As Hong Kong's democracy deteriorates, its citizens are less welcome to settle in Taiwan

Screenshot from Hong Kong government information office's Youtube channel.

The original version of this post was written by Brian Hioe and published in New Bloom (NB) on May 3, 2023. The following edited version is published on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

Since 2019, democracy and freedom have rapidly deteriorated in Hong Kong, with the government dramatically restricting freedom of speech and expression and cracking down on journalists and activists. In light of this, Taiwan is making it more difficult for Hongkongers looking to receive permanent residency visas on the island.

The deterioration of what is left of electoral democracy continues in Hong Kong, with plans by the Hong Kong government to decrease the number of directly elected district councillor seats from over 90 percent to around 20 percent.

First, the total number of seats will be lowered from 479 to 470. Under the new system, 382 of the seats will be appointed by the state rather than an election, with 27 seats based on membership in certain state groups or councils. Now 179 seats will be directly appointed by the chief executive, and 176 seats will be appointed through elections for committees on crime-fighting, fire-fighting, and area districts — all of which are filled with state-appointed members. Candidates will need to be pre-approved. The number of district councillors that are directly elected by members of the public will be decreased from 452 to 44.

Clearly, the Hong Kong government is still nervous about the potential for dissent by way of the district council, even if it already required loyalty oaths from district councillors. The changes will be implemented ahead of the next elections in November 2023.

Unfortunately, it seems that the further downturn of electoral democracy in Hong Kong may make it more difficult for Hongkongers to immigrate or even visit Taiwan in the future. The Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) is considering extending the period of time that Hongkongers need to stay in Taiwan to be eligible for permanent residency from one year to four years. Chinese citizens who hold permanent residency in Hong Kong would need to live in Taiwan for six years to qualify for permanent residency under the proposition.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen pledged to aid Hongkongers seeking asylum in Taiwan during the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in 2019. At that point, it was expedient for the Tsai administration to play up events in Hong Kong for the sake of campaigning in the 2020 elections. But as the situation continues to deteriorate in Hong Kong, Hongkongers are increasingly seen as indistinguishable from Chinese, with Hong Kong framed as simply an extension of China.

Backlash against permanent residency plan for Hongkongers

In May 2022, pan-green or pro-Taiwan independence legislators pressured the MAC into delaying a plan to allow professionals from Hong Kong and Macau to apply for permanent residency after at least five years on a work permit.  For example, Chiu Chih-wei, a lawmaker of the ruling Democratic Progress Party (DPP), stressed that China had exercised complete control over Hong Kong and Macau, and the professionals residency plan would become a channel for Beijing to penetrate Hong Kong.

Since then, the backlash against permanent residency plans for Hongkongers has only increased. To this extent, apart from xenophobia against outsiders, there may also be the substrate of the fear that Hongkongers might become competitors in Taiwan's job and business sector.

Indeed, in April, reports from Hong Kong news outlets stated that pro-democracy Hong Kong district councillors were denied entry to Taiwan despite having had visa applications approved in the past. One reason cited was that they had pledged allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR government, a requirement for all civil servants in Hong Kong. However, the two district councillors were not seeking asylum in Taiwan but were only hoping to visit friends and sightsee.

The MAC claimed that the situation has changed in the past few years and that the added procedures in screening Hongkongers’ travel visas were due to changing national security needs.

At the same time, citing spying concerns as a reason to block Hongkongers travelling to Taiwan doesn't reflect well on Taiwan's democratic institutions. It also doesn't hold up, considering mainland Chinese citizens are free to travel to Taiwan for business, study, or even travel.

More generally, even as the number of Hongkongers in Taiwan has risen in past years, the backlash against Hongkongers in Taiwanese society is also increasing. It will remain to be seen, then, if the MAC will follow through with the permanent residency extension or if there is sufficient pushback from Hongkonger groups in Taiwan to suspend the move.

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