Source: NYT (8/4/21)
Is Taiwan Next?
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In Taipei, young people like Nancy Tao Chen Ying watched as the Hong Kong protests were brutally extinguished. Now they wonder what’s in their future.
By Sarah A. Topol
Under the sharp light of Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport, the 19-year-old was easy to find. He stood alone where Nancy Tao Chen Ying had instructed.
Nancy was at her office when she received the message. It was a hot and humid Friday afternoon in July 2019, and a friend in Hong Kong asked if she could get to the airport: A young anti-government protester was fleeing the semiautonomous Chinese territory; could she pick him up once he landed? Nancy had never done this before, but when she agreed, the protester sent her an encrypted message with his flight details, and she left work to meet him.
Slightly less than five feet tall and 26 years old, Nancy wore her long dark hair side swept, the layers framing her face. She dressed well, often in pastels, changing styles like moods. As Nancy approached him, the boy seemed unsettled. Tall and slim, he loomed over her, clutching a small backpack. He told her that while he had brought some clothes, he had little money. “It’s OK,” Nancy told him, leading him to the metro. “Let’s just go to Taipei first.”
Because they were introduced through mutual friends, Nancy assumed she was the only person in Taiwan the Hong Konger could trust, the only person in Taiwan he probably even knew, but the nearly hourlong metro ride downtown was quiet. The boy didn’t strike up a conversation and was indifferent to Nancy’s questions.
“What should I call you?” she asked.
“Call me —.”
“What happened to you in Hong Kong?”
“The police came to arrest me and searched my house.”
Nancy didn’t push for more details; she was familiar with the contours of his story. There was proof that he attended an anti-government protest — something incriminating. He had either posted bail or not been charged yet, and within 48 hours, he decided to flee. Looking to blend in with other travelers, he took little with him. Dozens upon dozens of versions of the same story had been playing out in Taiwan for the last few weeks.
Months earlier, in the spring of 2019, Hong Kong’s chief executive proposed an extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers to face trial in mainland courts, further solidifying China’s control over the semiautonomous territory. Mass peaceful marches demanding the bill’s withdrawal were answered with volleys of tear gas. Skirmishes erupted. As violence escalated, many young protesters feared they would be arrested on rioting charges that carried up to 10 years of prison time. Unsure of the future, they fled alone or in small clusters to Taiwan.
The Taiwanese, themselves separated from China by only 81 miles of water and living with 70 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s threats of forceful annexation, overwhelmingly supported Hong Kong’s protest movement. Many ordinary Taiwanese citizens had been moved to send money or donate supplies, like hard hats, gas masks and goggles, to the front lines. Taiwan’s democratically elected government issued grandiose statements of solidarity, but when the Hong Kong escapees started to arrive, the same politicians did little to help. Taiwan could see a version of its future in Hong Kong and worried that coming to its aid too overtly would hasten that scenario’s arrival.
Instead, an ad hoc network of civil-society organizations and individuals tried to take care of the new arrivals — they would need housing, food, money and medical care. Some Taiwanese, like Nancy, had links with Hong Kong activists or politicians who funneled people to them. Other times Hong Kongers plugged into networks in Taipei.
Once she picked up the first protester, Nancy started escorting more, sometimes heading to the airport as often as three times a day. She devoted hours after work as a producer at a television station to helping them settle into their new lives. Many of the arrivals were deeply traumatized, unable to sleep or process what had happened to them. They had left their real names, their photos, their families behind. Nancy’s shuttling and companionship was itself a small act, but she believed it was part of a greater struggle.
For years, young activists in both places had chanted “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” as a rallying cry to draw attention to their entwined fates. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping had clamped down on freedoms on the Chinese mainland as he purged his rivals, ramped up forced assimilation in Tibet and began a campaign of cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Then the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) turned its attention to Hong Kong. Many people worried Taiwan would be next.
China had always denied that Taiwan existed as a separate country, dismissing it as a wayward province and using its increased global clout to gradually erase Taiwan’s existence. It had successfully pushed Taiwan out of a variety of institutions, from the World Health Organization to BirdLife International. “Taiwan” was removed from airline booking websites and boarding announcements by major U.S. and international carriers, leaving only the option to book a flight to “Taipei, Taipei” or “Taipei, China.” A country of 24 million, more populous than all of Scandinavia and roughly on par with Texas, did not exist on maps, in Interpol or at the United Nations. Its government is recognized by only 14 countries and the Holy See.
In recent years, Chinese warplanes buzzing the Taiwan Strait’s midline increased substantially, and the country’s warships regularly encircled the island. In March, America’s top military officer in the Indo-Pacific region told a Senate hearing that he believed China could invade Taiwan in the next six years.
Nancy, like many of her generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan, had undergone a gradual and reluctant political awakening, spurred in part by the threat of Xi’s authoritarianism in the region. In these contested polities, on the edges of China’s empire, which had flourished outside Beijing’s direct control, young people came together to try to understand: How do you fight against Goliath’s denial of David’s very existence? For Nancy and her friends, this was existential. The challenge from China would determine the future of their countries and their lives.
Ever since Nancy was little, she was a contrarian — unafraid to rebel against things she thought were stupid or unfair, like how teachers seemed to favor students who got good grades, even if they had been misbehaving along with the rest of the class. When she was growing up in Taipei, there were lots of things that just did not make sense to her. It did not quite add up that her schoolbooks said Taiwan was a province of the greater Republic of China (R.O.C.), which comprised mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, and that its capital was Nanjing. Nanjing was a city in the People’s Republic of China, where Nancy had never been, so why was it listed as the capital of her country? When she challenged her teacher, she told her to just do what everyone else was doing — write the correct answer and move on.
Indeed, it was confusing. The R.O.C. is typically referred to internationally as Taiwan; it is by and large not recognized as a country and is instead referred to by many media organizations, including this one, as a “self-governing democracy.” But the archipelago, of which Taiwan is the biggest island, has a Constitution, a president and a Legislature. Its citizens have voted for their representatives in free and fair elections since 1992, the year before Nancy was born. They serve in their own armed forces and carry a green Republic of China passport when they travel, though in 2003, after they complained they were being confused with Communist China, the government changed the passport to say both “Republic of China” and “Taiwan.”
This Gordian knot of identity was a product of a contested history. For centuries, Taiwan had been at the whims of colonizers, settlers, warlords and dictators. As far back as 1544, when a Portuguese vessel passed the island and a passenger exclaimed “Ilha Formosa” — beautiful island — outsiders had decided even its name. It was originally populated by Indigenous Austronesians, but Han migration from China increased with the arrival of European traders, including the Dutch East India Company. The Qing empire took control in 1683, but after a humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1895, it ceded Formosa to the victors. The Japanese made the island their model colony to prove they could rival white European imperial powers, setting up Japanese schools and much of the island’s infrastructure.
The Republic of China, meanwhile, was established far away in Nanjing in 1912 after revolutionaries overthrew the Qing empire, but it was quickly torn apart by Japan’s invasion and internal conflicts between the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communists. After Japan lost World War II, Formosa was given to the R.O.C. by the decree of the Allied powers. Residents were not consulted, but after 50 years of Japanese control, many held genuine enthusiasm for their Chinese liberators. Their hopes to speak their own language, practice their own culture and elect their own leaders quickly vanished. The KMT governed Taiwan with an iron fist, regarding the locals as Japanese collaborators and pillaging the island’s resources for the ongoing civil war on the mainland.
In 1949, the Communists defeated the nationalists and established the People’s Republic of China. The remnants of the R.O.C., led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan. Each government proclaimed itself the rightful ruler of all of China. The tsunami of around 1.5 million exiles who accompanied Chiang to Taiwan produced two castes: benshengren — people from this province — and waishengren — people from outside this province. Nancy’s paternal grandmother grew up under Japanese rule and watched the newcomers take the best jobs and resources. Later she married one of these new arrivals, but he ran up gambling debts and then ran back to the mainland, leaving her to settle his tab. She sold their house and moved the family to Taipei, supporting Nancy’s father and his three siblings by selling sliced fruit and shaved ice, a traditional dessert, on the street.
