Argument

Hong Kongers Say Taiwan Is Their First Choice as Exile Looms

Beijing’s new security law may cause mass emigration in Hong Kong.

A depiction of the Hong Kong flag
A depiction of the Hong Kong flag is seen as people gather in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, also known as Free Square, to mark the 31st anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Taipei on June 4. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

As a draconian new national security law is imposed in Hong Kong, locals face a bleak choice: fight or flight. While plenty remain committed to defending freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, another alternative is to emigrate away from the city. Since last summer, Hong Kong protesters began to flee for safer countries out of fear of political persecution. Now that Beijing has enacted the national security law, talk of departing Hong Kong among the masses has spread. This leads to two important questions: How serious are Hong Kongers about leaving their home, and where do Hong Kongers plan to move to?

We conducted an online survey of 890 Hong Kong citizens through Survey Sampling International (Dynata) between June 22 and 26, right before the passage of the national security law. Our sample demographics match trends released previously by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in terms of ethnic identification, showing a large rift between those who identify as Chinese versus Hong Konger. Over three-quarters of our sample identified as Hong Konger, an affiliation more likely to be held among the young. Our sample’s proportion of Chinese-identifying individuals mirrors the share of those who affiliate with a pro-Chinese establishment political party; the same is the case for the comparable proportion of those who identify as Hong Konger to those identified with a non-establishment movement (pan-democrat, localist, or self-determinist).

We explicitly asked about where Hong Kong citizens stand on the issue of fleeing their city. We found that a serious percentage (about 50 percent) have considered emigrating away from Hong Kong. We further asked respondents who indicated interest in moving to rank destinations they would plan to immigrate to. The chart below displays the first choice of location among Hong Kong residents in our sample who stated that they had thought about moving. The top choice is Hong Kong’s democratic neighbor, Taiwan, which also struggles with coercion from Beijing. Twenty-nine percent of interested immigrants said that Taiwan is their first country of choice. A much lower percentage, 12 percent, stated that they would first move to Mainland China; these were largely Hong Kong residents who were older and identified with a pro-Chinese establishment political party.

Our results also speak to how Hong Kongers feel about non-East Asian locations. Canada and Australia were viewed as more suitable for immigration as a first choice compared to Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler, the United Kingdom. Only 10 percent of interested immigrants ranked the U.K. as their first choice. This is surprising given U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent pledge to create pathways to let millions of Hong Kongers into the United Kingdom. One possible reason for the U.K.’s low ranking is that Johnson’s program only allows for British National (Overseas) passport-holders, most of whom are older. Younger Hong Kongers born after the handover in 1997 may find the U.K. less appealing because they lack that passport status. Canada, meanwhile, has become a popular destination for Hong Kong’s wealthy elite, which helps explains why it is held in such high esteem. While some want to relocate to the United States, there is little preference to make this move as a first option.

For contrast, the above chart also shows the last destination of choice for immigration among Hong Kong citizens who had interest in moving out of their city. The undoubtedly least-desired outcome for potential immigrants is to move to Mainland China, with 68 percent ranking it in last place. This likely reflects Hong Kongers’ preference not to live in a communist regime. Notably, about 10 percent say that the United States and Australia are least suitable for them if they were to decide to emigrate out of Hong Kong.

Our findings hold important implications for the future of Hong Kong and Hong Kong-Taiwan relations. Taiwan especially should begin to seriously prepare for Hong Kongers attempting to permanently relocate. Over the last year, hundreds of Hong Kong protesters have fled to Taiwan. Yet, because of Taiwan’s lack of asylum law, most have been stuck in a state of ambiguity, unable to gain residency or employment. After a year of Hong Kong protesters calling on the Taiwanese government to offer formal assistance, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen finally established a new office aimed to help Hong Kongers seek humanitarian assistance in Taiwan last month.

Tsai’s program is designed to use existing laws within Taiwan to help relocate businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals to Taiwan. However, legal experts have already noted weaknesses in Tsai’s action plan, notably the lack of definition of who from Hong Kong is qualified to apply for humanitarian assistance. Tsai’s program is set up to help any Hong Konger who is interested in relocating to Taiwan rather than focusing on activists. Given our data, Tsai may actually need to press forward on this broader agenda. Beyond protesters, our data shows a large number of average Hong Kongers are eying Taiwan as a new home.

If interest in Taiwan materializes, Tsai will need to make Taiwan’s new Hong Kong assistance office even more robust. Fortunately, the issue of Hong Kong has been viewed with more consensus across party lines, with the pro-Beijing Kuomintang even supporting legislation to help Hong Kongers flee to Taiwan. Taiwanese society, meanwhile, may also be met with a larger share of new Cantonese-speaking neighbors. Although symbolic support for Hong Kong was high during the 2020 Taiwanese election, we still do not know the extent to which those in Taiwan support allowing Hong Kongers to become Taiwanese residents on a more substantive policy level.

Hong Kongers face a seemingly impossible decision: Should they stay and defend their home and risk a new kind of political oppression, or seek refuge somewhere else where Hong Kongers can live freely? In the following months, especially with the passage and implementation of the national security law, such decisions will have a major influence on civil society. Continued discussion and consideration of relocation is likely, along with some more Hong Kong citizens leaving their home. While our survey cannot speak to whether or not those in Hong Kong will actually emigrate, it does show that such an idea is being seriously considered. Unfortunately, many Hong Kongers will be torn between deciding to stay and resist on the one hand, and fleeing the place they call home on the other.

Lev Nachman is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine.

Nathan Kar Ming Chan is a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC Irvine

Chit Wai John Mok is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UC Irvine.

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