Written by Abbas Faiz.
At a time when democracy is being battered by populist leaders in Western countries and demonised by authoritarian states around the globe, seeing democratic aspirations held dearly in Taiwan and Hong Kong is greatly reassuring. Taiwanese have stood fast in their resolve to protect their hard-earned democracy. Despite the real threat of annexation by China, they have not fallen into the trap of authoritarianism that characterises the spectrum of post-liberation states elsewhere.
Some states, such as India and South Africa, have retained solid elements of democratic rule. Others have turned their backs on the very aspirations that fuelled their struggles for liberty and respect for the rule of law. Sadly, the latter applies to many states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that struggled against colonial rule. In South Asia, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, the political picture since the mid-20th century is one of hardcore authoritarianism with bouts of democratic rule. These states have usually acted against the wishes of their people by imposing restrictions on freedoms, weakening the judicial and legislative bodies on the pretext that their societies were not ready for democracy.
In this historical context and alongside the current protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s retention of democracy against authoritarian China’s hostility is especially significant. For Hong Kongers, Taiwan stands as a lasting example of achievable democratic aspirations. Moreover, the protests in Hong Kong have renewed international interest in Taiwan and Macau and have brought to the foreground of political analysis the contradictions within the “One Country, Two Systems” model of governance.
The Beijing and Hong Kong administrations have reacted to the continued vitality of the protests with anger and disbelief. If the government initiates a crackdown, it will simply prove the protesters’ point that China can not be trusted to honour its commitment to “One Country, Two Systems”. This concern could partly explain why Beijing has remained largely inactive in the face of continued protests in Hong Kong.
There are other factors influencing the government’s reluctance to use force in Hong Kong. China is reaching out to an exceedingly large number of governments in Asia, Africa and South America with offers to build infrastructure through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For recipient countries, the initiative could modernise infrastructure at an affordable cost. For China, the BRI can extend its sphere of influence and create opportunities for Chinese firms to open markets to the transfer of Chinese products and know-how. Yet the BRI is not fully trusted by its potential recipients. This initiative can only work if recipients can trust China’s repeated promises that it has benevolent aims and will not meddle in the politics of the receiving countries.
China’s record has allayed some of these fears, but a crackdown in Hong Kong would undermine assurances of non-interference. How reliable is China’s promise not to interfere in recipient country politics if Beijing ignores its commitment not to do so in Hong Kong? Furthermore, even if the government seeks such intervention in Hong Kong, the measure may not survive judicial scrutiny before the Hong Kong courts as article 14 of the Basic Law states:
“.. Military forces stationed by the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for defence shall not interfere in the local affairs of the Region. The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may, when necessary, ask the Central People’s Government for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief.”
Beijing’s attempts to influence the politics of Hong Kong have met minimal success and have not generated popular affinity for China. Will Taiwan be a similar case? The forthcoming general elections could demonstrate the measure of China’s impact.