The KMT embarked on a campaign of forced Sinicization — Mandarin was made the official government language instead of Hokkien, which Nancy’s grandmother spoke along with a vast majority of the six million locals. Streets in Taipei were renamed after Chinese cities, and schoolbooks taught mainland geography and R.O.C. history. The benshengren were written out of their own existence. Chiang’s secret police ensured no one stepped out of line.
By 1987, under pressure at home and abroad, Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, lifted martial law. It had been in effect for 38 years. In the previous decades, Taiwan’s economy soared, driven by petrochemicals, light manufacturing and a growing focus on technology. After the younger Chiang’s death in 1988, the first benshengren president, Lee Teng-hui, became the head of the government and accelerated Taiwan’s transition to democracy. In 1992, Taiwan held its first direct election for Parliament; the first presidential election was in 1996. Lee touted a new national identity to try to unify the country: People were neither waishengren or benshengren but “New Taiwanese” instead.
By the time Nancy was born, her grandmother had invested in small plots of land that she turned into parking lots. She bought three apartments, including the one Nancy lived in with her parents, her older sister and her younger brother. Her grandmother had sent all her children to school, including, unconventionally for the time, her daughters. Nancy worshiped her as a feminist role model, and her grandmother favored her back. Nancy went to her grandmother’s apartment every day after school.
At her grandmother’s, Nancy was a princess — fed, adored and spoiled — but at home, things were different and often difficult. The middle child, Nancy was both eager for attention and frustrated with her family. Her father was a Taishang — a Taiwanese entrepreneur in China — and was often absent for long periods. (After the West issued sanctions against China in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, many Taishang went to the People’s Republic to make their fortunes. Taiwanese-owned factories and local labor would primarily be responsible for the meteoric rise of Chinese manufacturing.) Nancy’s father identified as Chinese, waishengren from Jiangxi Province, like his father before him. When he was home, he was volatile. Nancy hated it and him.
As a teenager, Nancy was apathetic about a lot of things, including school and politics. She had always been headstrong and independent. She quit after-hours cram school to hang out with her boyfriend, got poor grades and took her college entrance exams only because her mom and sister frog-marched her to the doors of the building. Her mother was so worried she wouldn’t be admitted anywhere that she had Nancy’s exam entrance ticket blessed at multiple temples. Her family was ecstatic when Nancy barely gained admission to a private college outside Taipei.
After Taiwan democratized, the KMT began to compete in free elections against the Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.), which was formed by many of the previous dissidents the KMT oppressed during its nearly 40-year military reign. Each party was known by its affiliated colors — blue for KMT and green for D.P.P. There would be no real national reconciliation.
Throughout Nancy’s childhood, the D.P.P. and KMT traded the presidency between them. The parties had different ideas of what Taiwan was and should be. The KMT, once the implacable enemy of Communist China, had begun to advocate working with the C.C.P. — deep blues claimed this economic cooperation would eventually democratize China and allow for reunification under the R.O.C. Moreover, it would benefit Taiwan’s economy.
The D.P.P. believed somewhat the opposite. The deep greens advocated for dropping the antiquated R.O.C. label and declaring outright independence as a country called “Taiwan.” They would cease any claims to the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau, for which the greens never felt affinity. In this case, they could work with China, but as equals.
And so the debate over Taiwan’s future would always hinge on the somewhat muddled construct of “independence” or “unification.” Most Taiwanese, however, fell somewhere in between. A majority favored keeping the status quo, in which the “Republic of China (Taiwan)” was de facto independent. This was preferable to risking an all-out war with their larger neighbor.
For its part, China encouraged the blue-green divide, working with the cooperative KMT when it was in power and isolating the more autonomous-minded D.P.P. when it was at the helm. In 1992, during closed-door meetings between the KMT and the Communist Party in British Hong Kong, they reached an agreement that Taiwan and China were part of the same country. The KMT would later tell the Taiwanese public this was open to different interpretations, allowing for the possibility that it was all the R.O.C. It would become known as the 1992 Consensus. When Beijing perceived slights to this arrangement, it retaliated.
After President Lee, who was wildly popular, visited Cornell University in 1995, the Chinese Communist Party, furious that Taiwan was asserting its own relationship with the United States, conducted rounds of military exercises and missile tests near the island that continued into 1996. Bill Clinton responded by sending two carrier groups near the Taiwan Strait. In 2005, Beijing passed an “anti-secession law,” which vowed to use force if the R.O.C. ever “seceded” — casting off the R.O.C. title and officially identifying as Taiwan.
In late 2012, Xi became general secretary of the Communist Party. By 2013, he had also collected the mostly nominal title of president. Though he accelerated a clampdown on mainland freedoms, Xi was popular, starting an anti-corruption drive that endeared him to a population fed up with the excesses of the cadre class. In a famous speech in 2013, Xi declared China would “strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” What exactly this meant was amorphous — but Xi vowed it would be accomplished by 2049, the year marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It would undo the hundred years of national humiliation China had been subjected to by foreign powers. This would not be complete without returning the map to the borders of the Qing empire, which included, however briefly and loosely, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Nancy wasn’t unique in ignoring these vague threats; most young Taiwanese were politically disengaged. Though the younger generation implicitly recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state, it was not discussed as much as it was just obvious — if you were born in this place called Taiwan, you were Taiwanese, not Chinese in multigenerational exile like your parents. Nancy didn’t care much about whatever Xi was saying either. It was a world away from her all-consuming high school romance or watching reruns of “Gossip Girl.”
The first time Nancy went to China, she was flying to visit her boyfriend, who was studying abroad in Shanghai. Nancy entered the customs channel for foreigners and completed the foreign entry form. When the border patrol officer looked at her passport, she was told Taiwanese should go to the nationals line.
“Taiwanese are not Chinese,” Nancy said indignantly. “Why should I go to the nationals’ path?”
“Taiwanese are Chinese,” the officer told her. “Get in that line.”
“I’m standing here right now, why don’t you just let me go through this path?” she asked, looking back at the long queue in the nationals channel.
“No,” the officer said.
On a Friday night in 2014 during Nancy’s junior year of college, a friend told her there was something happening at the Parliament in downtown Taipei. People were gathering, and they needed manpower. Nancy had no idea what he was talking about, but it was the weekend, and she was mourning a serious breakup, so she decided to go with him to check it out.
It was dark when they arrived. Young people had assembled on the broad boulevard outside the Legislative Yuan’s unassuming white brick building, shouting and chanting. The crowd started to move, everyone pushing, then running, so Nancy decided she should run too. When people around her climbed the fence, she started climbing. When they got to the other side, they rushed into the building. At first, everyone was yelling, moving furniture and damaging the interior. Nancy also did some graffiti; it was fun. Things quieted down, and that night, hundreds of young people, mostly college students, began to strategize about the occupation.
Nancy learned they were opposing a sweeping trade liberalization pact that the KMT, the party in power at the time, was trying to push through without normal review. The agreement, which the KMT negotiated in Shanghai with the C.C.P., would open more than 60 Taiwanese service sectors — like tourism, movies and construction — to direct Chinese investment. Since the KMT won back the presidency in 2008, relations between China and Taiwan had become closer, and the young Taiwanese protesters distrusted what they saw as an attempt to buy their country. It felt like the first step in a broader plan to move across the strait. The more control Beijing had of their economy, the more control it would have over their government and their lives.
The 24-day occupation came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, which took its name from a florist’s gift to the students. They left only after the government promised a proper review of the bill, successfully derailing the trade pact. For Nancy and many Taiwanese her age, the Sunflower Movement marked a political awakening. She was mesmerized by what she saw — people had really used their power to be heard.
