A protester waves the Taiwanese flag against a backdrop of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Taiwan is watching warily as China’s National People’s Congress pushes a controversial national security law on Hong Kong that threatens to undermine the autonomous city’s liberties and freedoms.

Taiwan’s independence-tilting president Tsai Ing-wen, having been sworn in last week, was quick to fire her first salvo against Beijing in her second term as leader of the self-governed island. More than once in the past weekend she called Beijing out on its “predation” of Hong Kong.

She said Taiwan would monitor the development closely because details of the new national security law on secessionism, terrorism and foreign interference are yet to be spelled out.

“Bullets and repression are not the way to deal with the aspirations of Hong Kong’s people for freedom and democracy,” wrote Tsai on her Facebook page on Sunday.

In her inauguration speech last Wednesday, Tsai vehemently rejected Beijing’s overtures of replicating the “one country, two systems” formula, now in place in the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, to lay the groundwork for the island’s reunification with China.

“We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo. We stand fast by this principle,” Tsai vowed.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, now into her second term, has again vowed not to accept Beijing’s offer of ‘one country, two systems.’ Photo: Handout

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry and Mainland Affairs Council have also hit back at hints from some pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong that the new law would act to counter the island’s covert espionage activities in the city.

“Beijing is under a delusion that the source of dissent and unrest in Hong Kong is the so-called ‘foreign meddling’ and the pro-democracy movement. That is why it decrees that a new law must be foisted upon the territory to eradicate such ‘perceived threats,'” read a statement.

In a separate post condemning Beijing’s unilateral imposition of a new law on Hong Kong, Tsai has also talked up the need to assist dissidents and activists fleeing persecution in the city, as many of them are arriving on Taiwan’s shores.

When Hong Kong was choked with tear gas during the height of last year’s protests against a China extradition bill, Tsai said that the onus would be on Taiwan to take in and take care of Hong Kong protesters jumping bail or fearing purges in their home city.

Taiwan’s existing law regarding Hong Kong and Macau contains a provision for the island to offer help to residents of the territories who may be subject to danger or unfair trial and imprisonment due to their political views or acts.

The exact number of Hongkongers seeking shelter in Taiwan varies in different reports, as many of them can just hop on a plane to the island, availing of the simple entry procedures for Hongkongers.

Taiwan’s semiofficial Central News Agency put the figure at more than 1,000 in a report in January.

These potential asylum seekers are on top of the 5,858 Hong Kong emigrants who took up residence on the island in 2019 via marriage, capital investment or other entrant schemes, up more than 40% year on year, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency and the Ministry of the Interior.

Just one day after Beijing’s abrupt announcement about the national security law for Hong Kong, an immigration consultant told the city’s papers that inquiries about immigration to Taiwan had soared tenfold compared with the previous daily average.

Hongkongers living in Taiwan rally for the city’s fight for democracy. Many protesters facing charges and purges are rushing to the self-ruled island. Photos: Facebook, CNA

Yet Tsai issued a conflicting message during the past weekend that may spell ill for those contemplating a new life on the island.

Apparently taking a cue from Washington, Tsai noted she may consider ending the island’s preferential treatment for Hong Kong regarding trade, investments and travel as enshrined in a related law if the city’s autonomy and freedoms continue to diminish to an extent that can no longer distinguish it from the rest of China.

The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office Hong Kong, Taiwan’s de-facto consulate in the city, sought to downplay the warning from Tsai, noting that Hong Kong residents would still get special treatment not applicable to mainland Chinese and that any changes to existing arrangements would never be made lightly.

“What the president said was that she hoped Hong Kong would never be bogged down in an even direr situation that would unavoidably require Taiwan to review existing laws and arrangements. The president has also assured that when the international community is discussing ways to help Hongkongers, Taiwan will proactively review and improve ways to render aid and assistance,” said the office.

Tsai’s remarks concerning the termination of special ties with Hong Kong has, nonetheless, attracted criticism from the opposition. Opposition leader Johnny Chiang, chair of the Kuomintang Party, said he could not understand why Tsai would want to punish Hongkongers for Beijing’s move to undermine the city’s standing.

“Taiwan could be sending a wrong message as if it is preparing to abandon Hong Kong and end all the special treatment altogether, at a time when Hongkongers may need our help more than ever. President Tsai used the issue of Hong Kong to get maximum advantage during the election but now she is dropping hints about ditching the city right after the presidential race,” said Chiang.

The KMT’s lawmakers have called on the government to set out special mechanisms and arrangements for humanitarian aid and asylum protection for Hongkongers, while the Taiwan People’s Party has also moved to enact a Hong Kong Refugee Law now that the island has become a refuge for a growing number of people fleeing the city.

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