Taiwan's Elections May Determine the Fate of Fleeing Hong Kong Protesters

Taiwan's Elections May Determine the Fate of Fleeing Hong Kong Protesters
Photo Credit: Vincent Thian / AP / TPG Images
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The Hong Kong protests might not have influenced Taiwanese voters as much as expected, but Taiwan's election results might determine the fate of the pro-democracy protesters who have fled from the city.

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By Timothy S. Rich, Isabel Eliassen, Madelynn Einhorn, Carolyn Brueggemann / Western Kentucky University

The Hong Kong protests presented a distinct challenge for Taiwan, as many Hong Kong protesters have fled to Taiwan. In the wake of protests, immigration from Hong Kong to Taiwan has surged 28 percent and accounted for 9.8 percent of the country’s overall immigration, nearly double the figures from 2018. 

Taiwan lacks an asylum law, providing at best ad hoc responses (e.g. “humanitarian visas”) to specific cases after public pressure, with the Mainland Affairs Council arguing the existing regulation as sufficient. Taiwanese are familiar with Chinese meddling in their own affairs, culminating most recently with the anti-infiltration law targeting Chinese efforts to spread disinformation, while also concerned that Taiwan’s future may resemble that of Hong Kong

However, we should be cautious in overestimating the impact of the protests on Tsai’s rising polls. 

Rather than making a claim of causality, we wished to more closely identify how Taiwanese perceived the protests. We conducted a web survey through PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Election Study Center in December 2019. 502 respondents were first asked to evaluate the statement “I sympathize with the protesters in Hong Kong” and on a five-point Likert scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree).

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A clear majority agreed or strongly agreed with the statement (59.2 percent) compared to only 19.6 percent in disagreement, but this overlooks a striking partisan distinction. Among DPP supporters, 89.2 agreed with the statement, compared to only 28.8 percent of KMT supporters. 

Similar distinctions emerged based on intended vote choice in the 2020 presidential election (90 percent of Tsai supporters stated they were sympathetic versus only 26.2 percent of Han Kuo-yu supporters). Similarly, divisions appeared when focusing on respondents who preferred eventual independence (88.7 percent) versus unification (22.8 percent).

Next, we asked respondents, “In your opinion, who or what is to blame for the protests in Hong Kong?” This was an open-ended question. Surprisingly, many respondents gave more elaborate answers than a phrase or two as expected. 

However, regardless of the length of response, most blamed the Chinese government in some form, with several blaming Chief Executive Carrie Lam specifically. Other responses mentioned China (with some calling it “the mainland”), the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, and Xi Jinping.

Next, respondents were randomly assigned to one of two versions of a prompt and asked to evaluate it again on a five-point scale.

  • Version 1: The Taiwanese government should publicly support the Hong Kong protesters.
  • Version 2: The Taiwanese government should publicly support the Hong Kong protesters, even if this harms relations with China.
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Again we see clear variation by party, with roughly three-quarters of DPP supporters agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement, while KMT supporters peaked at 13.4 percent under the second version. The framing of supporting Hong Kong and its potential effects on cross-strait relations seemed to have little substantive impact on respondents other than with KMT supporters.

Lastly, we asked another experimental question, asking respondents to place themselves on the same five-point scale as before.

  • Version 1: I fear Chinese intervention in Taiwan in the future.
  • Version 2: After the Hong Kong protests, I fear Chinese intervention in Taiwan in the future.
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Our survey shows majorities agreeing with both statements, though the number slips by 11.1 percent when intervention is framed in relation to the Hong Kong protests. While counter-intuitive, respondents may have viewed the question differently than we intended. For example, respondents may have viewed the baseline version 1 in terms of broad forms of intervention, whereas the second version may have encouraged respondents to consider more direct forms of intervention. 

Alternatively, respondents may have thought that Tsai’s stance against China during the protests was forceful enough to ally concerns. Again, we see a stark partisan divide, where the overwhelming majority of DPP supporters remain concerned about Chinese influence, with roughly equal rates in both versions of the question, compared to less than 40 percent of KMT supporters feeling worried.

Overall, the extent of the partisan division ultimately complicates having a coherent asylum policy. Protesters seeking refuge are stuck in a limbo where they can enter Taiwan but are unable to work and ineligible for student visas. 

If the KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu is elected president, some 60 Hong Kong protesters who are staying in Taiwan on extended visas might be deported to face criminal charges. And for those who are still fighting for freedom in Hong Kong, they may lose a backup plan and an ally. 


READ NEXT: Hongkongers Living in Taiwan: It's Not All Sunshine and Rainbows

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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