Asia's Bastion of Free Speech? Move Aside, Hong Kong, It's Taiwan Now.


The shift reflects the increasingly authoritarian efforts of President Xi Jinping, China’s strongest leader since Mao, to assert his control over China, including Hong Kong. When the British returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997, the “one country, two systems” arrangement was supposed to give the territory a “high degree of autonomy” until at least 2047.

But since the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement, in which thousands of Hong Kong residents filled the streets to call for greater democracy, Mr. Xi’s China has grown more willing to intervene. In 2016, China’s abduction and detention of five Hong Kong-based publishers of critical and often salacious books about Chinese leaders seemed a death knell to Hong Kong’s free speech.

Lam Wing-kee, one of the five, who said he was held in solitary confinement for five months and pressured into a public confession, is now planning to reopen his bookshop, which had been in Hong Kong until he shut it down, in Taiwan.

“We Hong Kong people look to Taiwan for lessons,” Mr. Lam said. “And people in Taiwan look to see how the Chinese mainland controls Hong Kong.”

The growing recognition of Taiwan as one of Asia’s freest environments for expression is itself a dramatic change. Until 1987, the island was under brutal martial law, controlled by the dictator Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, and later his son.

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A protest in March marking the first anniversary of the detainment by China of the Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-cheh. China made an example of Mr. Lee, who was sentenced for state subversion.

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Ashley Pon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Taiwan’s freedoms were hard-won. Last Saturday, Taiwan marked Freedom of Speech Day on the 29th anniversary of the death of the free-speech advocate Deng Nan-jung, who burned himself to death as the police prepared to storm his office and arrest him for publishing a revised constitution.

Mr. Deng’s death prompted large protests that helped set the island toward democratic government and greater freedoms.

Cédric Alviani, the Taipei bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, said Taiwan has since become an “island of stability” in a region where press freedoms were backsliding. “Freedom of expression is a big part of Taiwanese culture,” he said.

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Mr. Deng’s widow, Yeh Chu-lan, warned that Taiwan’s freedoms were not guaranteed. “We could lose our freedom of expression anytime in the face of Chinese hegemony,” she said.

Hong Kong has seemed a cautionary tale of Beijing’s interference. Some of the young leaders of the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to prison terms, raising concerns about interference by Beijing. Hong Kong’s Legislature is currently moving to outlaw insults to the Chinese national anthem after Hong Kong soccer fans booed it.

Li Dan, organizer of the 1905 Hong Kong Human Rights Film Festival, said that he will relocate this year’s event in May to Taiwan, with a smaller satellite festival in Hong Kong. The move, Mr. Li said, came after the festival had difficulty in finding large donors to sponsor the event in Hong Kong, where the costs are high.

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The Taiwanese filmmaker Kevin H.J. Lee, pictured, said he was denied a visa to Hong Kong last year. His documentary “Self-Censorship” was screened in Hong Kong in March.

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Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“Right now in Hong Kong there is increasing control of information and media, so, often there is a fear of the term ‘human rights,’” he said.

“As for the environment for free speech in Taiwan, I’d say it’s the best in Asia — there’s nothing you can’t say,” he added.

Others also say that Taiwan has proved much more welcoming to regional rights activists. The Network of Young Democratic Asians, a group with members from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, decided to meet last September in Taipei because it was the only place that certain to allow all of its members to enter.

“I felt really glad that Taiwan could still provide this kind of safe space for activists from different parts of Asia,” Johnson Yeung, the head of the group’s development team, said in a phone interview.

While Taiwan is relishing its new reputation as the center for free speech in the Chinese-speaking world, there have also been instances when Taiwan has appeared to compromise on its political values to avoid angering Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory.

Last year, Taiwan returned a Chinese activist seeking political asylum to China. Some Chinese say it is also getting harder for mainland activists to enter Taiwan to attend workshops or conferences.

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Messages of support on the door of the Causeway Bay Books store in Hong Kong, which shut down after its owner was detained by China.

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Jerome Favre/European Pressphoto Agency

Zhao Sile, a Chinese journalist and author who writes about civil society in China, said Chinese activists have told her that it has become more difficult in the past two years to obtain visas from Taiwan.

Ms. Zhao, now in Taipei as a guest of National Chung Cheng University, said in an interview that she knew of multiple cases in which nongovernment groups or universities that invited a Chinese participant used medical visas as a workaround. The visas, which are easier to obtain than normal visas, are intended for medical tourists coming to Taiwan for plastic surgery.

Accustomed to free speech at home, Taiwanese are also running afoul of the authorities in China and even Hong Kong.

Last year, China made an example of one Taiwanese activist, Lee Ming-cheh, who was detained upon entering China. After being held incommunicado for months, he gave what appeared to be a forced confession before being sentenced to five years in prison for state subversion.

The case has had a chilling effect in Taiwan because the court used as evidence postings that Mr. Lee had made on social media while in Taiwan.

In November, the Taiwanese filmmaker Kevin H. J. Lee said he was denied a visa to Hong Kong. He thinks it was because of his new documentary, “Self-Censorship,” which was released last month. Mr. Lee believes the authorities in Hong Kong or China acted to prevent his entry after seeing his crowdfunding page, which included a trailer that was partly filmed in Hong Kong.

In March, a group of Hong Kong university students contacted Mr. Lee to ask if he would be willing to speak with them from Taiwan after a showing of his film. Concerned that they might be monitored by school officials, they were only willing to communicate via the social media platform WhatsApp, he said, which features end-to-end encryption.

“It was only at the last moment that they quickly notified everyone and told them ‘We’re about to show this film,’” Mr. Lee said. “I told them that when I look at the situation in Hong Kong it reminds me of Taiwan before the end of martial law. How could Hong Kong end up like this?”

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