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Taiwanese Are Sympathetic but Uncertain About Hong Kong Refugees

Widespread support for protesters may not translate into policy.

A Hong Kong artist poses in Taiwan.
Kacey Wong, a Hong Kong artist, poses for photos during an interview at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung, Taiwan, on Aug. 5, after he left Hong Kong for Taiwan in search of freedom. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Years of turmoil and tightening restrictions on political participation and individual liberty are prompting many Hong Kongers to consider emigration. Our 2020 study found a large proportion of Hong Kongers have thought about leaving Hong Kong permanently. Among them, the most desired destination is Taiwan. But what kind of reception will Hong Kongers find in Taiwan? Are the Taiwanese ready for an influx of newcomers arriving on their shores?

Taiwan’s leaders have offered a resounding yes. Since the onset of large-scale protests in 2019 against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong, Taiwanese politicians have spared no opportunity to express their support for Hong Kong or the protesters’ cause. Images of the Hong Kong protests were central to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 reelection campaign. Since her reelection, Tsai’s government has adopted policies aimed at helping Hong Kongers relocate to Taiwan.

Despite strong support at the top, however, our May survey of 1,000 Taiwanese shows the commonly held assumption that Taiwan is supportive of Hong Kongers is overly simplistic. Rather than portraying Taiwanese society as eagerly supporting Hong Kongers, it is more accurate to describe Taiwanese as sympathetic but ambivalent. The Taiwanese do not dislike Hong Kongers, and they support their political cause, but we found little evidence of the deeply felt connection many Taiwanese leaders and activists portray.

Years of turmoil and tightening restrictions on political participation and individual liberty are prompting many Hong Kongers to consider emigration. Our 2020 study found a large proportion of Hong Kongers have thought about leaving Hong Kong permanently. Among them, the most desired destination is Taiwan. But what kind of reception will Hong Kongers find in Taiwan? Are the Taiwanese ready for an influx of newcomers arriving on their shores?

Taiwan’s leaders have offered a resounding yes. Since the onset of large-scale protests in 2019 against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong, Taiwanese politicians have spared no opportunity to express their support for Hong Kong or the protesters’ cause. Images of the Hong Kong protests were central to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 reelection campaign. Since her reelection, Tsai’s government has adopted policies aimed at helping Hong Kongers relocate to Taiwan.

Despite strong support at the top, however, our May survey of 1,000 Taiwanese shows the commonly held assumption that Taiwan is supportive of Hong Kongers is overly simplistic. Rather than portraying Taiwanese society as eagerly supporting Hong Kongers, it is more accurate to describe Taiwanese as sympathetic but ambivalent. The Taiwanese do not dislike Hong Kongers, and they support their political cause, but we found little evidence of the deeply felt connection many Taiwanese leaders and activists portray.

Our survey asked Taiwanese voters a series of questions about how they felt about Hong Kong—from the 2019 anti-extradition protests to whether the Taiwanese government has an obligation to help Hong Kongers to specific policy questions like Hong Kongers’ relation to Taiwan’s real estate market. We found responses varied, especially between symbolic and substantive types of assistance.

Taiwan has its own history of democratic protests, and Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led many of them. So she and her supporters would likely view the Hong Kong protests favorably. Our survey found, however, that support for Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law movement is not limited to the DPP base: 60 percent of respondents said they supported the protests. Only 15 percent did not. Support was strongest among young people; more than 75 percent of those in their 20s and 30s supported the protests, and 90 percent of DPP identifiers supported the protests as well.

Supporting the anti-extradition movement reflects the deep distrust many Taiwanese—especially young people and DPP identifiers—harbor toward the Chinese government. Many Taiwanese view Hong Kong protesters as engaged in a fight against a common adversary.

Support for Hong Kongers’ resistance to Beijing is strong in Taiwan, but when we looked at more substantive, policy-based questions about what Taiwan should do to help Hong Kong, consensus was harder to find.

