TAIPEI (Reuters) – China’s planned national security law may prompt Taiwan to revoke the special status it extends to Hong Kong, President Tsai Ing-wen said, a move that could anger Beijing and make it harder for Hong Kongers to visit and invest.
China is proposing the new legislation for the Chinese-ruled city after months of anti-government protests, and the decision has already ignited renewed unrest in Hong Kong and prompted condemnation from Western capitals.
The demonstrators have won widespread sympathy in democratic Taiwan, and the support for the protesters by Tsai and her administration has worsened already poor ties between Taipei and Beijing.
China has repeatedly denounced Taiwan’s government for supporting the protesters, and accused activists in both places of colluding to plot independence.
Writing on her Facebook page late on Sunday, Tsai said the proposed legislation was a serious threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms and judicial independence and that Taiwan would provide the people of Hong Kong with “necessary assistance”.
Taiwan deals with Hong Kong and neighbouring Macau under rules that, for example, allow residents of the two Chinese cities to visit and invest in Taiwan much more easily than mainland Chinese.
Tsai said if there were a “change in the situation” in Hong Kong, the act laying out those rules could be revoked.
“We hope the situation in Hong Kong does not get to this stage, and will pay close attention to developments, and take necessary corresponding measures in a timely way,” she added.
Beijing would inevitably see any move by Taiwan regarding Hong Kong as Taipei again siding with the protest movement, sparking further Chinese ire.
A senior official familiar with Taiwan’s security planning said Tsai’s comment was a “clear message” to Beijing that Taipei would “reinterpret” its ties with Hong Kong if China pushes the security legislation through.
“This is set to be a fundamental change in terms of Taiwan-Hong Kong relations. We are not happy to see it happening,” the official said.
Another senior Taiwan government official familiar with policy towards China said the security legislation would mean the death knell for “one country, two systems,” in which Beijing rules the city as part of China, but with separate institutions and laws.
“We wouldn’t need to provide special status for Hong Kong,” the official told Reuters.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The government is watching how the legislation plan progresses in Beijing before deciding the next move. In the worst-case scenario, people and investment from Hong Kong would be treated as stringently as those from mainland China, the official added.
Taiwan offers special treatment to Hong Kong, including an investment-immigration programme that has attracted tens of thousands of immigrants from the city.
However, the second official warned that Beijing may close Taiwan’s de facto consulate in the city in retaliation, and that any change to the act could choke Taiwan-Hong Kong trade.
Hong Kong was Taiwan’s second-largest export destination in April after mainland China, official data shows.
The United States is also considering whether to maintain Hong Kong’s special status in U.S. law, which has helped the city maintain its position as a global financial centre.
However, the second official said Taipei would keep offering “necessary assistance” to Hong Kong citizens whose safety and liberty are threatened for political reasons.
“This is not aimed at Hong Kong’s people, but aimed at Beijing.”
Taiwan has no law on refugees that could be applied to Hong Kong protesters who seek asylum on the island. Its laws do promise, though, to help Hong Kongers whose safety and liberty are threatened for political reasons.
The number of Hong Kong immigrants to Taiwan jumped 150% to 2,383 in the first four months of 2020 from the same period last year, official data shows.
(Reporting by Yimou Lee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Michael Perry)