Written by Lev Nachman.
Undoubtedly, Hong Kong has become a major talking point for the 2020 election. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate and incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen has invoked the Hong Kong protests as frequently as possible, making it a key part of her rhetorical strategy. The prominence of Hong Kong in political electioneering for 2020 suggests the protests are very influential in what some see as Tsai’s inevitable re-election.
Since the protests began five months ago, Taiwan watchers have commonly attributed Tsai’s growing success and Han’s continued decline to the protests. But to what degree have the Hong Kong protests actually impacted domestic politics in Taiwan?
What if the Hong Kong protests never happened? What would Tsai’s position be? The claim that Hong Kong is responsible for Tsai’s increased support, Han’s decreased support, or any other public opinion trend is difficult to support with data. In fact, public opinion trends actually show Hong Kong to have negligible impact. Thanks to the hard work of journalists at The News Lens and political scientist Nathan Batto, these two visualisations of public opinion polls show that Han’s decline and Tsai’s uptick in popularity did not spike—let alone start—with any event related to Hong Kong protests. Rather, these trends began months before the protests even began.
Even if the Hong Kong protests had never broken out, a number of critical events would still have occurred. First, William Lai, Tsai’s former Premier, would still have challenged Tsai in the DPP primary. The event was an ordeal for Tsai, but it was also a major wake up call to her and her team when they realised she needed to immediately engage campaign mode. After the DPP primary, Tsai appreciated how low she had fallen in the polls and immediately began campaigning to improve her public image. Her aggressive push to rebrand herself as a strong leader and benevolent politician was vital to her current lead and would have occurred regardless of the Hong Kong protests.
Second, Han Kuo-yu has become increasingly known for constantly putting his foot in his mouth. Be it Han’s mockery of visiting scholars from Japan or endless news coverage of an incident in which he decided to climb a tree to inspect damage from a typhoon, Han has managed to embarrass himself and his party time and time again. In addition to Han’s self-sabotage, Foxconn CEO Terry Gou also came forward to challenge Han. Although Gou was unsuccessful during the Kuomintang (KMT) primary, he managed to cause a rift within the KMT.
KMT domestic politics aside, both Han and Gou voiced support for the Hong Kong protests. Han himself even went so far as to say “One Country Two Systems-– over my dead body!” These words from Han are likely only rhetorical, given that Han went to Hong Kong less than a year earlier to negotiate trade deals with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. But KMT politicians across the board have made sure to voice support for the protesters, much the same as the DPP. Consequently, the KMT’s drop in support is likely a product of more than just the Taiwanese public’s response to the Hong Kong protests.
Finally, the CCP’s constant encroachment upon Taiwanese sovereignty, whether military threats or attempts to influence Taiwanese media, have been occurring all summer. Although such events have become rather normalised in Taiwan, during election season they become particularly salient. We know from political science research that ‘independence versus unification’ is the most salient issue during presidential elections. Hong Kong offers Taiwanese voters a physical manifestation of what unification looks like.
One Country Two Systems is seen as a form of unification under the CCP and is therefore an easy talking point for Tsai. The Hong Kong protests are not presenting a new issue, but rather a new way to discuss the most dominant political cleavage in Taiwan. If the Hong Kong protests never broke out, Taiwan would still likely be discussing unification versus independence.
Han is also not completely out of the race. Although he is behind by more than ten points, recent weeks have shown a small but growing increase in his approval rating. With over two months left before the election, there is still a posibility he will recover. The KMT is also poised to perform better this election than in 2016. If, despite further escalations in Hong Kong, Han recovers or the KMT performs well in the 2020 Legislative Yuan race, it shows that the protests may not necessarily be pushing Taiwanese voters towards Tsai and the DPP.
To be clear, I believe that the Hong Kong protests most certainly have impacted public opinion. But we should be cautious about giving too much explanatory power to the protests and the influence they have on Taiwanese voter perception of political candidates. Data does not yet support the notion that Hong Kong is responsible for any trends in the polls, whether support for Tsai, decline in support for Han, or any other political trend. Enough other critical events transpired this summer that it warrants us questioning how important the protests actually are to Tsai or Han’s success. Although theoretically it makes sense that the Hong Kong protests matter, we lack any sort of smoking gun to demonstrate this is really the most impactful event for Taiwanese voters at present.
Lev Nachman is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the relationship between social movements and political parties, with a special regional interest in Taiwan and Hong Kong.