When Kenneth Ip and Natalie Wong left Hong Kong in early 2021, they carried little with them except for some luggage and a fake invitation to a Taiwan wedding. In 2019 they’d been arrested at Polytech university, where they had been part of the Protect Our Children deescalation organisation, a group of older Hongkongers who acted as physical buffers between the young pro-democracy protesters and the riot police.
They escaped being charged, Ip tells the Guardian, but police still considered them suspected rioters and they no longer felt safe in Hong Kong. So they fled for Taiwan, where a government was offering to help them.
“We just acted like we were going to travel,” he says. “The flight was such a relief and when we arrived it was like ‘oh finally, we can be free’. But it was a complicated feeling, I’m leaving my town, family, my friends.”
The couple are among thousands of Hongkongers fleeing to Taiwan. Some came as investors, others on business or study visas. Taiwan amended laws to decriminalise arriving unlawfully to seek political asylum. However, it has no refugee program. Even if it did, the constitution – written in 1947 by a Chinese government-in-exile still claiming the mainland – enshrines Hongkongers in a grey area, neither citizens nor foreigners. Support is ad-hoc, raising concerns about permanence and stability. Many are reportedly leaving, or considering leaving, for places such as the UK.
Ip and Wong both hold British national overseas passports and had the option of going to the UK, but chose Taiwan so they could continue careers in social work and one day have their families visit. They struggle with language and cultural differences, but say they have to make a go of it.
Sitting in their small northern Taipei apartment, the couple’s four newly rescued cats wind their ways around our legs and the sparse furniture. The bed, covered in an army-style print and half a dozen plush toys, takes up most of the bedroom’s floorspace. Surrounding possessions nod to the social movement that sent them into exile: a political flag, a bright democracy-yellow suitcase.
Ip feels some regret. When the couple met he was a longtime activist but Wong wasn’t. He’d warned her of what she might be in for, but they hadn’t expected this.
After the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were crushed by a government crackdown and the introduction of the national security law, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers moved overseas. Most took newly expanded pathways to the UK, Canada, Australia, the US, and Taiwan. In 2020, the Taiwan government issued 10,813 residence permits and 1,576 permanent residency permits to people from Hong Kong, almost double the previous year. In 2021 it issued 1,685 permanent residencies. In the first four months of this year it has granted 597.
‘Keep a low profile’
Ip and Wong were assisted by the specially created Hong Kong humanitarian aid project within Taiwan’s mainland affairs council (MAC) which helps people get visas, and provides other assistance. There is little transparency about the program’s details, which appears to be on a case-by-case basis, and a lot of the help is occurring “under the table”, says Wong Yik-Mo, a former protest leader who now assists Hongkongers in Taiwan.
Pow is a 28-year-old who says he was a frontline protester in 2019. He left Hong Kong in early 2020. He says he doesn’t tell people why he came to Taiwan, and he’s been asked by government representatives to “keep a low profile”. “We never know the people around us, who supports Hong Kong protesters and who doesn’t,” he says.
Observers say the government is trying to balance supporting the Hongkongers it has called “freedom fighters”, and avoiding provoking Beijing, which threatens to invade Taiwan. There are also domestic concerns about the threat of Chinese infiltration, and fears about the impact of migration on jobs and housing.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, was re-elected in 2020 after campaigning on a platform of solidarity with the Hong Kong protests. But Huang Kwei-bo, a professor of diplomacy and former senior official in the opposition Kuomintang party, accuses the government of not helping those “in humanitarian emergency situations” as much as it could.
“The Tsai administration prefers a government-guided and -funded humanitarian aid project in collaboration with Taiwan’s NGOs that largely help Hongkongers who can hold an entry permit to Taiwan,” he says.
Of those who made it to Taiwan, many have turned to civil society and religious groups such as the Chi-nan Presbyterian church and its pastor, Huang Chun-sen. Huang has become a target of Chinese state media for his material support of the protesters and tells the Guardian he has received enough threats that police now regularly patrol the church.
Wong says the government could “do better” in helping new arrivals, and they often feel alone. Pow wants to stay in Taiwan but says the government could do more to help them feel “secure” and motivated to build a future, by making it easier to get permanent residency.
“We just need shelter and security and safety and to not need to worry about tomorrow.”
A recent report by the Washington Post revealed complaints of protesters’ residency applications stalling or being rejected for reasons including being born in China or having worked in the Hong Kong public sector. Wong says it happened to their former roommate: a mainland-born, Hong Kong-raised protester who she says was told to return to her place of birth – and the government she’d fled – to re-lodge her application.
Taiwan’s government labelled the report “false”, pointing to the more than 3,200 permanent residencies approved in 2020 and 2021 as proof.
There remains an uneasy sentiment among many Hongkongers in Taiwan, a reluctant disappointment clouding their gratitude for the sanctuary.
Ip and Wong will stay for now and hope their families can soon visit. They’ll try for permanent residency, but if it doesn’t work out the UK is their backup. They won’t go back to Hong Kong.
Asked if she regrets their activism with Protect Our Children, Wong pauses, and then talks herself in a circle.
“Sometimes, maybe,” she says. “I miss my family, and some days I see a Hong Kong movie or food and I feel regret, but not always, and I’m so proud of myself for doing that … So no. No regrets.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin