TAIPEI/HONG KONG • Taiwan is gearing up to welcome Hong Kong people fleeing their city as China tightens its grip, but the island has little experience in handling refugees and is scrambling to prepare to keep out any Chinese spies who may try to join the influx.
Hong Kong’s year-long anti-government protests have won widespread sympathy in Chinese-claimed democratic Taiwan, which has welcomed those who have already arrived and expects more.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen last month became the first government leader anywhere to pledge measures to help Hong Kong residents who opt to leave due to what they see as tightening Chinese controls, including newly planned national security legislation, smothering their democratic aspirations.
China denies stifling Hong Kong’s freedoms and has condemned Ms Tsai’s offer.
Taiwan, for decades just as wary of the mainland as many in the former British colony are, is working on a humanitarian relief plan for the expected arrivals, officials say.
“Hong Kong no doubt is a priority for Tsai,” said a senior government official familiar with the President’s thinking, adding that the administration was setting aside resources to handle the Hong Kong arrivals.
The plan would include a monthly allowance for living and rent and shelter for those unable to find accommodation, said a second person with direct knowledge of the preparations.
It is too early to gauge how many may come, but Taiwan does not expect the number to be more than the thousands who came from Vietnam from the mid-1970s, most fleeing the communist takeover of what had been United States-backed South Vietnam.
Nearly 200 Hong Kongers have fled to Taiwan since protests flared last year.
About 10 per cent have been granted visas under a law that protects Hong Kong people who are at risk for political reasons, said Mr Shih Yi-hsiang of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights.
For now, though, anyone thinking of making the move has to wait as Taiwan has barred Hong Kong people as part of its efforts to block the spread of the coronavirus, but Mr Shih expects the number to jump once the ban is lifted.
HOPING FOR NORMAL LIFE
It’s the only hope for protesters who can’t afford moving to other places. I hope I can live a normal life in Taiwan. I’ve forgotten what a normal life is like.
MR TYRANT LAU, 26, who wants to make Taiwan home because of its democracy and low cost of living. Mr Lau, who is waiting for the border to reopen, was released last month from an eight-month sentence in Hong Kong for possession of weapons.
With little experience with refugees since the 1970s and worries that China may plant spies posing as activists, the government is urgently looking for experts to vet backgrounds, the second source said.
“This is a very complicated scenario that the Taiwan government has never dealt with,” said the source, who declined to be identified as information about the plans has not been made public.
“We didn’t think such things would happen in Hong Kong even in our dreams.”
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment.
A Taiwan government panel including security officials will scrutinise applications and issue visas allowing Hong Kong people to study or work in Taiwan, the second source said.
Mr Shih said the government also needed experts in areas from case management to counselling.
A senior Taipei-based Western diplomat said Taiwan was most likely to get the most radical protesters and the less well-off, as those with the means would probably choose to go to countries such as Canada or Britain.
Mr Tyrant Lau, 26, released last month from an eight-month sentence in Hong Kong for possession of weapons, said he aimed to make Taiwan home because of its democracy and low cost of living.
“It’s the only hope for protesters who can’t afford moving to other places,” Mr Lau said in Hong Kong as he waits for the border to reopen.
“I hope I can live a normal life in Taiwan. I’ve forgotten what a normal life is like.”