Afterward, Nancy started reading more about her own country’s history. In a crackdown following a violent benshengren uprising on Feb. 28, 1947 — known as 2/28 — the KMT regime killed as many as 28,000 people over the course of several weeks. It arrested civil servants, doctors, lawyers and anyone else perceived as a threat to KMT control of Taiwan, strung them together by threading metal wires through their palms, marched them to ditches or water and shot them in mass graves. Two years after 2/28, in the wake of the KMT’s full relocation to Taiwan, martial law was declared, initiating a period known as the White Terror. Over a hundred thousand people were imprisoned, and several thousand were executed. Waishengren who had come to Taiwan with the KMT would suffer as well, persecuted as suspected Communist agents or sympathizers.
Nancy learned of the murder of the imprisoned dissident Lin Yi-hsiung’s mother and 7-year-old twin daughters in 1980, which most people suspected was the work of the security services. She read about Nylon Cheng, who self-immolated in 1989 while advocating for a Constitution of the Republic of Taiwan. It was unimaginable that he would sacrifice his life for her country’s freedom when he had a family, Nancy thought. It dawned on her that her past understanding of history was so narrow — Taiwan’s nascent democracy was steeped in so many people’s blood.
When she tried to convey her thoughts to her family, it was hard. Her father was a vehement KMT supporter, a dark blue to her burgeoning light green. Nancy felt he didn’t respect her choices and often dismissed her political opinions as youthful rebellion. Her mother just did whatever her coercive father told them. These are the same tactics authoritarians use, Nancy raged to herself. Strong people oppress minorities and expect you to obey their will. If her family was a microcosm for oppression, how much more unbearable true authoritarianism must be, she thought.
Nancy began attending local protests and thinking about broader issues — marriage equality, nuclear power and the environment. Six months after the end of the Sunflower Movement, she saw on the news that thousands of Hong Kongers had occupied major thoroughfares, in what would become known as the Umbrella Movement, demanding the right to directly elect their chief executive — instead of relying on a 1,200-person-strong committee that was understood to be rigged in favor of Beijing. On a whim, she bought a flight to Hong Kong for the weekend and contacted a friend from college who now lived there. She didn’t book a hotel and camped out overnight on the street with protesters. She wanted to be a part of history.
Nancy watched as a 17-year-old named Joshua Wong stood on the main stage and addressed the crowd. Her friend translated his Cantonese speech into Mandarin for her. Nancy knew Joshua became famous when he was just 14, after he rallied Hong Kongers to oppose a government plan to introduce “moral education” as Communist indoctrination, and the government capitulated. Nancy thought he was truly heroic, fighting for democracy and critical thinking at such a young age. She flew home the next day further convinced of the power of people.
For decades, Hong Kongers who opposed British colonialism had considered themselves ethnically Chinese. Many were children of refugees who fled during the Chinese civil war of 1927-49 or after the C.C.P’s victory. They still had family on the mainland, would travel to their ancestral home for tomb-sweeping rituals and had donated goods and food to their poorer cousins during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. The British encouraged this identification, as it made it less likely that their subjects would call for outright independence.
The Qing ceded Hong Kong Island in perpetuity to the British in 1842 following the first Opium War and would later do the same with the adjacent Kowloon Peninsula. In 1898, the British leased the New Territories, which today constitute the bulk of Hong Kong, including vital ports and reservoirs, for 99 years. The New Territories’ importance to the colony of Hong Kong, as well as the decline of the British Empire, gave Margaret Thatcher little leverage when negotiating Hong Kong’s future with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1984. In the end, Britain agreed to hand over everything to the People’s Republic of China. The territory would be administered under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems,” which was supposed to allow Hong Kong to preserve its unique economic and legal system after a century of British colonization, making it a “special administrative region.” (The arrangement was first floated by Deng as a way to entice Taiwan.)
On a rainy day in 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China with pomp and fireworks. The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution, handed down by British and Chinese negotiators with minimal input from Hong Kongers, was to function for the following 50 years, promising Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” but never defining what that was exactly — setting the stage for the protests to come. The Basic Law enshrined an independent judiciary and an indirectly elected chief executive, as well as a Legislative Council, known as the LegCo, whose members needed permission to introduce legislation. The council would be made up of 70 members, half of whom were elected by the people and half who were elected by “functional constituencies,” occupation and interest groups designed to be controlled by the colonizer. Beijing had the final say. Hong Kong and China had until 2047 to figure out what came next. From Hong Kong’s perspective, it was a system created by one master who handed the keys to another and walked away.
For a time, Hong Kong was allowed to retain its distinctiveness. Hong Kongers held an annual vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which was taboo to even discuss on the mainland. There was a rambunctious free press, uncensored internet and the right to private property. In return, Hong Kong served as an orderly and efficient financial conduit to the opaque Chinese market and a popular destination for corrupt Chinese officials to park wealth offshore. It was also a useful political pressure release valve for the growing repression of the mainland, a place where dissidents could run and not cause too much trouble for the C.C.P., and where mainlanders could buy political books banned at home.
After Xi came to power, he expanded the party’s control over China’s periphery — any perception of dissent or separatism was answered with harsh securitization. Young people in Hong Kong and Taiwan believed he would be coming for their freedom next. By 2014, they were chafing at the day-to-day expressions of the party’s meddling in their lives, and mass protests followed. If in Taiwan, China was trying to buy influence through the trade deal, in Hong Kong, China had begun to impose itself outright. “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” had turned from a chant to a harbinger.
In the fall of 2016, Nancy had just begun working as an associate producer at a news show when she booked Ray Wong, the founder of Hong Kong Indigenous, a localist group demanding preferential policies for Hong Kongers and autonomy from China. After they met in Taipei, Nancy messaged him in advance of a weekend trip to Hong Kong and asked if he wanted to meet for a meal while she was in town. She had started spending time with Taiwanese independence activists and was interested in Hong Kong’s analogues.
The year before, Ray organized protests against Chinese merchants who came to Hong Kong daily to buy better quality baby formula, medicine and other household goods to bring back to the mainland, disrupting life in districts near the border. The campaign was ugly at times, with protesters harassing and cursing mainlanders, but it prompted the C.C.P. to limit visits to once per week.
Localism grew out of an ideology that most originally considered too nativist. But it gained mainstream acceptance as Hong Kong’s government became more subservient to Beijing, and Hong Kongers felt the toll of millions of Chinese tourists, traders and transplants the C.C.P. pushed into the territory to make up for Hong Kong’s economic losses after the SARS epidemic.
Nancy and Ray met one night at a traditional Hong Kong tea shop. Over her next few trips, he introduced her to Edward Leung, a charismatic philosophy graduate and spokesman for Hong Kong Indigenous, and Sixtus Leung, a tall digital marketer who went by Baggio and started Youngspiration, another localist group. Ray and Edward were facing serious criminal charges for their roles in the Fishball protests, a major clash during the 2016 Chinese New Year over police attempts to shut down unlicensed street vendors.
Whenever Nancy went to Hong Kong for the weekend, she always tried to meet with Ray and his friends for a meal or a drink. They were passionate and smart and had interesting insights into the political scene. Nancy learned that after the failure of the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong’s pro-democratic opposition fractured further. One camp carefully demanded more rights within the existing “one country, two systems” arrangement. Another increasingly frustrated group was turning to open confrontation, using “any means necessary” to expose what they saw as the C.C.P.’s lies. These localists went as far as to advocate for Hong Kong’s total independence, a previously fringe notion that had been gaining in popularity, particularly among the younger generation, and was guaranteed to infuriate Beijing.
When Nancy was back in Taipei, she kept up with the news from Hong Kong. She watched as Edward began a campaign for a seat in the LegCo but was disqualified for his position on independence. Baggio ran in his place and won. During his oath-taking ceremony, Baggio refused to read the official pledge of allegiance to the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China” and instead read his own vow to serve the “Hong Kong nation.” He replaced the word “China” with “Chee-na,” an insulting term used by the Japanese during World War II. Though legislators had previously made performative jabs during the ceremony and been allowed to take their seats, Baggio was disqualified by the courts, and two charges were brought against him: one for obstructing the proceedings and another for refusing to pay back the one-month parliamentarian salary he earned before he was disqualified.
