Hong Kong and Taiwan: Two Davids Facing a Chinese Goliath

Hong Kong and Taiwan: Two Davids Facing a Chinese Goliath

Hong Kong and Taiwan: Two Davids Facing a Chinese Goliath

Journalist Richard McGregor has described Taiwan and Hong Kong as two places “strangely uninterested in each other”—an observation I can corroborate as a reporter who has worked on Hong Kong in some capacity since 2000. The mutual disinterest, however, is starting to change. At the Oslo Freedom Forum’s satellite Taipei human rights event in September 2019, organizers programmed a segment where Hong Kong pop star and activist Denise Ho took the stage with musician and legislator Freddy Lim, a founder of Taiwan’s pro-independence New Power Party. “Watching the struggle of the people of Hong Kong, how can we give up on ours?” asked Freddy Lim, as he thanked protesters in Hong Kong, pitching their fight not only as one between the territory and the Communist Party of China but as one between authoritarian China’s rising influence and its inevitable clash with the global free world. Denise Ho further exhorted, “Taiwan, protect your democracy and human rights.” The moment was one of the clearest displays of an emerging Taiwanese solidarity for the Hong Kong movement, and one of the strongest expressions of regard for Taiwan’s democracy in aspirational terms from the perspective of Hong Kong protesters.

The two places share many features in common, from the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) eagerness to absorb both back under what it considers its inalienable control to their shared histories as destinations for mainland Chinese migrants. In recent decades, Taiwan (otherwise known as the Republic of China, or ROC) and Hong Kong have also enjoyed new rights—in the case of Taiwan, full-fledged democracy, and for Hong Kong a level of self-governance separate from Beijing under the “one country, two systems” formulation. These freedoms have served as a source of pride for its residents. Their liberal societies’ divergence from the PRC’s authoritarian system has produced significant social developments: in the case of Hong Kong, a new identity as “Hongkongers,” and for Taiwan, a stronger sense of collective nationality.

Both are Davids contending with the growing Goliath power of the PRC. While people in Taiwan had watched Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement with interest, particularly after the island’s own Sunflower Movement, Taiwan’s people and government seem to interpret 2019’s discontent in Hong Kong in more direct and existential terms, commensurate with President Xi Jinping’s growing geopolitical boldness in the intervening years. As the PRC’s desire for unification grows in tandem with its power, one common remark is “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow.” The perception that the two places increasingly share a common foe has paved the way for more cross-border communication, collaboration, and displays of mutual political solidarity. “One country, two systems” had, after all, originally been conceived not as an arrangement for Hong Kong, but for Taiwan. And President Xi Jinping’s January 2019 speech, couched in the anachronistic lexicon used by the Party, alarmed many Taiwanese citizens. Xi clearly stated that armed force was an option and that unification was, in his mind, inevitable.

While Xi Jinping has worked to make his country red again, combatting what he perceives as ideological rot across the party system with an unprecedented authoritarian hand, Taiwan has only become more democratic. Public perception there of democracy as the best form of government, and the one most suitable for the island, has grown in spite of the bitter partisan politics that characterize Taiwan’s elections. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, polling at the end of its summer of discontent showed that more than half of the population (69 percent) felt police used too much violence, and while 41.4 percent felt protesters used too much violence, 59.2 percent also believed that violence was justified in the wake of authorities ignoring large, peaceful protests. In other words, people’s anger was mostly targeted at the territory’s un-democratic institutions rather than at protesters. Those who have taken to the streets have argued that in the absence of real representation, they can only vote with their feet. The polling suggests that a significant portion of the population appears to agree with, or at least tolerate, the protesters’ position.

Regardless of how officials choose to resolve the protests, the activism, insurgency, and citizen resentment will continue, even if forced underground or self-censored. This means that Taiwanese grassroots and governmental-level interest in Hong Kong will continue to matter. For now, Taiwanese solidarity can be characterized as real, yet fledgling and inconsistent.

