The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As protesters flee Hong Kong, Taiwan quietly extends a helping hand

Esther, 25, was studying politics in Taiwan in 2019 but participated in protests during her summer break back home in Hong Kong. (Billy H.C. Kwok for The Washington Post)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Bobbing off the coast in a Zodiac speedboat scrubbed of identifying features, Kenny and four others waited nervously for the last leg of their desperate, 350-mile journey.

The five had been arrested months earlier on the front lines of demonstrations in Hong Kong. They had escaped across the South China Sea, steering toward Taiwan with just some snacks, identification and a satellite phone. Now came the final hurdle: convincing the approaching Taiwanese Coast Guard — and the government — not to turn them back.

Taiwanese authorities brought the five ashore, housed them in a government complex and provided clothing, cigarettes, television, table tennis games — even English teachers. Eventually, the Taiwanese, who treated the presence of the five as a state secret, helped arrange flights to the United States, their new home.

The experience of the five, as recounted by Kenny — a 26-year-old civil engineer who, fearing repercussions, wanted to be identified only by his first name — as well as Taiwanese and Western officials and activists, shows the lengths to which self-ruled Taiwan has gone to protect and help fleeing Hong Kong protesters. As Beijing tightens the noose around Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Taiwan has emerged as a key destination for those escaping the dragnet — just as Hong Kong offered sanctuary for dissidents from mainland China in the 20th century.

“Hong Kong was once a safe harbor, but now, Hong Kongers need a safe harbor,” said Samuel Chu, a second-generation activist whose father helped students flee China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

“Taiwan and the Tsai government have stepped up to fill that role,” said Chu, who helped resettle the five in the United States.

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The influx of Hong Kongers has forced a balancing act on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is wary of provoking a Chinese government that often threatens to absorb Taiwan by force.

Her policy has been defined by discretion. Thousands of white-collar Hong Kongers, entrepreneurs and students have been openly welcomed. Dozens of sensitive cases, including those who arrived by boat or landed at Taiwan’s largest airport without visas, have been quietly ushered in but are watched by government minders and barred from social media. High-profile activists who might use Taiwan as a base for anti-Communist Party advocacy are quickly moved on to Western countries such as the United States, Britain and Canada.

In 2020, Hong Kong’s population fell for the first time in nearly two decades. From 2019 through March 2021, more than 19,000 Hong Kong residents came to Taiwan and acquired residence permits, with 3,620 receiving permanent residency.

Taiwan has “consistently supported Hong Kong people in their struggle for freedom and democracy” and would render “necessary humanitarian assistance in a pragmatic manner,” said a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC). But Taiwan “strongly discouraged” unauthorized immigration, such as coming by boat, she added.

Wracked by guilt

Today, a mishmash of Hong Kongers are settling, sometimes uneasily, into a new home that is close in culture, language and geography, yet a world apart in political freedoms and safety. Those who spoke to The Washington Post about their experiences did so on the condition of anonymity or gave only their first names, fearing repercussions.

Sitting in a Hong Konger-owned cafe, Thomas, a soft-spoken man in his 40s, recalled his journey from the summer of 2019, when he hurled molotov cocktails and fought police in Hong Kong, to his fresh start in central Taiwan.

In June 2020, as China was pushing through a national security law for Hong Kong, Thomas’s two black-clad mates who fought alongside him on the front lines were identified and arrested. Panicking, Thomas found information on Facebook about Taiwanese trade schools that offered visas.

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He paid $2,500 in tuition for a cooking course, said goodbye to his wife and cats, and arrived on a flight in the fall with 21 Hong Kongers, all with the same idea.

Today, he lives penniless and alone in a student dorm and survives on about $10 a week donated by Taiwan’s Hong Kong expatriate community. He feels wracked by severe depression and guilt, he said, but is also thankful for a chance to start over. He recently received permission to work in Taiwan.

He hopes to bring his wife over and, he added bitterly, put the doomed struggle against the Communist Party behind him.

