Hong Kong burns, Taiwan frets

02, Oct. 2019

(A fire burns during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2019.)
(A fire burns during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2019.)

By Ko Shu-ling

TAIPEI, Kyodo - For months the world has watched intently as Hong Kong is racked by mass public demonstrations.

Sparked by a proposed law that would allow extradition of Hong Kong citizens to face prosecution in Chinese courts, criticism soon grew to include what many see as a general erosion of democratic rights under the “one country, two systems” arrangement that Beijing agreed to when it took control of the former British colony in 1997.

Interest has been driven not only by the actions of protesters, but how Beijing will respond, especially in a year when it is already juggling anniversaries of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the 1989 massacre of an earlier generation of democratic activists in Tiananmen Square.

Given what some call President Xi Jinping's “neo-Maoist” belligerence, both international and domestic, Chinese authorities cannot afford to appear weak.

Yet as former U.S. national security consultant Joseph Bosco said in a recent interview, overreacting would kill the “one country, two systems” formula, with potentially far-reaching consequences.

No one is watching events in Hong Kong more closely than the Taiwanese, for whom the formula has long provided an implicit, if practically implausible, model for peaceful reunification with China, which regards Taiwan as a “renegade province.”

At the very least, openly discrediting “one country” would further harm cross-strait relations already strained since 2016 when Taiwanese voters elected the traditionally independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party to the presidency and to a large majority of seats in the legislature.

So with the DPP seeking a new mandate in January, it is no surprise that Hong Kong's greatest impact has been on election politics.

Most to benefit has been President Tsai Ing-wen, who coming off a lackluster first term has been quick to take advantage of Beijing's Hong Kong troubles.

Having already rejected Xi's proposal earlier in the year to explore a “Taiwanese version of one country, two systems,” Tsai followed up at an international forum last month with a more sweeping dismissal that “Hong Kong's example proves once and for all that democracy and authoritarianism cannot coexist.”

Declarations like this have Tsai poling significantly higher today than in the spring.

By the same token, Taiwan's main opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) finds itself in an awkward position having spent much of the last decade branding itself pro-reunification.

Already struggling with credibility issues, KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu is caught between a now familiar platform of China-friendly policies and an urgent need to distance himself from Beijing so as not to spook voters.

Even if the KMT turns the electoral tide, a Han presidency would face problems similar to those of former president Ma Ying-jeou, whose strenuous efforts to bring Taiwan and China closer together only caused a Hong Kong-style backlash as the student-led Sunflower demonstrations in 2014 reversed Ma's initiative and played a key role in the KMT's resounding defeat two years later.

In a recent interview, former Sunflower leader Lin Fei-fan, now the deputy secretary general of the DPP, said that Beijing has a habit of holding others responsible for its failures, blaming Taiwan and the “black hand” of the United States for interfering in Hong Kong.

Like many young Taiwanese, Lin sees unrest in Hong Kong as a reason not to trust Beijing, which he says will make every effort to disrupt the January polls, from increasing military patrols around the island, to spreading disinformation to help Tsai's political rivals.

Also raising the alarm are Hong Kong expatriates who have sought refuge in Taiwan.

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee fled his home in April to avoid extradition to China for selling magazines without state approval.

Lam has no plans to return to Hong Kong, he said, because he believes Beijing is preparing a major crackdown as a warning to others, particularly Taiwan.

Of course, not everyone sees Hong Kong in such threatening terms.

Aside from political doublespeak by candidates hoping to reassure voters, the KMT's pro-China line has been largely pragmatic, seeking under Ma to edge the two sides closer together economically, while giving Taiwan political space to adjust.

So cooler heads are trying to dial down fears that once Hong Kong falls, Taiwan is next.

Commenting on the government bill that initiated protests in Hong Kong, Ma himself pointed out that extradition laws are commonplace and necessary for international law enforcement, adding, however, that the city's administration must ensure citizens that they are free from persecution and arbitrary deportation.

Some say that worrying is unnecessary because Beijing has bigger fish to fry: the U.S. trade war, the Belt and Road Initiative and its own economic slowdown.

“Hong Kong is a minor scratch that requires immediate attention, while Taiwan is a long-term illness that can wait,” said former National Security Council deputy secretary general Chang Jung-feng. When the time comes, Chang added, China has a tool box big enough to fix Taiwan without using Hong Kong to teach it a lesson.

Others advise greater tactical nuance -- on both sides.

Calling himself a “practical person,” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je said “even if you support Hong Kong protesters, provoking China won't help...The best thing to do is to shut your door and do your own thing.”

Similarly, Stanford University's Kharis Templeman suggests that if Beijing wants Taiwan's elections to go its way, the smart move might be to “lay low and do nothing,” allowing tensions to ease and normal political considerations to prevail.

Still others say the comparison is itself misleading as Hong Kong's discontent is less about the loss of democratic rights than increasing stress from the city's high cost of living and widening wealth gap, suggesting comparisons to populist uprisings like the yellow jackets movement in France.

By this account, the very “system” that Beijing seeks to eliminate is what has helped Taiwan deal with problems of the kind that are tearing Hong Kong apart.

As Meng Chih-cheng of Taiwan's National Cheng Kung University commented, when things go wrong, democracy gives individual Taiwanese a voice, both in electing their leaders and holding them accountable. (Kyodo)

(Students occupy Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament, in March 2014.)
(Students occupy Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament, in March 2014.)

(Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C))
(Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (C))

(Anti-government protesters head toward police while using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2019.)
(Anti-government protesters head toward police while using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2019.)