OPINION-A Destination Too Far: The Politics of Escape from Hong Kong to Taiwan

The arrest of 12 Hong Kong people on a speedboat by the mainland Chinese coastguard on August 26 showed not only the difficulties of some Hong Kong protest activists to escape from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) to Taiwan, but also a cautious response from the Taiwan government.

The mainland Chinese marine police revealed that at 9 am on the morning of August 23, its patrol vessel discovered and stopped a speedboat loaded with 12 Hong Kong people, including Andy Li and eleven other youngsters who tried to be smuggled illegally away from the HKSAR. The Hong Kong media reported that the 12 young people, including eleven men and one woman, were protest activists arrested by the police for their involvement in the 2019 anti-extradition movement. They were detained by the mainland’s marine police at the distance of 78 kilometers from the Hong Kong Island and 600 kilometers from Taiwan.

These young people fled Hong Kong seemingly because of their attempt at escaping from the implementation of the national security law, which was enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on June 30, 2020. To them, Taiwan represented their “free” and “democratic” destination.

Andy Li was previously charged of violating the new national security law and was released on bail. In November 2019, according to Hong Kong reports, he had lobbied some foreign politicians to visit Hong Kong and observe its political developments. Of the other eleven arrested youngsters, two were suspected of manufacturing of explosives; four were suspected of committing arson; two were charged of rioting; and three others were charged of causing bodily harm. Of the 12 arrested protest activists, eight of them were disallowed to leave Hong Kong. One of them was absent in a court trial and is under arrest warrant.

The reaction of the Mainland Affairs Council of the Taiwan government was cautious. Its deputy minister Chiu Chui-cheng remarked that, if the people of Hong Kong and Macau wished to seek Taiwan’s help for political grounds, they should follow the existing mechanism under the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macau. He added that the Hong Kong people should follow legal channels if they wish to move to Taiwan.

At a time when the mainland has been frequently conducting military exercises, and when Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen explicitly said on August 27 that Taipei is worried about any military accidents between Taiwan and Beijing, Taipei did not want to antagonize the mainland Chinese leadership by openly supporting the Hong Kong dissidents who escaped or attempt to escape to Taiwan.

Article 18 of the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macau states that, “if Hong Kong or Macau residents may have their safety and freedom endangered urgently by political reasons, they may receive the necessary aid.” This stipulation allows some room for maneuver for the Taiwan government in its handling of Hong Kong’s political dissidents.

The abortive attempt by the 12 young Hong Kong people was due to the of their speedboat’s interception by the mainland’s marine police on the morning of August 23. As a result, a Taiwan organization that assisted them lost contact with their speedboat at 10 pm on the night of August 23.

There were reportedly three sea routes for the Hong Kong protest activists to escape to Taiwan. First, they used speedboats to go directly from Sai Kung to Kaohsiung. Second, they could use speedboats to go to mainland China’s coastal regions, where they changed to use land transport to arrive at Xiamen in Fujian. From Xiamen, they could be smuggled to Kinmen – a route combining sea with land routes with tremendous risks. Third, they could go to Taiwan’s Dongsha Island, which is located at about 300 kilometers away from Hong Kong, and then they could be transferred from Dongsha to Taiwan’s Pingtung. 

It was reported that, in July, two groups of protest activists succeeded in escaping from Hong Kong to Taiwan, one via the sea route to Kaohsiung and the other to Pingtung. The first group comprised some ten protest activists who succeeded in arriving Kaohsiung. Another group was composed of five protest activists, whose speedboat eventually ran out of gasoline but drifted to Dongsha where the Taiwan coastguard administration discovered them.

The sea passage from Hong Kong to Pingtung was a path chosen by the snakehead dealing with the 12 protestors; nonetheless, their speedboat was intercepted by mainland marine police, whose activities have increased perhaps partly due to the tense military relations between mainland China and Taiwan. Perhaps the arrested Hong Kong protestors chose a bad timing to escape from Hong Kong to Taiwan – a bridge too far for them. With the promulgation of the national security law for Hong Kong, the police in the HKSAR and mainland have increased their vigilance and naval patrols to prevent some protest activists from being smuggled to Taiwan. 

Since June 2019, at least 200 Hong Kong protestors have taken refuge to Taiwan. Some of them remain nostalgic about Hong Kong. Some have been gradually adapting to Taiwan’s life. Most of them have been assisted by Taiwan’s religious and human rights activists, who are sympathetic with their predicament.

Lam Wing-kee, who was a former owner of the Causeway Bay Bookstore in Hong Kong and who was “sent” from Shenzhen to Zhejiang province in October 2015 for the mainland’s investigation of the politically sensitive books published by his company, decided to migrate to Taiwan in April 2019 in view of the introduction of the extradition bill in the HKSAR. He reopened the Causeway Bay Bookstore in Taipei. His experience and decision perhaps provided an impetus for some young Hong Kong dissidents to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan.

Mainland lawyers have said that the arrested twelve Hong Kong people, who are now detained in Shenzhen, would be trialed in the mainland, where illegal migrants may face imprisonment for illegal border crossing. Then they would be sent back to the Hong Kong authorities after serving their sentences in mainland China. Their arrests revealed the huge risks of taking the sea route from Hong Kong to Taiwan – an illegal smuggling operation which, according to Hong Kong reports, could be fetched up from tens of thousands to a high range of HK$500,000 to HK$1 million per person due to the high risks incurred in the dangerous undertaking.

Perhaps the cautious response from the Taiwan government led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) illustrated its dilemma. Recently, the former President, Ma Ying-jeou, of the Kuomintang (KMT) has criticized the DPP leadership for not only failing to recognize the 1992 consensus between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, but also pushing Beijing-Taipei relations to a militarily tense atmosphere. Ma added that any mainland military attack on Taiwan would likely be “the first and the last one.” The pro-DPP elites criticized Ma’s remarks, labelling him as “unpatriotic.” 

Ma’s sudden resurgence has pointed to the factional rivalries within the KMT, which has been suffering from the recall vote of the former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu and from the huge defeat of his succeeding candidate, Jane Lee, by DPP candidate Chen Chi-mai in the by-election on August 15. Jane Lee’s poor performance illustrated the KMT’s lackluster leadership and revived the old guards’ attempt at resuscitating the former President Ma Ying-jeou.

Hypothetically speaking, if the KMT were presently in power in Taiwan, its handling of the Hong Kong political dissidents could have been quite different from the DPP’s cautiousness and clumsiness. The KMT could have made use of the Hong Kong dissidents as a potentially powerful bargaining chip to negotiate with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in any discussions of the future relationships between Taipei and Beijing. 

The PRC policy-makers, by being hardline on Hong Kong matters, might not have fully calculated that, if the KMT might return to power in Taiwan’s presidential election one day, the KMT would likely utilize the plight of the Hong Kong dissidents in Taiwan as a bargaining chip to exert some concessions from the CCP. 

Rejecting the 1992 consensus in which both the CCP and KMT recognized that there is only one China but leaving the definition of one China to interpretations from both sides, the DPP is ironically hamstrung by its opposition to both the CCP and PRC. As such, the DPP’s relatively weak response to the escape of Hong Kong’s protest activists to Taiwan is understandable.

In short, since the 2019 protests in the HKSAR, the escape of some Hong Kong political dissidents to Taiwan has become a hallmark of Hong Kong-Taipei interactions. While the response of the DPP regime in Taiwan remains apparently cautious but substantially weak, the recent abortive escape of Hong Kong dissidents to Taiwan has shown a destination too far, revealing the deep fissures of Taiwan politics between the KMT and the DPP, and the profound political differences between the CCP and DPP.