Protests that have paralysed Hong Kong for nearly six months are pushing residents to seek new lives abroad, with many turning to nearby democratic Taiwan to escape the uncertainty at home.

Taiwan has long attracted Hong Kongers seeking an alternative to their city’s frenetic pace and sky-high rents.

But the number granted short-term and permanent residency in Taiwan rose nearly 30% between January and September from a year earlier, with investment from Hong Kong almost doubling.

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Leonardo Wong was in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung last month scouting locations for a restaurant he plans to open when he moves to the island in January.

“Hong Kong is no longer safe. You don’t know what would happen tomorrow. There are too many external forces that could change the course of things,” the 27-year-old said.

“Now it feels rather like things could never go back to the way they were. We can’t see what kind of future (Hong Kong) is heading toward.”

Legal concept of asylum

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Taiwan does not recognise the legal concept of asylum or accept refugee applications, fearful of a potential influx from the authoritarian mainland.

But Hong Kongers can apply to live on the island through a variety of means, including investment visas.

Former system analyst Chow Chung-ming recently obtained a residency permit through a scheme that requires a Tw$6m ($197 000) investment, a fraction of the costs associated with other popular immigration destinations such as Australia, Canada and the US.

The 41-year-old moved to Kaohsiung attracted partly by lower rents, which have helped him realise a childhood dream of opening a cat cafe this July, but also the island’s relative freedoms.

“In Taiwan, freedom of speech is in the present tense. People can elect the president and lawmakers – rights that Hong Kongers don’t have and I don’t see any chance of ever having,” he said.

Protests in Hong Kong erupted in response to proposed legislation that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland, but have snowballed into demands for greater freedoms in the city.

Beijing officially espouses a so-called “one country, two systems” policy on Hong Kong, allowing the city greater freedoms and rule of law, but protesters argue that has been gradually eroded.

A 50-year guarantee of that status will expire in 2047, with many Hong Kongers convinced their freedoms will keep shrinking until the city is fully absorbed into the mainland.

“I think the tightening on freedom will continue in Hong Kong until it’s ‘one country, one system’,” Chow said.

The current departure of Hong Kongers abroad is described by some as a “third wave”, after many residents went overseas ahead of the 1997 British handover and, in smaller numbers, after the 2014 failure of the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement”.