Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
In mid-2019 the world has been riveted by developments in Hong Kong: how young demonstrators were able to galvanise the population into opposition against the extradition legislation proposed by the administration of Carrie Lam.
After the flame-out of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, few observers had thought it possible for Hong Kong’s democracy advocates to make a fist against Beijing’s increasing grip on life in the former British colony.
In recent years, the “one country, two systems” settlement was being eroded in dangerous ways: students who led the 2014 protests were given jail sentences, elected members were barred from the legislature, a political party was outlawed, a bookseller and a billionaire were abducted to China.
Under the surface these developments prompted a groundswell of changing perceptions towards Beijing. This discontent surfaced in the eruption in the 2019 protests, which fundamentally altered the political landscape in the Territory.
This analysis will focus on how developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan are reinforcing each other: what influence does the presence of Taiwan have on developments in Hong Kong, and vice versa, how Hong Kong is influencing perceptions and positions in Taiwan.
Taiwan’s Proximity as a Moderating Force
From very early in the protests against the extradition bill it was very clear that Taiwan played an important moderating role on both Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration, as well as the leadership in Beijing.
Taiwan’s connection is provided by the “one country, two systems” concept, which was originally designed by Deng Xiaoping as a concept for PRC governance over Taiwan but subsequently first implemented in Hong Kong. The leadership in both Hong Kong and Beijing realised all too well that a harsh crackdown à la Tiananmen would foreclose any possibility that anyone in Taiwan would still be enamoured by the one country two systems concept.
There are few takers in Taiwan for the concept. Opinion polls in Taiwan routinely show that the large majority (80+ percent) of Taiwanese reject the concept and that even the generally China-leaning Nationalist Party (Kuomintang; KMT) leaders reiterate time and again that they do not subscribe to the idea.
One analyst in Hong Kong also detailed that the uproar over the extradition bill enhanced Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s public standing and that this was one of the reasons that in mid-June 2019 Carrie Lam switched away from her original hardline approach, instead suspending the bill.
Still, Ms Lam and her administration attempted to subdue the peaceful protests with increasingly ham-fisted and violent police actions. These methods led the protesters towards increasingly innovative tactics, such as the flash-occupations of the airport and the human chain formed by high school students.
During this long, hot summer Taiwan became a beacon of hope and support for the protests. On his visit to Taiwan on 5th September 2019, democracy activist Joshua Wong stated that the movement highly appreciated the moral support and humanitarian assistance provided by Taiwan.
President Tsai Ing-wen herself led the charge by publicly expressing support for the anti-extradition protests, one of the few world leaders courageous enough to do so. President Tsai reiterated in Facebook posts that “Taiwanese must tell the world that the nation rejects China’s ‘one country, two systems’ framework”, and urged Taiwanese to “stand with Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, and to safeguard Taiwan’s democratic rights and freedoms.” She added that “Freedom, like air, is seldom noticed except when [we are] deprived of it.”
What will happen next? It is clear that Beijing will attempt to tighten the noose in Hong Kong; but it is also clear that if Beijing does this too aggressively, there will be worldwide condemnation. So, for the time being, President Xi Jinping will maintain the holding pattern while protesters and Hong Kong police continue their cat-and-mouse game. Beijing will continue its attempts to erode the movement through a combination of external pressure and internal subversion.
But the world is watching and Taiwan’s presence and supportive position will continue to constitute a moderating factor.
Hong Kong is Affecting Perceptions in Taiwan
How are developments in Hong Kong affecting the political landscape in Taiwan? The title of an early South China Morning Post article was a good indication: Hong Kong’s extradition protests may have given Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen a boost Beijing’s won’t appreciate. A recent Bloomberg article was even more explicit, describing how Taiwan’s president rises from the ashes with a hand from Hong Kong.
When the Hong Kong protests started in early June 2019, President Tsai had already made a significant comeback from the low of the November 2018 mid-term elections. Since then, her position in the run-up to the January 2020 elections has solidified. Her balanced expressions of support for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong during the protests has gained points among those in Taiwan whom were ambivalent about supporting her candidacy. While she was previously lagging behind her KMT challengers in the poll ratings, a recent TVBS poll showed her leading her closest challenger by more than eight percentage points.
Developments in Hong Kong have also solidified Taiwanese sentiment opposing one country two systems. While there was always wide-spread rejection of the concept, the same TVBS poll showed that almost 90% of respondents are opposed to the concept. The poll also reported a 65% of respondents supported the Hong Kong protests – a very significant majority.
It is thus increasingly apparent that Hong Kong’s fate is closely interlinked with Taiwan’s future. As democracy activist Joshua Wong stated during his early-September 2019 visit to Taiwan, “Today’s Taiwan, Tomorrow’s Hong Kong.” He and his fellow protesters see Taiwan and its democracy as an inspiration and a sign of hope for the type of free democracy Hong Kong could enjoy if they achieve their goals.
The Hong Kong protests also constituted a wake-up call for the people in Taiwan along the lines of “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan.” The erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong today is a clear example of what could happen in Taiwan tomorrow if Chinese pressure, intimidation and influence operations are allowed to run their course.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. Between 1980 and 2016 he served as editor of Taiwan Communiqué. Currently he teaches History of Taiwan at George Mason University.