When Nancy heard news about her Hong Kong friends, she would send what she called “messages of caring.” Simple, small notes that said she was thinking of them in this difficult time. She remembered how hard it was for her during the Sunflower Movement, when her family didn’t support her and when her friends weren’t with her. She believed that if somebody was showing care for you and soothing you, the impact was huge. Though she’d never asked her friends or her family outright to agree with her politically, deep down in her heart, she wished they could support her.
On a mild February day in 2017, cloudy and slightly cool, Nancy was on a visit to Hong Kong when she decided to go to Macau, an hour’s ferry ride away. After she disembarked, she was stopped by the customs authorities and taken to a small room. They took her passport and started interrogating her.
Like a lot of young people, Nancy had covered the R.O.C. portion of her passport with a “Republic of Taiwan” sticker, in a patriotic gesture that was also a protest of what they view as a colonial government that still rules Taiwan. The authorities forced her to rip off her sticker and write “Taiwan, China” on official papers. Afterward, they deported her. The reason of her rejection, they claimed, was that they could not verify the authenticity of her identity.
How is that possible? Nancy wondered. I have my passport.
The Macau police accompanied her on the ferry back to Hong Kong, keeping her separate from other passengers like some kind of dangerous criminal. All this because of some stickers?
“I’m really dumbfounded,” Nancy later wrote on Instagram. “For the first time I felt the sadness of being Taiwanese.”
From the roof of the Prudential Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, on the tip of Hong Kong’s peninsula, Nancy could see Victoria Harbor. When she went to Hong Kong, she often stayed at the Prudential, near the famous Star Ferry and across the road from one of her favorite tea shops, the Australia Dairy Company — a tourist trap her Hong Kong friends refused to go to but where Nancy went every day and ordered scrambled eggs. She loved the megapulse of Hong Kong compared with Taipei’s more sedate pace. In the evenings, she could watch the city lights and the sea at the same time. Over the years, she visited often, developing an attachment to the streets themselves.
In June 2019, Nancy was in Taipei when all the Hong Kong-related channels on Telegram started to erupt. The new extradition bill would be voted on the next day, and activists were calling for protests. Nancy booked a flight to Hong Kong for the following morning.
After she arrived, she met up with Baggio. Over the years, Nancy and Baggio had become good friends — she tried to see him whenever she came to Hong Kong. They talked politics, went out for meals or beers and joked around. Ray had fled Hong Kong because of his charges in the Fishball protests and was living in exile in Germany, while Edward had been sentenced to six years for his role. Nancy worried Baggio would be next.
On the street that day with Baggio and his group, Nancy was staggered by the number of people who were protesting — one million people in a city of seven million. When Nancy was about to leave around 9 p.m. to go to the airport, it was so crowded Baggio asked a friend to walk her to the MTR station, concerned that Nancy would get lost in the crush. By the time Nancy disembarked the plane in Taipei, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, had dismissed the protesters’ demands. Plans were immediately made to take to the streets again. The following week, the numbers doubled to two million. There was a cautious optimism; in 2003, mass protests had defeated a national-security-law proposal.
Protests quickly became a weekly affair — citizens thronged the city’s main thoroughfares, walking the same protest route, peacefully calling for their rights. Everyone expected that the march on July 1 would be big — it was the anniversary of the British handover to China and an annual day of protest against Communist Party rule. Nancy arrived a few days early. Baggio was worried about how determined she was to participate. He knew the police targeted weaker protesters, especially women, and Nancy was small and not athletic. She didn’t know the streets the way a local did. “You cannot run, you cannot fight, so stay back!” he kept insisting, but he couldn’t stop her.
In the afternoon on July 1, Nancy found herself outside the LegCo. “Make a banner that says you are Taiwanese and hang it on yourself,” a friend advised. Nancy didn’t speak Cantonese, and Hong Kongers usually did not speak Mandarin well enough to differentiate her accent from that of the Chinese. Anytime Baggio introduced Nancy, he explained that she was Taiwanese. Everyone was always delighted — thanking her for the solidarity and support. But her friend had just seen a guy speaking Mandarin get seriously beaten. The streets were becoming too tense.
A friend escorted Nancy to the relative safety of a pedestrian overpass nearby, where she watched the chaos as protesters broke into the LegCo that evening. Inside, in graffiti, someone wrote: “Hong Kong is not China yet” and “It was the government who taught us that peaceful protest is useless.” It was a radicalization that was perhaps inevitable. If we burn, you burn with us! the protesters said, quoting “The Hunger Games.” The next morning, Nancy flew home feeling helpless. She was worried. This would not end well for the Hong Kongers, she thought.
When she was back in Taipei, she couldn’t leave the movement behind. At work, it dominated the on-air discussion. After work, she would come home and watch livestreams of the protests. She couldn’t stop herself. It reminded her of Taiwan’s period of White Terror. She’d always found it hard to imagine the acts of brave defiance she’d read about, but now her friends in Hong Kong were doing the same things. It was almost unbelievable.
When she was with her Taiwanese friends, she felt lonely. She didn’t mind meeting up and complaining about the high cost of Taipei rents, lack of job prospects or the brain drain in which many of her dynamic peers went overseas to pursue careers. But they never discussed the things she was concerned about — human rights, politics, the C.C.P. She reasoned that perhaps her friends didn’t understand the stakes because they were too comfortable. They voted in free elections already. The threat of China was ubiquitous; everyone had stopped paying attention. Besides, Taipei’s Michelin-starred night-market stalls, connoisseur coffee shops, crowded bars, Japanese izakaya restaurants and infinite variations on bubble tea were so far removed from the struggle for freedom in Hong Kong.
She wanted her Taiwanese friends to pay more attention to what was happening, to value their own democracy and maintain their independence from China. Sometimes she tried to explain it to them: “To you guys, this is just something on the news, but to me it’s not. These are my friends. They are actually experiencing these things.”
In the weeks after the LegCo storming, the police arrested hundreds of protesters, and many sought refuge in Taiwan — some having fled straight from the police station after being released on bail. It was seen as an easy place to escape, lie low.
Often Baggio would alert Nancy that someone was coming. Sometimes other friends got in touch with her, and she would pick protesters up at the airport or direct them to NGOs who could help them. Sometimes Baggio didn’t actually know the people he was funneling to her — they got his contacts, and he sent them on to Nancy.
Nancy wasn’t sure how many people she had shuttled from the airport to the NGOs in the summer of 2019. Maybe as many as a dozen. There were others, about 40, whom she would help settle in their new lives after they arrived. One 19-year-old woman even moved into Nancy’s house for two weeks. Her father found the whole thing baffling. Nancy worried he was making the young woman uncomfortable with questions and opinions gleaned from pro-C.C.P. media.
Nancy was concerned about the arriving exiles. Her country did not have a refugee law. Since the fleeing Hong Kongers arrived on tourist visas, which would expire after three months, they were not allowed to work — how would they support themselves? Many were still in high school, but if they lacked official status, how could they enroll in schools? How could they receive medical help when Taiwan’s universal health care system is tied to residency?
Nancy hoped her government would do something to protect them. The D.P.P. had themselves been dissidents under authoritarianism recently enough. But the government often pointed out that the sheer numbers of P.R.C. citizens could overwhelm any asylum system Taiwan instituted. And even if there were a refugee law, it would not apply to Hong Kongers because under the Republic of China Constitution, Hong Kongers were already compatriots and fell under different laws than actual foreigners. (Vestiges of the R.O.C.’s claim to all of China create strange legal contortions — for example, Taiwan’s relations with China are handled by the Mainland Affairs Council, not the Foreign Ministry.) Given the sensitive situation Taiwan was in, many Taiwanese agreed, preferring to receive the young Hong Kongers slowly, even secretly.
