“All we can do is flee”
Taiwan is a top destination for Hong Kong residents running from the new wave of Chinese authoritarianism
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Pastor Wong Siu-yung, 46, knew he had to leave Hong Kong after seeing himself and his church named in the state-run Ta Kung Pao last July. The newspaper claimed he and other initiators of the Hong Kong 2020 Gospel Declaration had violated the territory’s national security law by inciting secession and subversion. Wong, who had been outspoken in supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, immediately worried what might happen to his family and his church.
So Wong made arrangements to leave his homeland. A few days later, he was standing in the Hong Kong International Airport, preparing to board a flight to Taiwan, the self-governing island off China’s southeast coast. He said tearful goodbyes to church members, some of whom he’d watched grow up and start families of their own. That morning he called to say goodbye to his widowed mother—whom he didn’t tell the real reason for his departure—and she too burst into tears.
To reduce suspicion, Wong had purchased a round-trip ticket and packed lightly to blend in with other travelers. His heart beat wildly as he passed through customs, walked down the terminal, and waited at the departure gate. Only when seated on the airplane did he breathe with relief: He was safe.
Wong is one of more than 10,000 Hong Kongers who moved to Taiwan in 2020, a number certain to grow after Beijing overhauled Hong Kong’s election system in March to ensure only “patriots” govern the city. Other Hong Kong emigrants plan to move to the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
For Hong Kongers looking to emigrate, Taiwan is a popular option: It’s a short flight away, the culture is similar, living expenses and rent are cheap, and its cities are convenient. Although the spoken language is different—Cantonese in Hong Kong and Mandarin in Taiwan—the written language is the same, and most Hong Kong schools teach Mandarin.
The democratic island of 23 million isn’t a safe haven, though, as the threat of a Chinese invasion looms. There are also barriers to getting into Taiwan: Only students, professionals, and spouses of Taiwan nationals can obtain Taiwanese visas. Previously, protesters entered Taiwan on travel visas the government would extend, but since last year Taiwan has barred most foreign travelers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only allowing asylum-seekers in on a case-by-case basis.
While other countries allow Hong Kongers in as refugees, Taiwan doesn’t have a refugee law, and the United Nations refugee agency can’t operate there. Taiwanese politicians worry passing a refugee law that encompasses Hong Kong, Macao, and mainland Chinese citizens could bring retribution from Beijing.
Still, many migrating Hong Kongers, including Christians and democracy activists, have found a natural refuge in Taiwan. The new wave of Hong Kong diaspora is not only adjusting to a new culture and language but learning how to continue the fight for freedom from abroad. For several Hong Kong exiles I spoke to in Taiwan, that means pastoring a Cantonese-speaking church, educating Hong Kong Christians via the internet, or opening a bookstore.
HOLDING WHAT ARE NOW CONSIDERED politically taboo beliefs is a common thread for Hong Kong’s exiles.
The Gospel Declaration that got Wong into trouble was written by the Hong Kong Pastors Network. They modeled it after the Barmen Declaration, which German churches wrote in opposition to Nazi policies. The Hong Kong version listed six spiritual principles, including “Jesus Christ is the one and only Lord of the Church,” to resist Beijing’s tightening grip.
Three thousand Christians signed the declaration. Ta Kung Pao took issue with a promotional video accompanying the declaration: The video depicted scenes from Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, prominently featured a now-illegal “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” flag, and included historic clips from Nazi Germany.
If convicted of the crimes Ta Kung Pao accused him and others of committing, Wong could have faced up to 10 years in prison. Several other named pastors have decided to remain in Hong Kong and have not been arrested.
Today, Wong preaches each Sunday at a Cantonese worship service at Chi-nan Presbyterian Church in Taipei—one of the few Cantonese-language services in Taiwan. Wong said the church has grown rapidly as more Hong Kongers move to Taiwan. The Cantonese service, which began in September, has grown from about 30 people last year to 80 today, and Wong expects attendance to double in the fall as a new school year starts and the potential easing of COVID-19 restrictions brings another wave of immigrants.
