Departure of Taiwan officials bad news for HK, Taiwan people

July 01, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

The departure of all the Taiwan officials from its representative office here is bad news for Hong Kong people, as well as the thousands of Taiwanese here.

On June 20, seven of the eight officials in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) returned home. The eighth, head of the commercial department, will leave in July when his visa expires.

They had to leave after refusing to sign a “one-China” commitment letter that the Hong Kong government has made a condition of renewing their visa.

At a news conference, Chiu Tai-san, Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in Taiwan, said that this demand contravened an agreement in 2011 between the two sides in establishing the offices.

In May, the Hong Kong government suspended operations at its Taiwan office, blaming Taipei’s “gross” interference in internal affairs, including its offer to assist “violent” protestors. Taiwan rejects these accusations. About a month later, Macau closed its Taiwan office for the same reason.

Chiu said that the TECO office in Hong Kong would remain open, run by local staff. It has four locations. It will not extend the lease on the 40th floor of the Lippo Centre, when it expires in July, he said. That on the 11th floor of the same building will be extended for six months. The lease for the other two won’t expire until 2023.

He said that these locations would continue to offer services related to travel, immigration, trade, education, culture and the economy.

It is indeed unfortunate for Hong Kong people and Taiwan residents here to be victims of a diplomatic war between Beijing and Taipei, which has nothing to do with them.

Historically, the city has always been an important bridge between Taiwan and the mainland.

Last year Taiwan was Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, with HK$504 billion in bilateral trade. In 2020, Taiwan firms invested US$912 million in Hong Kong, while Hong Kong-registered companies invested US$555 million in Taiwan. The city is a springboard for Taiwan firms to invest in the mainland and for mainland firms to invest in Taiwan.

The downgrading of TECO will affect financial services, tourism, education and emigration.

Many Taiwan individuals keep accounts in Hong Kong, where banks offer offshore investment products not accessible under Taiwan regulations which are more restrictive. Also Taiwan companies retain profits from their China operations in Hong Kong.

Documents that require official signatures and notarisation will now have to be sent to Taiwan, instead of being dealt with here.

According to TECO, 5,300 students from Hong Kong applied to study in Taiwan universities in 2020, up 44 per cent from 2019. It said the universities admitted 2,700 HK freshmen in 2020 and that the figure will exceed 3,000 in 2021. The MAC said in December that 648 Hongkongers applied for masters and doctoral programmes in Taiwan in 2020, up from 260 in 2019.

This will become more difficult after the departure of the officials. HK students will have to search for schools, universities and classes without the knowledge and guidance of an officer who specialises in education. Obtaining the needed documents will be more cumbersome.

Emigration will also become more difficult. In February, Taiwan’s immigration department said that, in 2020, more than 10,800 Hong Kongers received local resident permits, nearly double the number in 2019 and the highest since 1991.

Taipei permits Hongkongers to apply as investor immigrants or if they have graduated from Taiwan universities. Under whatever category they apply, they must provide many documents and convince the immigration authorities of their bona fides. Lack of Taiwan officials on the ground in Hong Kong will slow this process.

“The government of Tsai Ing-wen is cautious,” said Michael Yip, who plans to emigrate to Taiwan in 2022. “Public opinion is against large-scale immigration from Hong Kong, since it would bring competition in a job market that is tough and cut wages that are already low.

“Also it does not want to become a base for protestors, although it is willing to give them refuge and help them find a third country to settle. It does not want to provoke Beijing even further. Unfortunately, I only see relations between Taiwan and Hong Kong deteriorating,” he said. “The closing of the offices is sad and not good for the people on both sides.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.