In August, Nancy went to Hong Kong for Baggio’s 33rd birthday. The mood in the city was grim. One of his cases was still making its way through the courts; the other resulted in a one-month prison sentence, which he had yet to serve. They went to dinner but didn’t buy a cake or candles to celebrate. Nancy previously asked Baggio if he was interested in leaving. He told her he might one day in the future, but certainly not now.
“Thirty-seven thousand people voted for me,” he told her. He couldn’t just abandon them.
Nancy asked him if he had a birthday wish.
“To stay alive at least until next year.”
“Let me make a wish for you,” she offered. “I hope that you can go to prison quickly, get released quickly and then come to Taiwan quickly.” As a birthday wish, Nancy thought it sounded pathetic, but it was true.
Over the summer, Nancy continued to go to Hong Kong to join the protests, though she was becoming increasingly anxious that she could be arrested. She felt guilty about the strain her absences put on her colleagues at the television station. She quit her job at the end of August. After that, she had more time to host the arriving exiles in Taipei and could spend even more time in Hong Kong. Nancy knew it wasn’t exactly her fight — it was perhaps one step removed — but it meant something to her to be there in solidarity against the C.C.P.
Her Taiwanese friends worried: Your entire life is only for Hong Kong, they said. Nancy couldn’t help it. She was already in so deep.
Nancy flew to Hong Kong a few days before the protest scheduled for Oct. 1, 2019, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic’s founding. Beijing would be celebrating, and protesters wanted to shut down the city — split-screen news coverage of a national parade while young people were being tear-gassed would surely mar Xi’s plans for the festivities. When Nancy landed, officials scanned her passport and pulled her out of the queue. She was escorted to a small room, where they took her passport and documents. She waited for a long time.
The officials searched her bags and her wallet, checking her credit card and how much cash she was carrying. They asked where she was staying, whom she was meeting with and the purpose of her trip. Nancy gave them a fake hotel and told them she was meeting friends, refusing to divulge specifics. The officials claimed they were just worried about her and let her go.
The next morning, Nancy’s phone started buzzing with messages.
“Are you OK?”
“How are you?”
“Are you safe?”
Nancy had been doxxed by HK Leaks, a large pro-Beijing website hosted in Russia that targeted protesters, journalists and activists, detailing their supposed “crimes.” Nancy was among a dump of eight well-known Taiwanese N.G.O. workers and politicians. She had no idea why the leakers would bother including her, but they had posted her photograph, her birthday, passport information, Baggio’s name, the dates of her last visit in August. They said she had “discussed helping thugs escape to Taiwan.”
Nancy had planned to stay in Hong Kong for two weeks, but her friends told her to leave early. If she stayed any longer, she might be arrested, too. Nancy changed hotels three times in one week, trying to make sure she wasn’t being followed, but the damage had been done. She received threats on her Facebook account. “Don’t assume that you’ll be fine by hiding yourself,” one message read. “I will kill you every time I see you. HK Pro-Independence dogs will only face one consequence — die a painful death. … Be careful of your life.” It listed Nancy’s phone number and address. People kept trying to hack her phone and email.
The next time Nancy tried to apply for a visa to visit Hong Kong, she was rejected.
Cut off from Hong Kong, Nancy threw herself into the growing exile community in Taipei. Baggio continued to send fleeing protesters her way. The immediate confusion over what to do with them had given way to an “under the table” system in which young protesters who arrived on three-month tourist visas were encouraged to transition to student visas.
Over the summer, Nancy met a jovial, hulking protester named Gam, who fled after he was arrested on weapons charges and released on bail. He had worked installing electronics in Hong Kong and needed help settling into his new life. Without a residency permit, it was impossible to buy a SIM card that lasted longer than 30 days. Nancy registered for one under her name. He arrived with some savings and was looking for a cheap place to rent. Nancy explained Taipei’s neighborhoods and directed him to the Judicial Reform Foundation, which assisted protesters with pro bono lawyers and gave them an allowance raised from private donations. He ended up staying in a church dormitory.
In the fall, Gam got back in touch with her and asked if they could have dinner. At the end of their meal, he offered to take care of the bill. Nancy was surprised. She rarely let any Hong Kongers pay. Gam explained he was working for an online business, designing and selling protest paraphernalia for a Hong Kong-based Facebook store. He was hoping to open a branch in Taipei and asked Nancy how to establish a company legally in Taiwan. He wanted to get a Taiwanese bank account; Nancy knew it would be impossible without a Taiwanese business partner. “Are you really serious about this?” she asked him. “Once you start doing it, you won’t give up halfway?”
“Yeah, I’m going to do it,” Gam told her. “I will stay here for more than 10 years. I can’t rely on people’s donations forever. I need to depend on myself to survive.” Nancy agreed to help.
Gam had already considered other ways of making money — import-export, 3-D printing — but nothing seemed to fit. He missed Hong Kong often, the food, the city and his mother, whom he left there all alone without warning, not wanting to endanger her. In case the police questioned her, she could truthfully say she had no idea where he was. In his mind sometimes, he wandered the streets of Hong Kong and traced his favorite foods — milk tea from one shop, noodles from another, barbecue meat from somewhere else. A barrage of Hong Kong-flavored restaurants had been opened in Taipei by wealthier Hong Kongers who could afford to pay roughly $200,000 for an investment visa, but Gam thought their foods were pale replicas. Taiwan’s own milk tea was much weaker than Hong Kong’s. The closest he could find to anything resembling a familiar flavor was the egg tart at KFC.
Many Hong Kong protesters had assumed they would feel culturally and linguistically comfortable in Taiwan, which often made the differences between the two places even more jarring. Hong Kong was serious, ruthless, efficient. Taiwan was hierarchical, subtle, ploddingly bureaucratic. In Hong Kong, Gam told Nancy, setting up a bank account took no time; in Taiwan, they waited a month.
Gam was shocked by things Nancy considered totally normal. One day, they took 50 packages of merchandise to the post office. Beforehand, Gam had typed the shipping information into the website. But when they arrived, the staff had no idea what he was talking about. They asked them to hand-write the forms again. “Who does this by hand?” Gam exploded. “In Hong Kong, we will just scan a bar code, and it will take three minutes!”
Many Hong Kongers shared Gam’s confusion. For them, coming to Taiwan had been a difficult decision and an even more difficult adjustment. Most aching was their sense of isolation — of not being able to trust the Taiwanese or even other Hong Kongers. They didn’t know what names they would be going by or who their friends would be. Many of them broke down when talking about their families, how they knew they could not be there when their grandparents or parents got sick or died. They found it difficult to relate to their Taiwanese peers, who had not lived with this trauma and who didn’t understand what it was like to really fight for your homeland. Nancy tried her best to provide the only thing she could: friendship.
Most new arrivals felt that Taiwan itself wasn’t safe from China’s reach — activists on visits to Taipei were followed, their trips detailed on the front pages of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong press. Famous Hong Kong exiles and activists in Taiwan had red paint thrown at them. Aegis, a restaurant that supported Hong Kongers and employed those in exile, was vandalized when a man threw a bucket of chicken excrement and feathers at the kitchen and staff.
Working with Gam gave Nancy a sense of purpose and tethered her to Hong Kong, where protests continued. In November 2019, the violence escalated in a bloody 12-day siege at Polytechnic University. Nancy barely slept. She was glued to the livestream, watching as riot police encircled the high school and college students hunkered inside the campus. The protesters slung arrows, gasoline bombs and bricks at the security services. The police advanced with water cannons and threatened to starve the protesters out. Many had to escape by crawling through the sewers or rappelling down pedestrian overpasses. Over 1,300 protesters were arrested. Another big wave of asylum seekers flooded into Taiwan.
Nancy often dreamed about the police detentions — in her nightmares, she would see lists, hazy names slated for arrest. She would know her friends were on the lists, but which friends in particular, she wasn’t sure. She woke up and checked Telegram, scrolling and scrolling instead of sleeping, to make sure her friends had not been taken.
