A Taiwanese Perspective on the Impact of Hong Kong Protests in Taiwan

A Taiwanese Perspective on the Impact of Hong Kong Protests in Taiwan

A Taiwanese Perspective on the Impact of Hong Kong Protests in Taiwan

Hong Kongers have been on the streets protesting against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill (逃犯條例)—which had just been formally withdrawn—and the Hong Kong authorities for over half an year. As the police crackdown turned violent, citizens began to demand the end of violence by the authorities, fair and independent inquiry into the police behavior (currently, more and more people are demanding a comprehensive reconstruction of the police department), dropping of charges against the protesters, and a political reform to enact free and genuine universal suffrage. In this series of events, Taiwan has been mentioned quite often in the global media. This is perhaps because some social activists from both Taiwan and Hong Kong have close relationships with each other, and Taiwanese public opinion reflect strong support for the Hong Kong protesters. In June, polls showed that over 70 percent of Taiwanese support the protests in Hong Kong—support is highest among the young generation. This article aims to provide a Taiwanese perspective on some apparent misunderstandings about the effects of Hong Kong protests in Taiwan and why Taiwanese people support the pro-democracy movements in the special administrative region.

Most media reports (e.g., the reports here) claim that Hong Kong events benefit President Tsai Ing-wen and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and this image is widely spread among policy researchers and practitioners in Washington, DC. In particular, after the DPP’s fiasco in the local election in November 2018, many people attributed the resurgence of President Tsai’s as well as DPP’s approval rate primarily to events in Hong Kong. However, this assumption does not take into consideration the totality of events.

The reversal of dissatisfaction with President Tsai’s leadership began in January 2019. On January 2, China’s President Xi Jinping delivered a speech and pushed for the realization of unification by initiating the plan of “Taiwan version of one country, two systems” (”兩制”台灣方案). He also reiterated that the use of force is a possible option. President Tsai responded quickly and clearly rejected the “one country, two systems” framework, and emphasized Taiwan’s determination to defend democracy, freedom, and way of life. Since then, Tsai has been described as “picking up guns” (撿到槍) and consolidating her image as the protector of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Scholars point out that the “guns” of protecting sovereignty are actually from the people, not coming from nowhere as lucky gift to any politician. In a China Impact Studies survey conducted by the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica—Taiwan’s premier government academic research institution—in March 2019, 58.3 percent of respondents said that they value national security more than economic benefits (31.3 percent, when it comes to cross-Strait exchanges). This is the first time that national security is favored over economic benefits in the seven years that this question has been part of the poll. Also, according to surveys in March 2019, 79 percent of the Taiwan’s public disapprove of China’s “one country, two systems” proposal, and 84 percent oppose Beijing’s use of force against Taiwan. In other words, the “China factor” has been a salient issue, if not the most important one, since early this year. Xi’s speech quickly turned the spotlight in Taiwanese politics from local issues back to the “China factor.”

Moreover, the ruling DPP did not sit idly by waiting for external shocks such as those caused by the Hong Kong protests to garner support. After President Tsai took power in 2016, Taiwan rejected the so-called “1992 Consensus,” which is a tacit agreement of “One China, respective interpretation” (一個中國,各自表述) and a key element of cross-Strait interactions during the Ma Ying-jeou administration. The key component of the “1992 Consensus” is “One-China,” which states that Taiwan is part of China. Following the rejection of the “1992 Consensus,” China soon cut the number of tourists to Taiwan, and poached seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic ties. Despite this concerted pressure campaign, the Tsai administration did not “kowtow” (磕頭). Instead, it continued to promote the New Southbound Policy to neutralize political risks from China, develop national defense industry, increase defend budget, and negotiate with the US on several major arms sales deals that have been on the long-term wish list.

For local elections, the debates are often less related to cross-Strait issues even though this topic is always the core issue in general elections. China policy debates were also carried out in the first half of the year, especially the arms sale issues. There is a sharp contrast between the views of the DPP and the opposition party. The opposition Nationalist Party (KTM, Kuomintang) proposed to delay purchasing weapons from the United States, as lawmakers concern the escalation of tension on cross-strait relations and the considerable costs, some even “reminds” the US not to “make profits” from the sales.