Solidarity from the People

The Oslo Freedom Forum speech by Sunflower Movement veteran Freddy Lim and Umbrella Movement veteran Denise Ho serves as a reminder of the shared consciousness between Taiwan and Hong Kong activists that developed back in 2014. The resurrection of those Sunflower and Umbrella connections five years later has contributed to some of the mobilization efforts in Taiwan, but the collaboration remains tenuous.

While the Taiwan Association for Human Rights and Amnesty International Taiwan have organized events in solidarity with Hong Kong, a considerable amount of activity taking place on the island has actually been driven by university students from Hong Kong, not by locals. The flash mob gathering at Taipei’s main station was initiated by a Hong Kong resident. Taipei’s own “Lennon Wall,” replicating Hong Kong’s mosaic spaces where citizens have left Post-It note messages of freedom and democracy, was launched by Hong Kong students at National Taiwan University. A solidarity anthem recorded in both Mandarin and Cantonese was produced primarily by Hong Kong artists. Collectively, these actions give the perception of more Taiwanese solidarity than perhaps exists. It will be interesting to see how successful turnout will be.

My own observation is that Hong Kong activists, as part of their efforts to build global solidarity for their cause, have worked harder to reach out to their counterparts in Taiwan than the other way around. They have had a greater sense of urgency against the China threat; emphasizing solidarity with Taiwan, along with shoring up broader international support, is a matter of strategic importance for Hongkongers in their fight.

Speaking to The Atlantic in July 2019, Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator Ray Chan drove this message home: “Hong Kong and Taiwan are both at the front line of the global fight to stop Beijing’s creeping authoritarianism and control. Our cooperation and mutual support will be key to defending our freedom.” While many people in Taiwan might feel this way, and some have shown support—especially online, by switching their Facebook profile pictures to Hong Kong resistance symbols—translating digital activism to real-world activism has proven more difficult. Sustained support will likely continue to come out of Taiwan, but to what extent depends in part on the outcome of the island’s own presidential elections. A Kuomintang (KMT) win may galvanize those worried about a closer relationship with China, leading to more engagement and activism, which could in turn lead people to pay closer attention to events in Hong Kong. On the other hand, a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) win may mean a sustained administration-led approach that may matter more to the Hong Kong resistance than grassroots support.

Solidarity from the Government

There is something newer and bolder at play than mere citizen support: Taipei’s formal reaction to the Hong Kong protests. Braving the risks of Beijing’s frequent warning that others should not meddle in its internal affairs, President Tsai Ing-wen and others in her administration have made clear statements on Hong Kong. Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, for instance, weighed in throughout the summer as protests became more dramatic. In our era of Twitter diplomacy, Wu posted on Twitter in June 2019: “Please know you are not alone. #Taiwan is with you! The will of the people will prevail!” A few days later, he continued his message of support: “The people of #Taiwan share your values & struggle. Our paths & destinies are linked as we both live under the shadow of the #CCP regime. We shall overcome together.”

On July 1, 2019—the anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese control—Wu published a tweet addressing the “one country, two systems” formulation that Beijing leadership had suggested would serve as a way forward in unification talks with Taipei. For Wu, the whole thing had clearly become a sham. He wrote that “citizens are seething with anger & frustration. It’s clear the CCP regime’s ‘one country, two systems’ is nothing but a lie. I urge the global community to support the people’s struggle for freedom & fully democratic elections.”

One of President Tsai’s most strongly worded tweets was posted at the start of summer, when she compared Hong Kong’s struggle with Taiwan’s own, saying she was “reminded that #Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy must be guarded & renewed by every generation. As long as I’m President, ‘one country, two systems’ will never be an option.”

She made that declaration just a few days ahead of her contested primary. While Tsai has a long history of commitment to democracy and liberties, the protests in Hong Kong had started at a time when she most needed political support. The KMT had roundly defeated the DPP earlier in 2018 in local elections and the president was under pressure from her own party. Her proven credentials as a guarantor of ROC sovereignty and effective manager in dealing with China helped give her the political ammunition she needed to tip the primary balance in her favor.

