Hong Kong protesters, who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the proposed extradition bill, have a message for Taiwan: cherish and protect your democracy and existing freedoms. They point to creeping Chinese control over Hong Kong under the People’s Republic of China’s “one country, two systems” framework adopted since the former British colony returned to China in 1997. In fact, Hong Kong has become a glaring lesson to Taiwan about the pitfalls of accepting China’s “one country, two systems” proposal for unification.
After sporadic marches in March and April, the recent string of Hong Kong protests began in early June over the Hong Kong government’s proposed Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill (逃犯條例) that would extradite Hong Kong residents to trial in China. The proposed bill was sparked by an incident last year when a Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, was suspected of killing his pregnant girlfriend while on a trip in Taipei and then fled back to Hong Kong. Because Taiwan and Hong Kong do not have an extradition treaty, Chan could not be prosecuted for the alleged crime in Taiwan or Hong Kong, though he was later tried and sentenced by a Hong Kong judge for a separate crime of money laundering.
Hong Kong protesters oppose China’s imposition of its legal system over the territory and sending Hong Kong residents to China (反送中) for prosecution, which they believe could pave the way for further intrusions by Beijing on its Western-style legal and political institutions. Underlying that fear is the existential threat from China on Hong Kong’s unique identity and status as the only democratic stronghold under Beijing’s current administrative control. Hong Kong protestors paint the extradition bill as “the final battle” (最後一役) against Beijing to protect Hong Kong’s cherished democratic freedoms that its people have long regarded as the core of their identity.
Thus, a record number of people have flooded the streets of Hong Kong that are reminiscent of the large demonstrations in 2003 and the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Large protests and violent clashes with Hong Kong police continued into July, even after Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on June 15 the indefinite suspension of the extradition bill. Hundreds of protesters stormed the Hong Kong Legislative Council Chamber during the annual march on July 1 commemorating the territory’s handover to China, and as many as 2 million people converged on Hong Kong’s streets on June 16, calling for Ms. Lam to step down.
Since June, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has issued statements of support for Hong Kong demonstrators on social media. “Hong Kong Endures, Taiwan Holds On” (香港撐住,台灣守住) has become Tsai’s rallying call for Hong Kong protesters to keep their spirits up against the odds and her message that Taiwan will protect itself from Chinese encroachment. On June 12, Tsai tweeted, “Taiwan stands with all freedom-loving people in Hong Kong,” after Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets at protesters.
Indeed, many Taiwanese people, who see a common struggle against China, have rallied behind Hong Kong protesters by offering messages of support on social media. “Cheng” (撐), or endure, has become a ubiquitous slogan symbolizing that Taiwan stands behind the Hong Kong people. “Cheng” is also the title of a song by Taiwan and Hong Kong music artists to express solidarity for the protests.
Hong Kong netizens have expressed gratitude on President Tsai’s Facebook page for the encouragement and sympathy from President Tsai and Taiwan netizens. Despite the record number of protesters in attendance at these marches, there is a general sense of despair and helplessness about Hong Kong’s future that recognizes the structural asymmetry between Hong Kong protesters and China’s authoritarian government backed by a powerful military. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops are stationed in Hong Kong and, if the Chinese Communist Party leadership wanted to, could crack down on protesters and end the street protests in a repeat of Tiananmen Square. Yet, Hong Kong activists still have not given up, despite knowing that their actions may not ultimately change their political future.
Taiwan’s people have deep personal and emotional connections to the ongoing developments in Hong Kong. Bound by geographic proximity, cultural, and social ties, as well as a shared democratic legacy, Hong Kong and Taiwan are seen by Beijing as the outliers—and thus prime targets—of the Chinese government’s strategy to consolidate its sovereign and authoritarian control over contested territories. Taiwan’s media and society have closely followed the cycle of Hong Kong civil protests and police crackdown because the island faces a similar challenge: reigning in Chinese interference in Taiwan’s politics and media, a cause that brought tens of thousands of protesters on Taipei’s streets to lambast the “red media” on June 23.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are intertwined by a common struggle to preserve their democratic spirit and local and national identities—factors that distinguish both of them from China. The theme “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” (今天香港，明天台灣) became prevalent during Taiwan’s anti-China trade “Sunflower Movement” in 2014 and continues to bring attention to Taiwan’s need to resist Chinese efforts to turn it into Hong Kong. Taiwan netizens have utilized the slogan for anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong (反送中) to express that the island also cannot be “sent” to China.