Almost all potential presidential candidates from the opposition KMT Party, including Chairman Wu Dun-yi (吳敦義), Eric Chu (朱立倫), and Wang Jing-ping(王金平) openly proposed signing a “peace accord” (和平協議) with China. The issue was highly contentious in January and February, which brought the cross-Strait issue into the center of domestic politics. Also, even after President Xi’s explicit redefinition of the “1992 Consensus,” the KMT continues to insist that Taiwan should return to the “1992 Consensus.” In short, President Tsai’s resurgent approval rate, especially people’s renewed trust in her foreign policy, can be traced back to the events in January. While the public is beginning to value national security and is becoming increasingly concerned by the China factor, it is Tsai administration’s long-term policy and the sharp contrast of the attitudes of the opposition party to the ones of the DPP that have led to this trend.

Then, Hong Kong protests significantly expanded in June. It is true that “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) has totally lost credibility due to the series of events in Hong Kong. The events did magnify the salience of the China factor and strengthen the image that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not trustworthy. However, it is not a “gift” or external shock that “change” public opinions in Taiwan. Taiwan’s people have been wary of China long before the protests began.

Another apparent misunderstanding is reflected in the slogan “Today’s Hong Kong will be tomorrow’s Taiwan” (今日香港,明日台灣), which hints that Taiwan could lose sovereignty to CCP soon, and so the Taiwanese people must do something to prevent that from happening. In fact, this slogan first appeared during the 2014 Sunflower Movement. When a photo of a Hong Konger who participated in the Movement showing the slogan appeared online, it went viral. But recently, many people have been criticizing the usage of this slogan. Some people, such as Chairman Wu Den-yi of the opposition KMT, believe that the CCP is becoming more open-minded, and reject the claim that CCP is trying to penetrate Taiwan’s civil society to achieve the goal of unification. Others argue that Taiwan has its own sovereignty and thus, it does not have to worry about losing control to China. These arguments often come from people who do not want to criticize China or people who think that Taiwanese activists or proponents “exaggerate” the situation in Hong Kong. Indeed, today’s situation in Hong Kong may not be Taiwan’s future, because what happened in Hong Kong today had already occurred in Taiwan during the pursuit of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s. However, democracy has never been a linear, one-way street, as democratic breakdown often occurs.

In fact, many Taiwanese are worried about losing their freedom and way of life, but these concerns are not necessarily tied to losing sovereignty. China is using its political and economic power to force private companies to follow certain rules and resonate government policies, and many companies have to kowtow to Beijing. For example, in early August, Taiwan’s Yi Fang Fruit Tea announced support of “one country, two systems,” and condemned Hong Kong protesters on Weibo (微博, a Chinese microblogging website). Later, a considerable number of Taiwanese beverage chain companies that are doing business in China issued similar statements to support China’s official stance. Another example is the resignation of the CEO and Chairman of Cathay Pacific Airways, one of Hong Kong’s best-known brands, due to the mounting government scrutiny and pressure on its employees. Chinese government demands Cathay suspend any staff who participates in or supports the protests.

Even prior to these events, Chinese kowtow pressure had been widespread in the world. In May 2018, the White House sharply criticized China’s efforts to force airline companies to label “sensitive territories” including Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, as part of China, as “Orwellian nonsense.” This kind of pressure has become quite common in many places around the world. In short, fear of losing freedom due to the Chinese-style censorship is the core concern behind the slogan “today’s Hong Kong will be tomorrow’s Taiwan.”

In conclusion, the Taiwanese support the protesters in Hong Kong because both places are on the frontlines of CCP’s “sharp power.” The value of freedom is not just a tool for election campaigns and it is not fair to describe protests as a gift for a particular party or a politician. The close ties between Taiwan and Hong Kong and high levels of support to each other illustrate that the importance of safeguarding the way of life and the values of freedom and rule of law is an understanding shared in both Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The main point: The Taiwanese supports Hong Kongers because both places have consensus on the importance of safeguarding the values of freedom and rule of law. The Hong Kong issue reassures (but not “causes”) that the China factor is the most salient issue in Taiwan’s general election.