Wong sees a great need for establishing more Cantonese churches in Taiwan as well as in Western countries expecting an influx of Hong Kong immigrants. While the United States and Canada already have Cantonese churches, he said most are populated by an older generation of Hong Kongers who left the city long ago and are more pro-establishment. Many of the new immigrants who left Hong Kong over dissatisfaction with the recent Beijing takeover don’t feel comfortable in these churches.
Wong knows of some Hong Kong pastors looking to start churches in the United Kingdom, yet the large size of these countries means it’s difficult to reach everyone. That’s why he joined his friend Douglas Reng Fu Wang, another new arrival to Taiwan, in doing online ministry for Christians who have moved overseas and don’t have access to a church, or who stayed inside Hong Kong and are no longer able to hear politically sensitive topics mentioned from the pulpit.
“Political upheavals occur continually in China, and there’s not much we common people can do.”—Douglas Reng Fu Wang
PICKING TAIWAN as a destination was easy for 50-year-old Douglas Wang, who holds a Taiwan passport and had studied and worked on the island before returning to Hong Kong 25 years ago. The former director of China Alliance Press, a Christian publishing company based in Hong Kong, he moved to Taiwan in January after hearing from friends that the Chinese government had taken notice of his involvement in pro-democracy activities. That made him a target for arrest should the government decide to crack down on churches. Ta Kung Pao had also named Wang as the initiator of a statement from Christians against the national security law. The newspaper claimed the statement would “poison young believers.”
In Hong Kong, Wang initially was not very involved in politics until he saw the heavy-handed police response to the 2019 protests—especially the July 21 Yuen Long attack where police conspired with Hong Kong’s mafialike triad groups. He then began to call out governmental injustice.
He put together a statement decrying police attacks, organized an event exploring the Christian ethics of protests, and started a livestream show bringing together pastors, seminary professors, and other Christians to speak on pressing issues of the day. The success of the show revealed Hong Kong Christians’ desire for more education, Wang said, as thousands tuned in to watch despite little advertising or resources.
Wang and other pastors noticed many young believers were leaving the church as pastors kept silent about the societal issues roiling Hong Kong. Meanwhile, some protesters began searching for faith as they saw the futility of political action. Wanting to create a space for these two groups, he started Glorious Worship Ministry in January 2020, originally as an in-person gathering featuring worship music and Bible teaching.
By the second meeting, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced all religious services to move online, where Glorious Worship Ministry has continued until now. He hopes soon to open it again to in-person gatherings for Hong Kongers in Taiwan.
Wang sees his move to Taiwan as part of a generational pattern: His father moved his family from mainland China to Hong Kong when Wang was 3 because of the Cultural Revolution. His grandparents moved to the Philippines for business opportunities. “Political upheavals occur continually in China, and there’s not much we common people can do,” Wang said. “All we can do is flee.”
IN A SMALL ONE-ROOM BOOKSTORE on the 10th floor of a building in central Taipei, 65-year-old Lam Wing-kee sits at a counter decorated with “Liberate Hong Kong” flags. Behind him is the bunk bed where he sleeps at night, and on the bookshelf to his right are postcards with scenes from the 2019 Hong Kong protests and a hand-drawn picture of Hong Kong’s iconic Lion Rock peak—a mountain symbolizing perseverance.
Near the bookstore’s entrance, sticky notes on a wall bear scrawled messages of support. One stands out: “Free Taiwan supports Hong Kong freedom” is written above the signature of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who visited the bookstore shortly after it opened last April.
Lam reopened Causeway Bay Books in Taiwan as an homage to its original location in Hong Kong, where it was known for selling politically sensitive books—including gossipy books about Chinese leaders—to mainland tourists. In 2015, Lam and four other booksellers from the shop suddenly went missing as Chinese agents kidnapped them and detained them in mainland prisons. Authorities held Lam for eight months, interrogating him, holding him in solitary confinement, and forcing him to give a televised confession that he conspired with author and publisher Gui Minhai to send banned books to mainland China. (Gui, a Swedish citizen, is still serving a 10-year prison sentence.)
