Written by Milo Hsieh.
As the protests in Hong Kong continue, Hong Kongers and Taiwanese around the world have demonstrated a surprising level of solidarity. Taiwanese have mobilised to send protest gear to Hong Kong, and coordinate activists to speak at events, organise protest support rallies and create “Lennon Walls” to raise awareness.
For two relatively separate groups of people that barely share a common language and have limited official contact, the level of solidarity today is especially impressive. But just what explains such spontaneous, global demonstrations of Hong Konger-Taiwanese solidarity?
Recalling Memories of Authoritarianism
Hong Kong was once a sanctuary for Taiwanese activists and liberals, when Hong Kong was free and Taiwan was not. But as Taiwan democratised in the 1990s and Hong Kong was returned to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, the tables turned and liberty in Hong Kong was slowly eroded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The scenes of violence, chaos and resistance to CCP authority we are seeing in Hong Kong today are eerily similar to the Taiwanese experience prior to the lifting of martial law in 1987. In Taiwan, memories of authoritarianism are both historical and present. In the past, the Kuomintang (KMT) regime frequently employed criminal gangs for crowd control. In present day Hong Kong, pro-unification gangs frequently harass pro-democracy activists.
The 21 July attack on unarmed protesters by white-shirted triad members in Yuen Long shocked both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese. The attack, in which unarmed protesters were assaulted by gangs wielding knives and metal rods, was met with an absence of police response despite protesters calling for help. In the aftermath, a pro-Beijing legislative council member was caught on camera shaking hands with white shirts.
The attack draws parallels to Taiwan, such as Bamboo Union Triad attacks on protesters during the Sunflower Movement, and during the martial law when the KMT regime used the same Triad to coerce dissidents and assassinate critics abroad.
Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong used the term “White Terror” to describe the cocktail of distrust, fear, and self-censorship in Hong Kong today. The same term was used to describe authoritarian Taiwan, when the regime employed institutions not unlike the East German Stasi to conduct mass surveillance and social control.
A recently released horror film, Detention, features themes of Taiwan’s White Terror, including widespread societal distrust, underground book clubs, and a culture of snitching. Discussion of these themes has brought forth discourse of past traumas and untold stories of Taiwan’s martial law era, many of which draw parallel to Hong Kong today.
One story retelling the rape and murder of a local women by undisciplined KMT soldiers in 1951 strikingly resembles the gang rape and impregnation of a teenager by the Hong Kong police today. Armed police entering the campus of Chinese University of Hong Kong on 11 November too resembles Taiwan’s 6 April 1949 incident, when students were arrested and executed by armed police, marking the start of Taiwan’s White Terror.
Taiwanese observing today’s Hong Kong are witnesses to Taiwan’s own likely future if Beijing is able to impose its “One Country, Two Systems” on Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party as a Mutual Threat
Beijing’s campaign to erase international recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty is likely another factor contributing to Hong Konger-Taiwanese solidarity. Tactics used to pressure Taiwan are now being used to suppress Hong Kong. Beijing has pressured foreign private companies to refer to Taiwan as a part of China, and is now pressuring firms to follow the party line on Hong Kong.
The CCP has historically attempted to influence elections in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Evidence suggests that Beijing’s tactics to influence Taiwanese voters in 2018 are now being used to suppress worldwide discussion of Hong Kong, especially on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Hong Kongers’ fight against Beijing-backed authorities has come forth in the lead up to Taiwan’s January 2020 election. The Hong Kong protests are both alleviating Taipei of PRC influence and warning it against the consequences of unification. The protests have benefited incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as the challenger KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu struggles to show how pro-Beijing policies can benefit Taiwan when young Hong Kongers are being beaten, raped, and shot on the streets.
Where Now for Taiwan?
Immigration remains both a politically sensitive and unfamiliar issue for Taiwan, which lacks any form of asylum law. Wang Dan, a Tiananmen survivor, suggested that Taiwan should seize the opportunity to attract capital fleeing Hong Kong and take in skilled professionals. However, no real immigration legislation exists, leaving such proposals without legal framework. The Sunflower activist-founded New Power Party (NPP) stands alone in proposing relevant legislation, but the party is facing an existential crisis in the form of an internal split and the loss of several party heavyweights.
Having previously marketed Taiwan as a “beacon of democracy” in East Asia, Taipei officials should extend at least a symbolic gesture of welcome to those fleeing Hong Kong by setting up a legal framework for asylum seekers. The DPP can also use this opportunity to reposition itself as the party of progressives in Taiwan, following its recent addition of Sunflower leader Lin Fei-fan.
The purported centre of the proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, legal jurisdiction over criminals, is also clarifying Taiwan’s sovereignty vis-à-vis Beijing. In October, the Hong Kong government attempted to have murderer Chan Tong-kai “surrender himself” to the Taiwanese police, effectively extraditing him to Taiwan.
This highly politicised act was reportedly done under the advice of “a senior member within (Taiwan’s) pan-blue camp” in coordination with a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Hong Kong. The negotiations to return Chan eventually fell apart, but the Tsai administration’s response overall was successful in asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty.
The CCP attempts to assert claims over Taiwan and Hong Kong are becoming increasingly difficult. Every day Taipei maintains its legal jurisdiction over territories it controls forces the rest of the world, Beijing included, to treat Taiwan and its government as a country unto itself.
This is one element of Taiwanese politics that is increasingly unambiguous. While benefiting the traditionally pro-independence DPP, the pro-Beijing KMT may have to rethink its platform vis-a-vis Beijing as Hong Kong’s struggle grows in resonance with the people of Taiwan.
Taiwan’s 7th direct presidential election is set to the background of distress signals from Hong Kong. For five months, Hong Kongers willing to stand against an unjust authority have absorbed much of the pressure that would otherwise be aimed toward Taiwan. As capable as Taiwan can be in giving Hong Kongers a voice for their cause, the Tsai administration has to be wary of unnecessarily provoking China. However, help does not necessarily have to come from Taipei.
In Washington DC, the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC) was recently established as a non-partisan, non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. The HKDC can join with established Taiwanese organisations like the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) to mutually lobby congress for support of pro-Taiwan and Hong Kong legislation. The DPP can also potentially extend its help in Washington, as it is the only Taiwanese political party with a DC office. To borrow a tactic from the CCP playbook, Hong Kong and Taiwanese organisations can form an “United Front” in Washington against China’s authoritarianism and aggressive foreign policy.
Every day, Hong Kong takes a step closer to what Taiwan once was and what China is now. Moving into 2020, will Taiwan prove itself to be a “beacon of democracy” for Hong Kongers?
Milo Hsieh is a freelance journalist based in Washington D.C. and a student at American University. He tweets @MiloHsieh. This article is a part of the special issue on the Hong Kong protests and their impact on Taiwan.