Limits and Possibilities for Hong Kong-Taiwan Comparisons

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: 54519235_2400873846816432_2147238242158641152_n by inmediahk/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0.

It should be obvious that the geopolitical outlook for Taiwan and Hong Kong is very different, despite how comparisons are frequently made between the two. Taiwan is de facto independent, with its own government, military, economy, and currency, even as it lacks de jure independence. On the other hand, Hong Kong is administered by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, which acts as Beijing’s proxy.

To this extent, Taiwan has distance from China, in a manner that Hong Kong does not. Taiwan is separated from China by the Taiwan Straits, Hong Kong by a mere river. As such, “Mainlandization” influences in Taiwan are weaker, even as the “China factor” continues to impact Taiwan strongly.

Nevertheless, the two are clearly linked in the popular imagination, as one observes in international media coverage of elections in Taiwan or protests in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy political actors in both also see common cause in each other, with activists that were participants in Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement having known each other for years–in some cases, before either movement broke out. Linkages between social movement actors in Taiwan and Hong Kong have been true of protests in Hong Kong after 2014, as well.

Examining history, Taiwan and Hong Kong have had a large influence on each other regarding the shaping of their respective geopolitical destinies vis-a-vis China. The formula of “One Country, Two Systems” applied to Hong Kong was originally formulated to lure Taiwan, for example, even as the stark deterioration of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong has made “One Country, Two Systems” less appealing to Taiwanese. This led to the KMT’s 2020 presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, attempting to distinguish the 1992 Consensus advocated by the KMT from “One Country, Two Systems” and lambasting the political administration of Carrie Lam.

Yet fundamentally, Taiwan and Hong Kong’s diverging political outlooks return to geopolitical differences. For example, protests by more than 2 million Hongkongers in 2019 indicate that Hongkongers are concerned about their loss of democratic freedoms. Given Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million, some have suggested that these could be the largest protests participated in by percentage of the population in modern history.

With such participation, this far surpasses the so-called “3.5% rule”, positing that governments cave into demands of 3.5% of the population. Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement at its peak, for example, saw 500,000 – or around 2.5% of the Taiwanese population – participate in protests on March 30th, 2014, following which the Tsai administration swept to power in 2014–positioning itself as carrying on the movement.

This points to another significant difference between the two places. The Hong Kong government would not back down in the face of demonstrators when it ultimately answers to Beijing from afar and does not need to maintain popular support from the Hong Kong public to stay in power. Hong Kong further faces the threat of Chinese military intervention if the Hong Kong police proved insufficient in putting down protests. This external threat may partly explain why the 2019 Hong Kong protests did not cross a certain threshold of violence, even though it would be mistaken to term the movement a nonviolent one.

The Chinese government has proved wary of links between Taiwan and Hong Kong for its part. This is worth noting.

Despite popular support, there are, in fact, few ways in which Taiwanese can support Hongkongers materially. However, one did see some Taiwanese travelling to Hong Kong to participate in major protests, as well as sending protest supplies needed in Hong Kong, such as gas masks and safety helmets. In addition, some Hongkongers have fled to Taiwan to seek asylum. Some have travelled to Taiwan by boat with assistance from Taiwanese, even as the Tsai administration has been criticized for not doing enough to assist Hongkongers. The government has generally kept quiet about cases of Hongkongers that have made it to Taiwan.

However, Taiwan’s ability to influence Hong Kong is external and often comes in moral support rather than direct aid; Taiwanese participation in protests in Hong Kong is limited, and China can cut off supply shipments. In any case, the peak of protests has now passed, and shipments of protest supplies are no longer needed.

Yet the efforts of the Chinese government to cut ties between Hong Kong and Taiwan are of note when messaging by the Chinese government often keeps both potential audiences in mind. In this respect, it is necessary to situate Hong Kong and Taiwan within the same framework when analyzing actions by the Chinese government.

Before his turn towards attacking Carrie Lam in the wake of the Hong Kong protests, for example, Han Kuo-yu of the KMT travelled to Hong Kong to conduct meetings with Lam and sign trade deals with Lam on behalf of Kaohsiung, which he was then mayor of. This seemed to signal that Han would secure trade deals with China if he were elected president of Taiwan. Han even visited the Hong Kong Liaison Office, China’s liaison in Hong Kong, an unprecedented move; his actions were clearly coordinated in some way with Beijing. 

China’s intimidation efforts are sometimes directed at both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The targeting of Taiwanese academics Wu Rwei-ren and Wu Jieh-min by pro-China outlets is telling, seeing as both research Hong Kong as part of their work. Apart from that, both Wus are among the Taiwanese academics banned from travelling to Hong Kong, pro-China outlets suggested that the National Security Law could be used against Wu.

The public attack was likely intended to send a signal regarding links between Taiwan and China that could take place under the auspices of academic exchanges. China’s actions may have prevented further aid or other connections between Taiwanese and Hong Kong academics to create a chilling effect.

However, most significant of all may be cases in which the Chinese government seems to aim to set up legal traps for Taiwan using Hong Kong. This has particularly been the case regarding Chan Tong-kai, the Hongkonger that killed his girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, while the two were vacationing in Taiwan. That Chan could not be extradited to Taiwan to face charges led to the introduction of the extradition bill that prompted the protests that broke out in 2019. The bill could also allow Hongkongers to be deported to China to face charges.

Since then, the Hong Kong government has claimed that Chan planned to voluntarily turn himself over to Taiwan to face charges. However, the Taiwanese government refused to allow Chan to come to Taiwan “voluntarily,” stating that it needed to take custody of him in Hong Kong before this occurred. The Hong Kong government refused to allow this, resulting in Chan remaining free, but claimed that the Tsai administration’s stubbornness led to Chan not facing charges. In particular, Tsai Ing-wen herself weighed in on the matter, suggesting that Chan “voluntarily” turning him over to Taiwan could be used to establish a legal precedent for other supposedly “voluntary” surrenders.

It should be clear, then, that despite the efforts of the Chinese government to discourage links between Taiwan and Hong Kong activists, China itself is highly attentive to Taiwan and Hong Kong and considers both within the same framework. Comparative assessments of both political contexts, then, are highly necessary, despite the large differences in the geopolitical outlook for both, when China itself often has both Taiwan and Hong Kong in mind as audiences for its political signalling.

Brian Hioe (丘琦欣) is one of the founding editors of New Bloom. New Bloom is an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan and the Asia Pacific, founded in Taiwan in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Hong Kong Connection.

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