The “Hong Kong factor” in the 2020 Taiwanese Presidential Election

Written by Adrian Chiu.

Image credit: Hong Kong International Airport 20190812 by Studio Incendo/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In my previous piece for Taiwan Insight last year, I argued that the “Hong Kong card” helped revive the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen’s damningly low popularity after the 2018 local elections. As the anti-extradition law amendment bill (ELAB) movement in Hong Kong continued through into the second half of the year, it consistently provided Tsai with ammunition that proved crucial to her massive election victory in 2020. Obviously other domestic variables, such as the generational divide and the unpopularity of the Kuomingtang’s (KMT) presidential candidate Han Guo-yu, were also influential. As I observed in Taiwan in the run-up to the election, however, the Hong Kong protests brought forth two unprecedented phenomena.

Tsai’s DPP suffered one its most significant setbacks in the 2018 local elections. Not only did it witness a voter swing of more than 8%, it lost seven of its 13 seats and retained only six of 22 local chiefs. These devastating results were an indictment of Tsai’s poor performance in domestic reforms. Nevertheless, a series of external events worked overwhelmingly in her favour and rescued her presidency. First, the “One Country Two Systems” model was once again put on the political agenda by Xi Jin-ping in his 2019 New Year Address. Such threat of unification provided Tsai with an immediate boost in the polls. Han, Tsai’s electoral opponent, meeting at the China Liaison Office while visiting Hong Kong and the subsequent anti-ELAB movement only hardened support for Tsai.

Although both Hong Kong and Taiwan were arguably under the influence of China factor for some time, as the slogan “Hong Kong today is Taiwan tomorrow” expresses, this is the first time that Hong Kong has become a salient issue in Taiwan’s national elections. Beyond the favourable events mentioned above, Tsai used the issue of Hong Kong incredibly well to deliver a dramatic comeback. Once the anti-ELAB movement broke out in June, in contrast to Han and the Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je, Tsai immediately positioned herself firmly on the side of the protestors. On 10 June 2019 Tsai posted on social media “Taiwan supports Hong Kong, We defend Taiwan.” By taking a stance supporting the protests, she also presented herself to be the strong guardian of freedom, democracy and human rights against Chinese encroachment in Taiwan.

Tsai also linked the issue of anti-ELAB movement with the failure of One Country Two Systems, the very model that the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) is implementing in Hong Kong and wishes to impose on Taiwan. And finally, and as a fatal blow to KMT’s stance on cross-Strait relations, the DPP further asserted that the discreet plan of the PRC’s 1992 Consensus is One Country Two Systems. The 1992 Consensus is central to the KMT’s cross-Strait policy, but the KMT failed to offer an alternative discourse to counter the DPP’s claim, as evidenced by Han’s avoidance of the term 1992 Consensus in the later stage of the campaign. The DPP’s tactic effectively made the election a referendum on the future of Taiwan. This discourse stirred up a sense of existential crisis, particularly among young people, who surged towards voting for the DPP. Sympathy between the young people in Taiwan and Hong Kong also contributed to the high turnout rate.

The second phenomenon brought by the Hong Kong protests was the enthusiasm among protestors towards the Taiwanese election and Tsai. This is certainly not the first time when Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council orgnised election tours for political parties and politicians from Hong Kong to observe and learn from the election campaign in Taiwan. Yet this was the only time that there was a huge amount of campaign effort put forward by Hong Kong’s pan-democrats politicians and opinion leaders in an attempt to boost the electoral turnout. Interestingly, they chose not to endorse any particular candidate, but instead focused their message on urging Taiwanese to cherish their opportunity to vote.

A large number of Hong Kong people travelled to Taiwan, personally covering experiences, just to share the sentimental moment of the Tsai’s predicted victory. Hong Kongers were present at electoral rallies in Taiwan, waving the anti-ELAB movement flag and slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” Although these Hong Kong people may not vote in Taiwan, they nevertheless all campaigned for Tsai. As the protest movement entered its eighth month without any tangible achievements, the Taiwanese election and Tsai’s support provided those disillusioned and disempowered protestors a re-empowering process in re-asserting their identity. This is why the idea of a “community of shared destiny” between Hong Kong and Taiwan, as suggested by Joshua Wong, was so prevalent in the run-up to the election day.

Looking forward towards future Hong Kong-Taiwan interactions, despite President Tsai’s thumping victory and warm words for protestors during the election campaign, it is unlikely that she will propose any substantial measures to shield the protestors, such as the Refugee Law, as this would risk antagonising the Beijing authorities. Such inaction would certainly disappoint many protestors who expect the Taiwanese government to deliver on their positive messages. On this front, a university student union president last month accused Tsai of using Hong Kong protestors for purely electioneering purposes. Although he immediately retracted his statement, it reflected the mood among many Hong Kong people. Whether such accusations will become a reality remains to be seen.

Adrian Chiu is a PhD candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His research interest includes the contemporary developments on Hong Kong-Taiwan relations and cross-Strait relations.

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