As arrests increased, it was getting harder to leave Hong Kong. Since the summer, smugglers had been running fishing vessels to Taiwan for protesters who were banned from traveling. By the fall, smugglers had increased the rates astronomically, and the network Baggio was part of started to put together a D.I.Y. operation. They considered buying fishing boats, but the fishermen circle was small, and everyone would know if someone sold them a secondhand vessel. They bought speedboats — it would be a risker journey, but they would be safer to source. They needed gasoline, but if they bought it from a gas station, they would be caught on camera. They found a place that let them siphon fuel. People on each vessel would have to learn navigation and how to drive.
They started sending the boats out that winter. Gathering early in the morning at an appointed spot near Hong Kong harbor, protesters who had never met before put their lives in one another’s hands. There weren’t enough vessels. Wait lists formed, and con artists promised seats that didn’t exist. Protesters desperate to leave contacted Baggio. He would ask them to do a cost-benefit analysis of staying in Hong Kong. “The maximum penalty you are facing is a year or two years,” he’d tell them. “You know the risk for taking a boat? The consequence might be you are killed or you die on the ocean. If you are facing something that is really not serious, it is not worth taking the boat.” Nancy urged Baggio to get on one of the boats.
“You send all the Hong Kongers in the world here, why not send yourself?” she asked.
“It’s not time yet,” he said.
“Now you can go, but you choose not to. Maybe in the future, you will want to go, but you will be unable to do so,” she told him. “You can help Hong Kong only if you’re alive!”
As the Taiwanese watched Hong Kong, they debated their own future. The incumbent president, the D.P.P.’s Tsai Ing-wen, facing re-election in January 2020, had been quick to throw her support behind the movement. If the Taiwanese voted the KMT back in power, Tsai said, they would be moving closer toward China. Did they want to risk Hong Kong’s fate, or did they want to continue to assert Taiwanese autonomy under her leadership?
When Tsai first assumed office in 2016, she refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. Tsai instead offered dialogue based on mutual respect. She was known for being a careful, calculating technocrat who would not disturb the fragile equilibrium with China. Still, Xi cut the limited channels of communication with Taiwan and resumed the threats of a military takeover. In the run-up to Tsai’s election, the People’s Liberation Army constructed a replica of Taiwan’s presidential palace and trained for an invasion of the island. The regime had already begun to modernize the military, reorganizing the armed forces, overhauling doctrine and upgrading weapons. In the years after Tsai’s victory, the R.O.C. government hemorrhaged official allies — seven diplomatic partners flipped to the People’s Republic by 2020. The campaign to erase Taiwan entered a higher gear.
Before the protests erupted in Hong Kong, Tsai lagged behind KMT opponents by double digits, but the more Xi attacked Taiwan and Hong Kong, the more Tsai’s popularity grew — it became difficult to question her politics, even slightly, without being tarred as pro-C.C.P.
Nancy was furious with what she saw as Tsai’s hypocrisy — she campaigned on supporting the protesters but did little when they arrived in Taiwan. The lack of official asylum protections was essentially rendering arriving Hong Kongers stateless.
“The D.P.P. is trying to navigate a really cautious middle course,” Ming-sho Ho, a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, explained. “On the one hand, it has the moral obligation to help Hong Kongers, but also at the same time, they understand that any big move will antagonize Beijing, so they try to have it both ways. That’s the typical Tsai approach. They try to do something ‘under the radar’ and don’t want to make a big fanfare out of that, and that actually raises criticism from a lot of people.”
The Hong Kongers themselves felt they couldn’t critique the Taiwanese government overtly. They had precarious status — completely at the whim of those in power, guests who could not make demands of their hosts. Exiled Hong Kongers had formed their own civil-society groups, which spent time trying to court domestic public opinion, but there was not a lot they could do.
“Right now, we need to depend on the friendly attitude from the government, but we hope for a clear legal framework for this mechanism,” said Chun-hung Lin, spokesman for the Judicial Reform Foundation and a Taiwanese lawyer who helped protesters navigate the legal vacuum.
Tsai and the D.P.P. were facing a barrage of Chinese disinformation, a familiar strategy of dividing the population along pre-existing cleavages. Conspiracy theories flooded the internet on both sides, though most targeted the D.P.P.: The C.I.A. had sent agents with invisible ink to doctor ballots in favor of Tsai; Tsai had six abortions; her Ph.D. thesis was fake. It was often easy to spot disinformation: Chinese write Mandarin with simplified characters, while Taiwanese use traditional characters, and the fake posts often used the wrong traditional characters. In response, young Taiwanese started online fact-checking efforts to correct the record but struggled to keep pace. Fake news, incipient rumors, rash politicized takes were rampant.
Tsai was also balancing relations with the Trump administration. For decades after the Chinese civil war, the United States served as the KMT’s ultimate protector and recognized the R.O.C. as the only government of China. Richard Nixon was the first president to visit the People’s Republic in 1972. Neither the P.R.C. government in Beijing nor the R.O.C. government in Taipei permits official diplomatic ties with a country that recognizes their rival across the strait. On Jan. 1, 1979, Jimmy Carter broke official relations with the R.O.C. in order to recognize the government in Beijing.
Since then, the United States has tried to balance China’s demands with its support of Taiwan’s existence, creating a byzantine patchwork of legislation. The United States passed the Taiwan Relations Act in April 1979 to provide a legal basis for a relationship with the place it would now refer to as Taiwan (not the Republic of China). The act laid the foundation for U.S. “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, which does not require America to come to Taiwan’s defense in the case of an attack from China but leaves open the possibility that it might. The legislation was designed to show support for Taiwan, while discouraging the country from formally declaring independence.
After the break in official relations, no American president had spoken to a Taiwanese leader until President-elect Trump spoke to Tsai in 2016. Trump would go on to fill many key positions in his administration with China hawks and friends of Taiwan. Congress would approve more than $12 billion in arms sales, including fighter jets the United States hadn’t sold to Taipei since 1992. But it was clear to most observers that Trump’s devotion to Taiwan was proportional to his growing feud with Xi.
The situation was unpredictable from China’s side as well. In 2018, the party eliminated presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi to rule for life, and analysts wondered if he might manipulate a larger conflict with Taiwan in order to cement his power. There would be no great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation without solidifying control over the historic territories China considered inherently its own. The policies of Tibetan resettlement, Xinjiang concentration camps, clamping down on Hong Kong and “reunification” with Taiwan were all popular at home.
Most experts thought an imminent invasion of Taiwan was unlikely but impossible to rule out completely. Perhaps a serious domestic crisis would push Xi to make a move, but it would be incredibly costly. More pressing were the party’s attempts to deter Taiwan’s desire or ability to assert its independence as “Taiwan” — to ensure Taiwan, and the global community, would believe it was only a matter of time before the archipelago was integrated with the mainland.
The C.C.P.’s “game plan for Taiwan is to convince the rest of the world that resistance is futile, that the P.R.C. version of history is correct and will prevail,” Shelley Rigger, East Asia politics professor at Davidson College, said. “Therefore, sinking a lot of resources into helping Taiwan resist incorporation into the P.R.C. is a waste of your resources because you are pressing against the tide of history.”
The party uses access to the Chinese economy to manipulate global discourse over what it considers its domestic sphere. After the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protesters, the N.B.A. was forced to put out an official apology or be kicked out of the Chinese market, and then Beijing punished a soccer team in England’s Premier League after a player denounced China’s treatment of the Uyghur minority. The government fomented a domestic boycott of Nike and H&M for statements the companies made about forced labor in Xinjiang. Taiwanese aspirations met the same fate: The Gap had to apologize for a T-shirt design that showed China without Taiwan. When a Taiwanese writer was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, the committee bowed to Chinese pressure to alter the nationality category to say “country/territory.”
China effectively added hostage taking to commercial threats after Beijing detained two Canadians in 2018 in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of the telecom giant Huawei’s chief financial officer at America’s behest. The men were kept for more than two years before being put on trial in closed courtrooms with no witnesses. Afterward, they returned to prison, and the verdicts were never released. The detentions crossed a line the C.C.P. had not breached before — but there were no substantive repercussions. The cases served as a warning that Taiwanese citizens in China or Hong Kong, or any citizens for that matter, could meet the same fate.
