontier island of Kinmen, only to find a government which was keen to deport them back to China.
These stories ended happily, as the church members are now likely to move to the United States and Li got an extension on his visa. But many Mainlander refugees have attracted little media coverage and several have been deported. Wang Rui, who had been a member of the pro-ROC group in China, was jailed for illegally entering Taiwan although he eventually managed to settle in the US in 2018.
At the moment, speaking up for Mainlanders is one of the least popular things to do in Taiwan, where anti-China sentiment has soared since Tsai came into power. Mainland spouses of Taiwanese citizens need six years to become citizens whilst other foreign spouses only need four years. Mainland students are also subject to more stringent restrictions on health insurance and employment compared to other foreign students. It is partly understandable because many pro-independence Taiwanese fear that an influx of Mainland Chinese will demographically inundate Taiwan.
But what should make them afraid is Taiwan’s own dismal birth rate and its unwelcoming immigration policies. Moreover, Mainland Chinese dissidents come to Taiwan at great personal risk and can be vetted effectively if Taiwan wishes to do so. South Korea has successfully vetted North Korean defectors for decades with little incident. Mainland Chinese spouses and their children who face discrimination are also a huge blot on Taiwan’s claim to be a beacon of freedom and democracy.
It is very clear that Taiwan needs more people for its survival and Hong Kongers and Mainland dissidents need an escape route.
If Taiwan takes up the challenge and offers them a helping hand, it will be rewarded. After all, Taiwan has always been an island of migration, especially from Mainland China. It’s where 95 percent of its Han Chinese majority population comes from anyway. If Taiwan is genuine about its solidarity with the freedom-loving peoples of Hong Kong and with Chinese dissidents, it should open its doors.
Real solidarity is not lip service, but tangible action for actual people.