Why Taiwan’s Assistance to Hong Kong Matters
Taiwan’s government is signaling its status as a regional beacon for democracy and human rights—in contrast to South Korea, which frames assistance to North Korean refugees as helping ethnic brethren.
On July 1, Taiwan formally launched a new humanitarian assistance and resettlement program for Hong Kong residents. The move comes as Beijing tightens its grip on the city, most recently through the passage of a new national security law that allows mainland security forces to operate in the city and grants mainland courts jurisdiction over national security-related cases. The law was unanimously approved and promulgated by the Chinese government earlier this week, and Hong Kong police have already made their first arrests under it.
Shortly after beginning her second term in late May, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen offered assistance to people seeking to leave Hong Kong, calling on Taiwan’s legislature to develop a “humanitarian assistance action plan.” Last month, the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s governmental office for relations with the mainland, announced details of the program, framing it as Taiwan’s support for Hong Kong’s people in their defense of democracy, freedom, and human rights. That announcement prompted a stern response from Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which warned that “taking onto the island the rioters and elements who bring chaos to Hong Kong will only continue to bring harm to Taiwan’s people.”
Taiwan’s recent move might look like a straightforward humanitarian response to the intensifying crisis in neighboring Hong Kong, but there’s more to the emerging policy framework than meets the eye. In fact, what Taiwan is doing solidifies a particular nationalist path that differs from others in Asia and has the potential to fundamentally alter the region’s power dynamics.
A comparison helps to make the distinctiveness of Taiwan’s approach clear. Taiwan has framed its assistance program as humanitarian, aimed at aiding the fight for democracy and human rights. While that might seem obvious, it contrasts with the way another democracy in the region, South Korea, characterizes its resettlement program for North Korean refugees: assisting ethnic brethren.
These differences reflect the divergent paths taken by Taiwan and South Korea in framing their national identities in recent years. Taiwan nationalism—the notion of Taiwan as a national community distinct from China—was forged during the period when the island was under martial law and ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that had fled mainland China after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.
Despite shared Han roots, many islanders saw major cultural differences between themselves and the mainlanders (waishengren, or “out-of-province people”). But with democratization and generational turnover, the ethnic cleavage between mainlanders and islanders has largely faded, leaving a growing consensus in support of maintaining the status quo with China and a shared civic identity focused on Taiwan’s democratic status.
In recent years, the percentage of citizens who identify as solely Taiwanese, rather than Chinese or both, has reached an all-time high. Although that identity crosses party lines, it is particularly strong among the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the long-standing opposition party that pushed the KMT toward democratization and whose leader, Tsai Ing-wen, now holds the presidency. Tsai’s latest move further solidifies the civic basis of this identity: Rather than taking an ethnic or pan-Chinese approach, as it once did, Taiwan sees itself as a democratic nation, first and foremost.
South Korea, meanwhile, is stuck between old and new identities. The country is moving toward a “multicultural” Korea in many respects—something it acutely needs, as a dramatic decline in fertility has prompted an increased need for immigration and foreign labor. But when it comes to North Koreans, the state strictly upholds a co-ethnic principle: North Koreans are often spoken of as having “automatic citizenship” and receive preferential resettlement benefits not offered to multicultural immigrants or even to Korean-Chinese immigrants, or joseonjok.
The resettlement center for North Korean refugees is named Hanawon, or “house of unity,” a reference to the idea that Korea is a single nation based on shared Korean lineage and only temporarily divided into two opposing systems of governance by the tragedy of the Korean War. The ethnic dimension of Korean identity has remained durable, in part because it was how the nation survived when political autonomy was lost to Japan during the first half of the 20th century. But looking to the 21st century, South Korea’s ethnic exception toward North Koreans creates a dual-track approach, and it holds back its national identity from evolving to include the growing influx of foreigners, a trend that is inevitable given the country’s demographic realities.
The different paths taken by Taiwan and South Korea come with domestic and international trade-offs. Domestically, research shows that strong identity linkage between nation and state drives a greater sense of civic duty among citizens. At a moment when both democracies face integration challenges from their resettlement programs, they will need high levels of civic cooperation from native citizens. Taiwan’s identity consolidation toward civic nationalism stands to fare better at incorporating a diverse array of newcomers than South Korea’s approach, which uses multicultural rhetoric, but, in practice, remains fragmented and at least partly reliant on an ethnic conception of nationhood.
South Korea’s co-ethnic exception toward North Koreans has also sent mixed messages to the community it was most intended to help, as many North Koreans perceive that state rhetoric about ethnic unity doesn’t always translate into full membership in South Korean society in practice. They become disillusioned when they face discrimination, unemployment, and other social challenges in the South.
There are trade-offs in foreign policy, too. South Korea’s ethnic nationalist approach to North Korea contains responsibility for the issue to the Korean peninsula and portrays South Korea’s operating principle as taking care of its own. There are good reasons for this, especially if the state’s ultimate goal is to move toward national reconciliation. But it also closes off the North Korean refugee issue from becoming a focal point for larger, multilateral efforts to protect human rights worldwide, and it limits South Korea from taking on a broader regional or global leadership role in related pro-democracy efforts.
By contrast, Taiwan’s liberal appeal toward Hong Kong aligns the island clearly with the most recent version of the U.S. National Security Strategy, which portrays the Indo-Pacific as defined by “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” and embeds Taiwan within a global community interested in preserving and defending democracy in Hong Kong and around the world. This seemingly small difference establishes Taiwan as the new front line in a broader struggle for democracy and human rights in Asia, and worldwide.
Sheena Chestnut Greitens is an associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.