We asked whether the Taiwanese thought Taiwan has an obligation to help Hong Kongers and whether their government has done enough to help. The results showed little agreement: 29 percent agree Taiwan has a responsibility to help while 33 percent disagree. The rest—nearly 40 percent—are ambivalent. As to whether Taiwan is doing enough to assist Hong Kongers, respondents were split: 28 percent said “yes” and 29 percent said “no” with the rest ambivalent. Here again, DPP identifiers were more likely to support Hong Kongers, with 40 percent saying Taiwan has an obligation to help. But even among DPP supporters, the majority did not see assistance as an obligation.

Ideological support for Hong Kong—supporting the protesters in their fight against China—is something Taiwanese feel strongly about. But when it comes to whether Taiwan ought to do something to help Hong Kongers, the Taiwanese were divided.

Why the disconnect? One possible explanation is the Taiwanese sympathize with Hong Kongers’ struggles against the Beijing government. They see the collapse of “One Country, Two Systems;” China’s proposed formula for absorbing Taiwan; and China’s takeover of Hong Kong as inherently bad. Supporting Hong Kongers’ resistance against Beijing is something Taiwanese can symbolically identify with—but this kind of support is qualitatively different from wanting to share resources with or feeling personally connected to the Hong Kong people.

The most obvious aid Taiwan could offer to Hong Kongers would be to allow them to immigrate to Taiwan, an option we know is popular among Hong Kongers. But are Taiwanese ready for their arrival? Here again, the picture is fuzzy, although positive responses outweigh negative ones on most measures. For example, about 36 percent of Taiwanese support Hong Kongers immigrating to Taiwan while only 23 percent oppose it. Still, the largest group—42 percent—are ambivalent.


Why are so many Taiwanese ambivalent about Hong Kongers immigrating to the island? One possibility is although they are sympathetic to Hong Kongers in general, they worry about how the arrival of so many newcomers might affect their own interests.

Economically, the Taiwanese believe Taiwan as a whole could benefit from Hong Kong immigration, but as individuals, they are more likely to see potential for economic competition that could hurt their interests.

One of the most competitive areas of Taiwan’s economy is the housing market. The price of housing has outpaced wage increases for many years, even during the pandemic, imposing an especially heavy burden on young people. A wave of immigrants from Hong Kong would likely push prices even higher, so it’s no surprise only 25 percent of Taiwanese favor allowing Hong Kongers to buy into that competitive market.

Some Taiwanese see mass immigration as a potential security threat. Infiltration and disinformation from China are major concerns for Taiwan, leading some to suggest Beijing might plant agents among Hong Kong immigrants. Concern about the potential for infiltration is an often cited reason by the government to keep regulations on Hong Kong immigration strict. We found the majority of Taiwanese agree—across party lines—that Hong Kongers fleeing to Taiwan pose a security threat.

The final policy question we asked is whether the Taiwanese believe Hong Kongers who live in Taiwan for a long time ought to earn the right to vote. Surprisingly, despite only 36 percent of Taiwanese supporting Hong Kongers immigrating to Taiwan, 43 percent support the idea that Hong Kongers who do immigrate eventually should be permitted to vote. This finding shows a sense of civic nationalism—that if you become part of Taiwanese society, you should be able to participate in its politics. Acquiring citizenship and voting rights is an arduous process for immigrants to Taiwan; survey respondents’ willingness to admit Hong Kong migrants to the franchise suggests that on this question, at least, the public may be ahead of its political leadership.

In summation, our research suggests a stark contrast between symbolic support for Hong Kongers and substantive support for policies aimed at helping them. Still, a plurality of respondents remains undecided on many of these questions. That leaves room for continued debate—and leaves open the question of how Taiwan will treat the many Hong Kongers hoping to make their way to its shores.

Correction, Aug. 5, 2021: A previous version of a graphic on assisting Hong Kongers listed an incorrect percentage.

Lev Nachman is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and holds a PhD in political science from the University of California, Irvine.

Shelley Rigger is the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College, and the author of The Tiger Leading the Dragon: How Taiwan Propelled China’s Economic Rise.

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

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

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