HONG KONG/TAIPEI—Hong Kong government suspended on Tuesday operations at its representative office in Taiwan in a sign of escalating diplomatic tension between the mainland-ruled financial hub and the democratically-ruled island of Taiwan.
Tensions between Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government and Taiwan have risen since Hong Kong saw Beijing push through a national security law which has suffocated pro-democracy protests that erupted in the former British colony in 2019. The imposition of the sweeping national security law prompted many of Hong Kong’s new dissidents to leave, some for Taiwan.
A Hong Kong government representative did not provide an explanation for the decision to halt operations at the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office, adding only that the decision was not related to the recent rise in coronavirus cases in Taiwan.
“The suspension is not related to the pandemic situation in Taiwan. We do not have anything further to add,” the representative said in a statement.
Taiwan’s government said it regrets the Hong Kong government’s decision.
“We express deep regret at today’s unilateral decision by the Hong Kong government,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement.
Taiwan has criticised the security law that Beijing imposed in Hong Kong and opened an office in Taipei to help people who may want to leave.
In August last year, Chinese authorities intercepted a boat carrying 12 people from Hong Kong, who had all faced charges related to the anti-government protests, and were apparently looking to escape to Taiwan.
Last year, Taiwan officials in Hong Kong were told their visas would not be renewed unless they signed a document supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan under its “one China” policy, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said this month there were only eight Taiwanese staff members left at its de facto consulate in Hong Kong, and that all their visas were due to expire this year.
Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said the suspension in operations meant requests for assistance from Hong Kong people in Taiwan would be handled through hotlines and via a Hong Kong government website.
Beijing sees Taiwan as part of “one China” and plans to use of force to bring the island under its control.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants Taiwan brought under its rule according to a similar “one country two systems” arrangement it offered to Hong Kong when it returned to Beijing’s rule in 1997.
Taiwanese say they are an independent island that will never bow to communist rule, presenting a democratic model that the Chinese people could choose if it weren’t for the iron-fisted rule of the CCP.
Hong Kong has long served as an important trade and investment conduit between Taiwan and China, which have no diplomatic relations.
The security law in Hong Kong punishes what the CCP broadly defines as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces against its rule with up to life in prison.
Critics of the law fear it will crush the wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hongkongers when the city was returned to Beijing’s rule. Supporters agree with the CCP’s view that the law has “restored the stability” that is essential for its economic success.
Hong Kong has not seen any mass protests since the law was introduced. Many activists have been charged under the law, with prominent anti-Beijing pro-democracy figures sentenced to jail terms.
By Sharon Tam and Yimou Lee