TAIPEI – Taiwan opened an office on Wednesday to help people fleeing Hong Kong after China imposed new national security laws in the city, with a senior minister saying Taiwan would continue to support freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.
The contentious laws which came into force on Wednesday will punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, heralding a more authoritarian era for the Asian financial hub.
Anti-government protests in Hong Kong have won widespread and cross-party support in democratic and Chinese-claimed Taiwan, where the laws have been widely condemned. Some 200 Hong Kongers have already fled to the island since pro-democracy demonstrations began last year, rights groups say.
President Tsai Ing-wen in May became the first government leader anywhere to pledge measures to help Hong Kong people who leave due to what they see as tightening Chinese controls.
Speaking at the opening of the office in downtown Taipei, Chen Ming-tong, the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, said the facility shows their determination to aid Hong Kongers.
“This is an important milestone for the government to further support democracy and freedom in Hong Kong,” Chen said.
Taiwan shares with the protesters a deep antipathy for Beijing, which has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
Chen warned Beijing was seeking to target people in other countries with the law.
“This not only targets residents in Hong Kong. It’s also an order issued by the Celestial Empire to people all over the world,” he added, referring to China’s government.
The new laws will apply to permanent and nonpermanent residents of Hong Kong.
Beijing denies stifling Hong Kong’s freedoms and has condemned Taiwan’s plans to help Hong Kongers.
Late Tuesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the new law would “cut off the black hand” of Taiwan’s meddling in Hong Kong.
The office opened on the sensitive anniversary of the return of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to Chinese rule in 1997.
Chen declined to say how many people they expect to come, or how many applications they had received so far.
Taipei-based diplomatic sources have said they expect only the most radical and less well-off Hong Kongers to come to Taiwan, with most others preferring to go to Western countries like Canada, Britain and the United States.
Chen’s deputy, Chiu Chui-Cheng, said about two dozen people will work in the new office and that they had already received “many calls.”
Those who come to Taiwan will need to do so legally, and the office has at least 20 hotlines to field inquiries, Chiu added.
Necessary assistance will be given, including accommodation, he said.