This is one in a series of profiles of 2023 Cravath International Fellows.

2023 Cravath International Fellow Teresa Chen ’23 traveled to Taiwan during winter term to undertake research on the impact of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, enacted in 2020, and its effects on democracies beyond its jurisdictional territory. For Chen, who is Chinese-American, “foreign relations, especially in this time period when a lot is happening between the U.S. and China, seems like a really exciting thing to study, and might perhaps reveal a little bit about my own identity and my family background. And I’ve always been really curious about Taiwan: it’s an island with a rich history, in terms of the struggle between independence and sovereignty, and its march toward democracy and rule of law.”

The new law “effectively criminalizes any dissent and adopts broad and vague definitions for crimes such as terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign powers,” she explains. “There are a lot of questions about how the law is being interpreted. What counts as a violation? What are the repercussions that could occur? What does it mean for freedom of the press, and for civil society activists?”

Chen also notes that the law is open-ended in that it doesn’t state that it applies only to citizens of the People’s Republic of China. “If a citizen of Taiwan were to stay in Taiwan, they would probably be protected, but if that individual were to travel to mainland China or Hong Kong — even if they had a layover in Hong Kong for a few hours — they might be subject to the law.” Although Chen believes this has not yet happened, she learned that at least one accusation has been made against a Taiwanese academic in a pro-Chinese Communist Party Hong Kong newspaper.

Chen interviewed Taiwanese lawyers, professors, businesspeople and civil society activists, as well as activists from Hong Kong who have moved to Taiwan in the wake of the new law. “One of the reasons I thought it was really important for me to travel to Taiwan to conduct these interviews in person was because I knew there would be a risk if there were any kind of written evidence of the conversations we had,” she notes. Chen confirmed to her contacts that she would respect their privacy, asked permission to record the interview or take notes, and assured some interviewees that they could remain anonymous. “Because the interviews were conducted in person, I think people were more willing to speak. I was honestly surprised by how open they were.”

Several of her interviews touched on the new law’s immediate, concrete effects on Taiwan. “It is clear that government-to-government relations have become more strained,” Chen notes, citing the closing of Taiwan’s economic and cultural office in Hong Kong and new limits on permanent visas for Hong Kong citizens hoping to work and settle in Taiwan.

Chen also explored the balance between protecting Taiwan’s national security and the need to avoid incursions on civil liberties. In the same way that the United States identified Russian cyberattacks that may have undermined electoral integrity, Taiwan has experienced cyberattacks by the People’s Republic of China against its own electoral systems and processes. Chen learned that local humanitarian organizations and civil society activists are leading efforts to counter these attacks by teaching social media users to recognize disinformation and developing programs that fact-check and verify information on popular platforms, but concerns remain that these systems may mistakenly censor free speech and violate civil liberties.

Another common thread was a comparison between Hong Kong’s new national security law and martial law in Taiwan. Chen was struck by the fact that protestors in Hong Kong often invoked Taiwan’s historic martial law period, drawing “stark analogies” between it and the current environment. These comparisons “invoked the broad and vague language of the laws and the substantive crimes defined in them,” she notes. Tracing Taiwan’s history during this period also revealed the “concurrent top-down and bottom-up forces” that eventually led to the lifting of martial law. 

“Not only did a more favorable administration come into power, believing that democratization would provide political and economic benefits to Taiwan in the international community, but the perseverance of civil society groups advocating for change preserved momentum towards a constitutional change embracing democracy,” she observes. ”What became clear in my various conversations is that this is not a challenge that is unique to Taiwan. By observing the actions that Taiwan has taken to address this balancing question, and evaluating their effectiveness, democracies such as the United States may be able to draw valuable lessons to protect our own objectives of national security and civil liberties.”

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