Chinese authorities sent Lam back to Hong Kong to pick up a hard drive filled with information on mainland customers. But instead of returning to China, Lam went public about his abduction. His testimony drew international attention to Beijing’s growing influence.
When the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition law in February 2019 that would force some Hong Kong citizens to stand trial in mainland China, Lam knew he was a prime target. That March, he led a protest against the law that drew 12,000 people, a relatively small number compared with the pro-democracy protests during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Weeks later, he fled to Taiwan.
As the anti-extradition protests ballooned in size over the next half year—at one point reaching 2 million people—authorities scrapped the extradition law. But later they imposed a much more draconian national security law on Hong Kong.
Although Hong Kong is only an hour away (by air), Taiwan feels like a different world to Lam. He can ride his bike on the streets without fear of being followed. His store’s bookshelves are filled with books on the history and modern-day politics of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China that would be banned back home. Taiwanese police officers drop by his bookstore several times each day not to monitor him but to ensure his security.
Causeway Bay Books has become a gathering spot for Hong Kong immigrants: Some come to talk to Lam about the latest Hong Kong news, while others turn to him for help adjusting to Taiwan. Lam admits it is sometimes difficult following the constant bad news coming out of his homeland because there is so little he can do.
While business at Lam’s bookstore nowadays isn’t good, he has enough donations from supporters to pay rent for his bookshop residence for a year or two. He picks up a book from his shelf about the Jewish diaspora and notes that exiled Hong Kongers can learn from the Jews’ experience: Rather than thinking of Hong Kong as a place on a map, they should think of it as a unique people and culture that can thrive wherever they are.
“We may live in Taiwan, but our hearts are still in Hong Kong,” Lam says.
LAM RECOGNIZES THE FUTURE OF HIS NEW HOME IS UNCERTAIN. China considers the island part of its territory, and the threat of a Chinese takeover is growing. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made himself emperor of China, Lam said, and hopes to surpass his hero, former Chairman Mao Zedong. Now with Hong Kong firmly in Beijing’s grasp, he can focus on bringing what China considers its “wayward province” back into the fold. This, Lam notes, is something not even Mao achieved.
Pastor Wong sets his hope in knowing that even as Xi proclaims himself president for life, one day he will ultimately face God as judge. Wong believes one day the Chinese Communist Party will collapse, even if he doesn’t live to see it. “It is a purely spiritual hope. In this time, faith is more real because it’s all we have.”
Wong and his wife, who arrived in Taiwan two weeks after him, have now lived on the island for eight months without any expectation of returning home. Although they see no political hope for Hong Kong, Wong says they are not hopeless: “If you trust in man, you are hopeless. But our hope is in the Lamb who was slain.”
As more Hong Kongers arrive at Taiwan’s shores, groups have popped up to welcome them. One is Hongkongers in Taiwan Fellowship in Taipei, headed by Timothy Lee, who emigrated from Hong Kong six years ago and now works at a seminary. He helps new immigrants with language difficulties, filling out paperwork, finding housing, and other daily complications.
The group also provides spiritual nourishment, with biweekly gatherings for worship, sermons, and small group discussion in Cantonese. Attendees, averaging around 80 people, range from college students to retirees. Lee said the fellowship gives people a safe place to share their thoughts and emotions, which they can no longer do in Hong Kong churches.
Some arrive at the fellowship carrying trauma from their experiences at Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. While Lee hopes they can find healing in God, he also encourages them to move forward in their lives as residents of Taiwan, and he refers newcomers to the Cantonese worship service at Chi-nan Presbyterian Church. He hopes Hong Kongers will be able to bless their new hosts and contribute to Taiwan society rather than confine themselves within their own groups. —J.C.
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