Some in Taiwan may find it strange that crowds of Hongkongers flew to their island to observe the presidential poll, attend campaign rallies and join locals in celebrating the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen. But it is not all one-way traffic. In Taipei, a church, book stores and cafes are lending their support to anti-government protesters 700km away in Hong Kong.
One of the movement’s biggest backers in Taiwan is the Chi-Nan Presbyterian Church, which has set up a “Lennon Wall” with a huge banner bearing the words “Safeguard freedom, let’s add oil with Hong Kong”.
“It all started with a prayer meeting in June last year, when protests broke out in Hong Kong,” said Kong Chao-ksun, a volunteer at the church.
“After that, many church members wanted to offer a helping hand by sending us materials, hoping we would transfer it to Hong Kong.”
Equipment worth about US$530,000 (HK$4.1 million) including gas masks, helmets, air filters, ice packs and alcohol wipes has been gathered by the church. At its peak, it collected 800 helmets in a single week. Some of that has been distributed by the church itself while the rest has been sent to Hong Kong through different channels.
The church has also offered humanitarian assistance to 200 protesters who have fled to Taiwan, including a couple whose story has touched Kong. Fearing arrest and needing a break from the chaos in Hong Kong, they visited the self-ruled island twice, Kong recalled.
“We promised to keep in touch and have dinner with them when they are back in Taipei, but we lost contact with them soon after they returned to Hong Kong,” said the 61-year-old volunteer, who believes they were arrested. “They are just kids in their 20s. As a father, it is so heartbreaking to see them fighting so hard for their future and ideas they believe in.”
What started as vehement opposition to proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws in June, has morphed into a wider anti-government movement focused on democratic reforms and police accountability.
Hong Kong’s protests have boosted the popularity of Tsai, head of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who used the unrest as a cautionary tale for the self-ruled island against encroachment from mainland China.
She has warned Taiwan’s population of 23 million of being swallowed up by Beijing, which considers the island part of its territory that must one day be brought under its fold, by force if necessary. Tsai netted a historic 8.17 million votes in the January 11 election, comfortably beating her main challenger Han Kuo-yu, from the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT).
Kong agreed that fears Beijing would one day control Taiwan, and turn it into the next Hong Kong, had made Taiwan people feel more connected with Hong Kong protesters. Taiwan went through “white terror” from 1949 to 1987, when martial law was imposed by the government led by the KMT and political dissidents were suppressed.
Kong, who has written a book on that era, said he believed Taiwan’s history had made people wary of the situation in Hong Kong. “What is happening in Hong Kong is like what happened in Taiwan during the times of white terror,” he said. “We experienced such kinds of institutional violence 70 years ago.”
Kong said Hong Kong protesters who fled to Taiwan found themselves in a similar situation to that faced by dissidents during the white terror, when political persecution prevented many from returning home.
Driven by those memories, he revealed the church was considering setting up a foundation or a non-governmental organisation to help Hongkongers, in a move he said would replicate American and European assistance for the island’s white terror victims in the last century.
On top of the church’s support, some shops in Taipei are helping people from both cities connect. Philo Cafe in Taipei, co-founded by a few local NGOs, has put up a sign at the entrance saying “Stand with HK”. As a cafe selling books on philosophy, social movement and justice, its owners have hosted seminars and an exhibition on Hong Kong’s anti-government movement, inviting guests from the city.
Son Yu-liam, a co-founders of the cafe, is also secretary general of the Taiwan Labour Front, a union founded in 1984. Son said: “Most Taiwan people support the movement in Hong Kong, as we share the same faith: our belief in pursuing freedoms and democracy.
“From an advocacy perspective, we also hope that more locals could understand the situation in Hong Kong, as Taiwan has been facing the same pressure from Beijing.”
A bookstore called Poetry in Life, which is also in Taipei, has put up donation boxes to raise funds for protesters in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy banners, posters and a Lennon Wall, where messages of support for protesters are posted, can also been seen in the shop.
The shop was founded by Hong Kong poet Luk Wing-yu, whose husband Liu Gi, 40, is Taiwanese and works in the publishing industry. Liu said: “As some Hongkongers know about my shop, they send us products supporting the movement for sale towards charity.
“In the past, Hong Kong was a lighthouse to us as we had no freedoms to publish certain books. But it seems the situation has reversed.”
He hoped the two jurisdictions could support each other and safeguard freedoms in the face of “threats from China”. Beijing’s top leaders have been wary of closer ties between Hong Kong and Taiwan, fearing connections between what they see as “pro-independence forces”. Son, the unionist, is not shy to admit he is supportive of separatist movements in the area.
On election day earlier this month, Son’s bookstore put up banners supporting independence for Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Tibet as he organised a party to witness the vote count and Tsai’s subsequent victory.
“It is expected that Beijing will smear us as Taiwan’s independence forces interfering with Hong Kong affairs,” he said. “But I still welcome more Hongkongers to come to this little cafe and brainstorm how we can resist the Chinese Communist Party. “Hongkongers fight on just because Beijing has failed to give them democracy as promised. It is Beijing which has to think about that clearly.”