A pro-Hong Kong rally in Taiwan. Photo: Facebook

Taiwan has moved to assure Hongkongers of “proactive rescue and possibly residency” to help them through the precarious time facing their city.

The island’s announcement vowing moral and concrete support came before the Chinese parliament’s approval of Beijing’s new national security law on Thursday. The law will be applied to the city to quell the protests that have recently raged back on to its streets.  

Sources with knowledge of recent discussions among Taiwanese officials say the initial estimate of the size of the emerging exodus from Hong Kong to the self-governed island could be as many as 100,000 emigrants.

The figure could be reached in the next one to two years if the the turmoil in the former British colony is exacerbated by the new law, as seems likely. 

Taiwanese papers cite officials with foreign and interior ministries as saying that the 36,100-square-kilometer island would have ample capacity to take in 100,000 Hongkongers, as they are unlikely to flock to the island overnight and the government can spread them across several major cities as well as Taipei.

It is not yet clear what Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen meant when she promised “proactive rescue” during a press briefing on Wednesday. Observers believe Taiwanese expats in Hong Kong and the city’s residents who also have Taiwanese ID cards will get priority in any evacuation. 

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed help for Hongkongers as many of them are fleeing to the self-ruled island. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

It has also been confirmed that, under directives from Tsai, the island’s Mainland Affairs Council has been studying the feasibility of granting residency to Hong Kong’s permanent residents who wish to settle on the island if they pass vetting and background checks. 

Tsai said a related task force would first come up with an action plan to render humanitarian aid to Hongkongers as well as assistance about settlement, right of abode and employment to those already in Taiwan.

She said the Mainland Affairs Council had convened a meeting and all related plans would be announced and scrutinized by lawmakers.

Hong Kong is staring down an abyss after Beijing decreed last week that a new national security law must be drafted and imposed on the territory. It will provide allowances for Chinese state agents to operate a base there to deter and criminalize rioters, secessionists and their foreign instigators.

The new law will kick in once its draft and legal parameters are finalized. The Asian financial hub is seeing tensions mount again following months-long rallies and clashes last year as protests pushed back against a now-withdrawn China extradition bill.   

Earlier this week, Tsai caused trepidation among some Hong Kong protesters who thought Taiwan’s shelter was guaranteed.

The president warned on a Facebook post that the island could strip the city of its preferential treatment, ranging from trade to travel, if its autonomy and liberties were further throttled by Beijing. 

A protester waves a flag inside a shopping mall in Hong Kong. Turmoil has raged back into the city after Beijing shocked Hongkongers with a new national security law to be thrust upon the Asian financial center. Photo: Facebook

Her post has been interpreted as slamming the door on Hong Kong people contemplating doing business, studying or fleeing to Taiwan to avoid penalties for protesting.

Taiwan has a specific law governing its ties with the two former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macau. When overseeing the drafting as a senior official of the Mainland Affairs Council back in the 1990s, Tsai inserted a clause that would enable the government to revoke Hong Kong’s special status as it deems appropriate. 

It remains to be seen if Tsai will move in lockstep with the United States, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that Washington would cease to recognize that Hong Kong could continue to exercise its autonomy amid Beijing’s recent moves. 

But the president’s latest guarantees are aimed at striking a reassuring tone for protesters and other Hongkongers mulling leaving, after a backlash from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Kuomintang party that her previous remarks could be tantamount to abandoning Hong Kong.

Responding to an appeal from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai that Taiwan should lower its threshold to accept more Hong Kong emigrants, Tsai said preferential treatment for Hongkongers in related applications would remain. The minimum capital investment requirement for Hong Kong emigrants is as low as NT$1 million (US$33,000).

Still, Tsai appears to be reluctant to make clear her stance as lawmakers from both sides of the political divide unite in pressing her newly re-elected administration to table a separate refugee law tailor-made for Hong Kong.

Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang, nonetheless, said he expected the aid plan for Hongkongers under consideration would contain “a big whack of measures to prepare for various contingencies and cover the whole process when taking in these people.” 

Some lawmakers have also proposed to spare arrivals from Hong Kong of charges and legal action if they are forced to flee persecution and enter the island without a visa or a permit.  

Meanwhile, Han Kuo-yu, mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, has again raised the idea of rezoning a district in the city and naming it “little Hong Kong” to woo people to invest and take up residence there.  

Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted Han as saying that Hong Kong emigrants would be welcome to start businesses in his city and that the local government would guarantee quality services ranging from bilingual education to affordable healthcare and housing as part of the city’s new initiatives to stoke its economy.