“Those who can have fled, or they’ve been captured,” he said, shaking. “At the time, we had said we would struggle till the end, but ultimately, I fled.”

'Forced to grow up'

In Taiwan, protesters such as Thomas have been tolerated, even welcomed, as long as they maintain a low profile.

Freddy Lim, a Taiwanese legislator who works with Tsai’s administration to vet and bring in Hong Kong exiles and artists, said Taiwan’s government has let in a trickle of Chinese dissidents for decades, but it has never seen such an influx.

“The biggest concern is China accusing us of being a safe haven for dissidents,” Lim said. “Will China use this as an excuse to attack Taiwan?”

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Esther, a 25-year-old, was studying politics in Taiwan in 2019 but participated in the protests during her summer break back home in Hong Kong, where she was captured on television footage. She never protested violently, but she swiftly returned to Taiwan and stayed after her Hong Kong circle, including some high-profile dissidents, began to be arrested one by one. Today, she remains active in nonprofit organizations promoting democratic Hong Kong causes — but keeps a low profile.

To secure a visa, she has bounced from job to job, teaching English and working as an administrative assistant. She worries about her prospects, particularly because professions such as law and medicine are off-limits to Hong Kongers under Taiwanese law.

She misses her parents, with whom she has broached the idea of joining her in Taiwan, and her circle of friends, whose lives and careers have all been shattered. And she misses the comforts of home, the beef satay noodles and egg tarts.

“We were forced to grow up,” she said.

For Esther, Taiwan is only a transit point for the West. It feels too distinct from Hong Kong to feel like home, she said, but too close to China to feel safe.

Immigration sensitivities

As immigration rises, Taiwanese and Western officials say a challenge facing the MAC is authenticating the identities of protesters who arrive.

Two people who have helped facilitate Hong Kong protesters’ entry into Taiwan, including those by boat, said they have acted as interlocutors and provided the MAC details about the protesters’ arrests and vouched for them as genuine activists.

One of the two people added that Hong Kong protesters fleeing by boat sometimes carried the Black Bauhinia flag — a black variant of the Hong Kong flag often carried during the 2019 protests — to identify themselves.

Although polls have shown that 60 percent of Taiwanese support the Hong Kong protest movement, activists say the influx of migrants could become politically sensitive. After Tsai’s administration announced measures to welcome some Hong Kongers last May, an official from an opposition party shared a post on a popular college forum, declaring: “I don’t want to see a bunch of Hong Kongers on our streets, competing for Taiwan’s job opportunities and resources.”

In August, Hong Kong and Chinese authorities intercepted a Taiwan-bound boat carrying 12 protesters, effectively shutting the sea route.

Kenny and the four others were among the last to make it by boat. He said he was arrested at a protest in October 2019 and was beaten by police in detention, a practice documented by rights activists that Hong Kong’s police force has denied. Recovering in a hospital and with his passport seized, he grew determined to flee before he was jailed.

“I thought to myself, would Hong Kong still be the Hong Kong I knew?” he said.

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He spent months firming up an exit plan, and was scammed out of thousands of dollars by smugglers, before boarding that speedboat in July. He didn’t know the four other passengers before then, but they worked together, each assuming different roles onboard, from navigation to refueling, as they sped toward Taiwan.

Western officials said Taiwanese authorities told the protesters soon after their arrival that they could not stay and asked where they wanted to go. Taiwan negotiated on their behalf with Britain and the United States before reaching an arrangement with the State Department, Western officials said.

From the relative comfort of Washington, Kenny has co-founded an organization with Baggio Leung, a former Hong Kong opposition lawmaker who also lives in exile in the United States, to help other Hong Kong protesters seeking asylum.

Kenny admits he had hoped to stay in Taiwan. But he feels he ended up in Washington for a reason.

“Nothing is more important to me than the liberation of Hong Kong,” he said. “And while I am here, I will play my role to help achieve that.”

Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.