Tsai was re-elected with a historic share of the vote, but Nancy was sure there were still risks on the horizon. Her father and more than five million other Taiwanese had voted for the KMT; moving away from China once and for all seemed elusive. “The biggest enemy is not the Chinese Communist Party, it is ourselves,” Nancy said.
On Jan. 21, 2020, Taiwan announced its first case of Covid-19, and in March, it fully sealed its borders. At first, Nancy was relieved. With the world on lockdown, she could take a break from arriving Hong Kongers. But after a few months, contact tracing had eliminated local transmission, and life returned to normal. From mid-April to late December, there were no domestic Covid cases in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, pandemic precautions throttled protests — shutting down schools and banning public gatherings of more than four people.
In May 2020, China’s Legislature, the National People’s Congress, announced a vote on a national-security law for Hong Kong — it would ban whatever the C.C.P. defined as treason, sedition and subversion. The message was clear: Instead of extraditing Hong Kongers to Chinese courts as the 2019 protesters feared, Beijing would impose Chinese law on Hong Kong, crushing the independent judicial system. The law went into effect on June 30, 2020, at 11 p.m. “One country, two systems” was effectively over. Hong Kong was now basically just another city in China.
Within days of the announcement, years of activism unraveled — Joshua Wong’s Demosisto, Baggio’s Youngspiration and other pro-democracy groups disbanded to avoid likely persecution. Books critical of Xi or other party leaders, or those written by members of the opposition, vanished off bookstore and library shelves. Shops that had been openly “yellow”— in favor of the protests — removed their supporting paraphernalia. People changed their names on social media profiles. They took down any remaining personal posts. They downloaded VPNs, Signal and WhatsApp and started carefully considering anything they put in writing. Those who had routinely given interviews to journalists begged off. They started watching what they said aloud among strangers. Hong Kongers did not grow up with overt oppression. They didn’t intuitively know where the redlines were; everything required second-guessing. Not everyone agreed on what was or wasn’t safe. Even those who had never been at the front lines of protests started talking about fleeing — for the sake of their children or themselves.
Wealthy Hong Kongers could apply for an investment visa to Taiwan. Younger people with means could apply for a student visa, and those who could finagle a job offer could apply for a work visa, but that still left plenty of young protesters without the money or connections to qualify for these categories. According to a New York Times investigation, more than 200 at-risk protesters who were fleeing arrest or sentencing, like Gam, sought asylum in Taiwan before the borders shut — the government refused to disclose the official figures.
In June 2020, the Taiwanese government finally released an official policy to deal with the Hong Kong exiles almost a year after they began to arrive. It avoided any use of words for “asylum” or “refugee,” relying instead on Article 18 of the Act Governing Relations with Hong Kong and Macau, which vowed to assist those “whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons” on a case-by-case basis. It established a new office staffed by a dozen people helping the exiles with school or work applications, as well as distributing financial support. There was no clarity on what standard asylum-seekers would be judged on, what would happen if they were rejected, on what legal grounds the Hong Kongers who were already there could stay and whether they would ever be granted citizenship.
The government insisted that if it revealed any details, China would use the information to inundate Taiwan with spies posing as refugees. “We believe the existing regulations and law has provided enough space for this government to provide humanitarian assistance for the Hong Kong people,” Chiu Chui-Cheng, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, told me. More than 10,800 Hong Kongers were granted residency permits in Taiwan in 2020, almost double the previous year’s total.
Many Taiwanese felt that the policy was enough — this was not their problem to solve. They themselves existed in a liminal stasis. A 2021 poll showed that 80 percent of Taiwanese wanted to continue their country’s ambiguous status, neither declaring outright independence nor unifying with China but deciding things later. A growing number of young Taiwanese felt differently — 13.5 percent, Nancy among them, believed Taiwan should announce independence as soon as possible, even if it risked an attack by China.
Nancy was enraged by her government’s response. It wasn’t as if she wanted Hong Kongers flooding into Taiwan either — that made it even more important to establish a proper mechanism to filter out impostors or spies. “Whether or not we publicize that we are saving Hong Kongers, this is not going to stop the C.C.P. from attacking us, and this is not going to stop the Chinese infiltration of Taiwan,” she said. “They have never stopped oppressing us, over the table and under the table. Why should we do it in secret if this is something that is right?”
In October 2020, Nancy got the message she’d been waiting for. Baggio wanted out. He had been released from his one-month sentence, and almost immediately, he noticed he was being followed. The national-security law had changed all calculations — the Communist Party was effectively controlling Hong Kong the way it controlled the mainland, imposing an atmosphere of silence. Even when he spoke out in interviews, journalists chose not to publish his remarks, whether to protect him or themselves. Previous lawmakers had been arrested after being tailed, and Baggio worried the regime was planning to arrest him again. So he asked Nancy to help him plan his own escape to Taiwan.
Finally, Nancy thought. They couldn’t rely on the boats — the route was compromised when a group of 12 protesters were caught trying to make the crossing by the Chinese Coast Guard in August. Nancy appealed to contacts in the government to try to get Baggio a work visa — he seemed to be exactly the kind of at-risk protester Article 18 was supposed to protect. But after a monthlong wait, her attempts had gone nowhere. Her contacts didn’t flat out deny him, but they didn’t help either. She could read the air. Nancy told Baggio that getting asylum in Taiwan was not an option.
Nancy began pressing Baggio to consider other countries where he could be useful to the cause. She was sure he was running out of time. Their friend Tony Chung, a 19-year-old activist, had been charged with inciting secession, money laundering and conspiracy to publish seditious material under the national-security law and was detained in late October.
Tony started Studentlocalism, a group to campaign for Hong Kong independence on high school and middle school campuses, in 2016, when he was only 15. Gangly, bespectacled, with thick straight cut bangs, he barely even looked his age. One time in Taipei, Nancy took him to a group dinner and watched as he became absorbed in a book about dinosaurs someone’s 10-year-old had brought. Another time, at an interview with Radio Free Asia, the journalist asked if there was anything he wanted to drink, and Tony asked for hot cocoa. Nancy had taken to thinking of him as a little brother.
During his last visit to Taiwan in January 2020, Nancy had begged him to stay. She promised she had a network to get him to America, but Tony declined. “It’s not like I’m going to be the first person arrested under a national-security law,” he joked.
Tony was right. He was not technically the first person arrested for violating the national-security law. He was the second to be charged. In July 2020, the security services arrested him at his house and accused him of writing a Facebook post in support of Hong Kong’s independence.
Nancy had given up on Tsai’s government helping the Hong Kongers outright, but if there was anyone they might assist quietly under Article 18, it would be Tony: a teenager facing up to a lifetime in prison for a supposed Facebook post. But the authorities did nothing.
By October, Tony had grown so desperate that he made a plan to plea for asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong while he was out on bail. But as he waited in a nearby coffee shop for the consulate to open, three plain-clothed security officers arrested him. (He hadn’t realized that he needed to be physically in America to apply.)
Nancy was devastated. A thousand times in her head, she had imagined picking Tony up at the airport. She had daydreamed about helping him get on a boat. Now he was in Pik Uk Correctional Institution, a maximum-security juvenile prison, where he had been held in solitary confinement. She could have saved him, but he slipped through her fingers. That frustration was always on her periphery, a failure she couldn’t escape. She wouldn’t let the same thing happen to Baggio.
In late November, Nancy and I were standing on a street in downtown Taipei eating oyster vermicelli when she told me she thought she had finally found a way to get Baggio to America. We talked for hours during my three months in Taiwan; equally patient was the interpreter who helped us communicate. That night, she was bouncing with anticipation — maybe she could succeed with Baggio where she previously failed.