During a crackdown on the protests by Hong Kong police in June, some Hong Kong netizens wrote that they had “tried their best” and evoked imagery of standing on the “frontlines” of the political battle against Beijing. If Hong Kong falls, Taiwan will be the Chinese government’s next target. They tell Taiwan’s people to cherish and protect their democratic rights and freedoms now.
President Tsai also took the occasion of the anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong to further buttress her stance that Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model for unification cannot work for Taiwan. “What Taiwanese feel most deeply about this is that ‘one country, two systems’ is not viable and not acceptable for a democratic Taiwan,” Tsai told reporters on June 13. Tsai pledged that as long as she is president, she will never accept “one country, two systems” and vowed to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy.
The Hong Kong protests have emerged in the debates for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election in January 2020. It was during the wave of Hong Kong protests that Tsai was formally nominated as the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) presidential candidate on June 19, after defeating her challenger, former Premier Lai Ching-te (賴淸德), in the DPP primary. Tsai’s supporters argue that she is the only presidential candidate that can defend Taiwan and ensure that the island is not “given” to China. On social media, one netizen replied on Tsai’s Facebook page, “Vote for Tsai Ing-wen [so that] Taiwan does not become Hong Kong.”
Other presidential hopefuls have also voiced dissatisfaction with “one country, two systems” and promised to safeguard Taiwan’s future amid the developments in Hong Kong. Kaohsiung Mayor and now presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the opposition Kuomintang issued a statement saying that the majority of Taiwanese people think “one country, two systems” does not apply to Taiwan. Han expressed his “unquestionable determination to defend the Republic of China, Taiwan’s democratic system, and its lifestyle.”
As the international community is watching the events unfold in Hong Kong, Taiwan also seeks to put greater international attention on China’s increasing threats towards Taiwan. If Hong Kong falls, Taiwan is next. And “if Taiwan falls, who is next?” wrote Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu in a recent article, pointing to China’s militarization of the South China Sea, debt trap diplomacy in the developing world, Uyghur internment camps, and other human rights violations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to use Hong Kong as a model for governing Taiwan over the long run. In his January 2, 2019, speech on Taiwan, Xi said, “The principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ and ‘one country, two systems’ are the best approach to realizing national reunification.” However, the events in Hong Kong and their reverberation in Taiwan’s politics complicate China’s respective relations with both Kong Hong and Taiwan. Certainly, “one country, two systems” has lost its attraction and confidence among Hong Kong residents, not to mention Taiwan. Hong Kong demonstrations are testing the viability and credibility of “one country, two systems,” and provide lessons for China and Taiwan to rethink the framework for cross-Strait relations.
The unexpected consequence of Hong Kong’s mass demonstrations, which have garnered international sympathy and concern, is that they might make it more difficult for China to militarily suppress the protesters. Beijing is already at odds with the United States over bilateral trade issues and faces intense criticism and scrutiny from Western countries over its mass internment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. The Chinese government may not want to further tarnish its international image by violently cracking down on Hong Kong protesters.
Amid rising tensions between China and Western countries, President Tsai has sought to raise international support for Taiwan by evoking the democracy bandwagon—namely, the group of like-minded democratic nations around the world. Thus, by supporting Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations, Taiwan can not only win the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people, but also elicit Western support to help safeguard Taiwan’s democracy and freedoms from China’s authoritarian government.
The main point: Hong Kong and Taiwan find common cause in Beijing’s encroachment on their free and democratic societies, and the Hong Kong demonstrations have raised issues about the credibility of China’s “one country, two systems” model for Taiwan.