Baggio didn’t tell many people he was leaving Hong Kong; he didn’t want to implicate anyone or tip off the authorities. Neither he nor Nancy were sure he would actually be able to get out. He could be on a no-fly list he didn’t know about; he could be detained at the airport or taken off the plane. Nancy was so nervous she didn’t even tell her contacts in America when to expect him. Baggio checked in with her from the airport, from the plane, when he arrived in Los Angeles for a layover and finally when he landed in Washington in December.
When I met him there a few months later, he told me he was grateful for everything Nancy had done for Hong Kongers and for helping him get to the United States safely, how passionately she always tried to do the right thing — regardless of the consequences. “It is also how lucky I am to have such a friendship,” he said. “In Cantonese, it is like, jyun fan, it means fate.”
Plenty of Taiwanese had supported the Hong Kong protest movement, but none had thrown themselves into it the way Nancy did. “In the very beginning of my participation in the Hong Kong incident, my thoughts were very simple. I wasn’t supporting Hong Kong; I was supporting freedom and democracy,” Nancy told me. “To me, defending Hong Kong’s democracy is the same as defending my own democracy. I can’t just stand by and watch everything happen.”
Nancy knew that her life had changed. “I’m nobody, but I’m one of the first Taiwanese people exposed by the Hong Kong government,” she said. She felt that traveling to some places might now be dangerous. The Chinese government was suspected of orchestrating the kidnapping of a Hong Kong bookseller in Thailand in 2015, and China reserves the right to impose its national-security law for “crimes” committed anywhere. “I can no longer get a visa. I don’t even know if I can enter some pro-China countries in the future. Will I be arrested when I go on vacation to Thailand?” she continued. “If I were a public figure, I would have no complaints. I’m not a public figure, and I don’t want to be a public figure. I just want to be the most authentic friend of those people in real life.”
Contrary to many Taiwanese fears, the incoming Biden administration maintained Trump’s pressure on China and actively enlisted other countries to speak up on Taiwan’s behalf. For the first time since 1979, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the United States was invited to a presidential inauguration, and high-level U.S. delegations continued to visit Taipei. China responded with military posturing — amphibious-landing drills and live-fire exercises coincided with official U.S. visits. Academics and experts dismissed these maneuvers as saber-rattling that more likely reflected the deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship than an impending plan to invade Taiwan.
But Taiwan’s fate was far from certain. China’s actions were now being portrayed by U.S. foreign policy hawks as a national-security threat and Taiwan as an impending flash point to possible war. In progressive American foreign-policy circles, meanwhile, China’s eventual control of Taiwan is often a foregone conclusion — a sheepish shrug at the end of an exhausted, over-rung forever war. Some even floated trading it outright for better relations with the C.C.P.
The campaign to erase Taiwan continued in the face of the pandemic. “Taiwan has no escape — the pressure is there already,” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told me. “The Chinese government is powerful in blocking Taiwan’s international participation, grabbing our diplomatic allies. They’re also trying to threaten Taiwan militarily in a very direct way. We don’t want the situation in between Taiwan and China to get any worse than what it is right now.”
In May 2021, after more than a year with virtually no local transmission, Taiwan experienced its first domestic Covid surge. Tsai explained that the government was unable to sign a deal for the Pfizer vaccine because BioNTech, under pressure from China, asked Taiwan to remove the word “country” in the news release about the purchase. Despite Taiwan’s compliance, the deal stalled. China had offered to donate its own vaccine to Taiwan, backing the D.P.P. government into a corner. The Covid spike had already hurt Tsai’s popularity, and vaccine politics increased polarization, with the KMT suggesting the D.P.P. was politicizing lives in refusing Chinese-made vaccines, while the D.P.P. maintained it was China who cut off their Pfizer imports to begin with. In the end, two Taiwanese companies, the electronics manufacturer Foxconn and the chip maker TSMC, purchased the vaccine from BioNTech and donated it to the Taiwanese government.
It was hard to know what to make of Taiwan’s precarity — when the act of existing was itself a provocation. It was a country still in transition from one authoritarian regime that could soon be subsumed by another. During this brief moment of respite, Taiwan was flourishing, but would the Taiwanese themselves ever have the chance to decide their own fate?
Nancy embodied so many of Taiwan’s unique contradictions. Her grandmother identified as Japanese, her father identified as Chinese and Nancy identified as Taiwanese. Yet they all shared the same apartments and rights to a ballot box. “Taiwan hasn’t figured out who Taiwan is yet,” Lev Nachman, postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, explained. “They can’t start letting in refugees and immigrants in and giving them citizenship, because we don’t even know who’s Taiwanese here yet.”
“When you’re contested, every other political issue is secondary.” Nachman continued. “It’s not that people don’t care about things like minimum wage or economics, but those things get filtered through this lens of ‘Who are we? How do I feel about China? How does that impact my identity? Am I Taiwanese? Am I Chinese? Am I both? What does that mean politically? Where does that mean my loyalties lie?’”
Both Hong Kong and Taiwan were conservative societies, made up of waves of ethnic Han migrants, locked into economic dependence on China. They had shared little by way of identification, until they found themselves pushing back against an encroaching Beijing.
“Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” had receded from the headlines. First Tibet, then Xinjiang, then Hong Kong — the edges of empire had been dutifully absorbed. Taiwan was the only one remaining. The Taiwanese carried the mantle — holding memorial protests, selling banned books and maintaining censored websites for the Hong Kongers who no longer could.
Nancy herself teetered between nihilism about Taiwan’s future and the most fervent belief that Hong Kong’s democratic spirit would someday be reborn, somewhere. Impending erasure had bred a kind of earnest patriotism — an attempt by the Taiwanese to assert their existence in any space that would tolerate them. It was trendy to take photos with a green “I support Taiwan Independence” flag during international travels and post them online. Nancy carried one wherever she went on vacation — posing with it in Japan, Germany and the Netherlands. In Paris in 2018, she was mobbed by a group of Chinese tourists who tried to grab her flag and shouted at her, “Taiwan is a part of China!”
Across the region, young people were undergoing versions of the same story — trying to grow up, build a life in a city, in a culture, in a country whose values existed on borrowed time. Pan-Asian solidarity had been minimal until the party’s punitive response to the yearlong Hong Kong protest movement brought a sense of collective generational crisis to the forefront.
For the last year, the #MilkTeaAlliance has abounded online, partly as a symbol of young people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Myanmar and Thailand standing up for their freedoms, often either directly against China or regimes perceived to be propped up by China. They had all harbored the dream that they could change their geopolitical fate — tiny tops spinning in unison until they ran out of momentum.
In late June, when I called Nancy, she told me she had stepped back while Gam had taken more of a management role in the online shop they started together. They decided he would use the profits to pay for his product-design degree. His Mandarin was improving, and he was trying to settle more fully into his Taiwanese life. When he thought it would no longer endanger her, he had contacted his mother. Now they talked all the time. He hoped he could bring her to Taiwan one day.
Nancy had written a letter to Tony in prison for his 20th birthday — part of a campaign to let him know he hadn’t been forgotten. There were so many things she wanted to tell him, but she knew her words were being monitored. “Sister always remembers the days when you came to Taiwan and ate with me,” she wrote to him. “Keep fighting,” she signed it. “Never forget your own worth and beliefs.”
Nancy had given up her career to help Hong Kongers in exile. She wanted to protect Taiwan’s own nascent democracy, but she wasn’t sure where that had really gotten her. Still, she was happy she had. She didn’t think she could have lived with herself if she hadn’t stood by her beliefs. She had started taking Cantonese classes and had a weekly family-style dinner with Hong Kong friends in Taipei. Would they stand up for her, the way she stood up for them? She wasn’t sure.
Sarah A. Topol is a writer at large for the magazine. Her article about the Rohingya genocide won a National Magazine Award. Her article for the magazine about a Uyghur family won an Overseas Press Club award for best international magazine feature. An Rong Xu is a New York- and Taipei-based photographer and director who was born in China and raised in New York City’s Chinatown.