But Tsai’s was no longer a uniquely DPP position. It had become bipartisan. Under pressure to clarify his views on China—and following bad press when he expressed little awareness of the Hong Kong protests—KMT presidential hopeful Han Kuo-yu effectively echoed President Tsai at a massive campaign rally when he stated that “one country, two systems” would never happen under his watch. The people of Taiwan would never accept it, he reasoned, unless it’s “over my dead body”—words spoken in English for emphasis and dramatic flair. The PRC has effectively and irrevocably lost “one country, two systems” as a feasible model it can offer to Taiwan.

In July, Radio Free Asia reported that some activists had fled Hong Kong for Taiwan, putting the government there on the spot. While Tsai, Wu, and other politicians had issued words of support, the arrival of Hong Kong refugees, with the possibility of more, presented a very tangible problem that would require more than just words to resolve. Taiwan is not party to the UN’s Refugee Convention and does not have a refugee policy of its own. Without divulging what her administration had in mind, or perhaps in the absence of any immediate solution to handle the conundrum, President Tsai simply said, “These friends from Hong Kong will be treated in an appropriate way on humanitarian grounds.”

By the end of the summer, President Tsai circulated four “directives” to government agencies and shared them on Twitter, though she continued to lack specificity on exactly how she would handle refugees from Hong Kong. “Like the rest of the international community, when necessary and based on humanitarian concerns,” Tsai wrote, “we will provide necessary assistance to Hong Kong residents in Taiwan, and will not just stand on the sidelines and watch.”

Some activists in Taiwan have proposed workarounds for Hong Kong refugees, including extended “work” visas, generously defined student visas, and the use of other existing visas which the immigration department may grant on a case-by-case basis. These methods will likely continue for the foreseeable future, since a bipartisan refugee law to address what to do with Hongkongers is unlikely to pass in 2020 or beyond. Dealing with refugees is a touchy political subject. Some worry Beijing would read any law as interference in its internal affairs. Others worry it would attract not only Hong Kong refugees, but those from mainland China, as well.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese Dream

The scope of this piece precludes a deeper, more complete examination of Taiwan and Hong Kong’s interaction with each other during this politically volatile period, but I hope the examples provided of both grassroots and government responses underscore the PRC’s difficulties as it proceeds with its Manifest Destiny attitude to both.

In September 2019, grassroots activism came together with government support when Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong visited Taipei. While he did not meet President Tsai, he met with members of her ruling DPP party. The Umbrella Movement leader traveled with lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick and with Lester Shum, formerly of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Together, they asked people in Taiwan and beyond to join in global protests supporting Hong Kong. It was unclear what other support Wong could ask for from a government with so little international standing of its own. Alluding to the “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” warning, Wong chose to turn the phrase on its head: “But I think the most ideal thing we’d say is ‘Taiwan today, tomorrow Hong Kong’. Hong Kong can be like Taiwan, a place for freedom and democracy.”

Wong hit at the heart of the matter for the PRC. If people in Taiwan regard the threat of China as a frightening, existential matter, so too does Beijing when it looks at Taiwan. The island’s very existence is proof of a workable, alternative governance model for Chinese-speaking people, a democracy that serves as a refutation of the authoritarian legitimacy of the Communist Party of China.

The Chinese leadership has been consumed by the crisis in Hong Kong, but Xi would be wise in his calculus not to forget Taiwan, whose people and officials have been watching with considerable care. It has become increasingly difficult for anyone in Taiwan to justify the position of advocating unification or even closer relations with the PRC. Looking not only at Taiwan and Hong Kong but beyond, at the autonomous regions within China’s national borders that it seeks to consolidate—places such as Xinjiang and Tibet—Xi’s performance so far for his Chinese Dream is exactly that: a dream. His policies have so far driven these territories farther, not closer, to the Party’s twenty-first century goals.

The main point: While Taiwan and Hong Kong have rarely worked together in the past, the recent anti-government protests in Hong Kong have provided an opportunity for greater solidarity between the two. Despite Beijing’s attempts to rein in the two democracies, its aggressive tactics have only spurred greater cooperation between the two, making unification more unlikely than ever.

[Editor’s note: This article was slightly edited for style. The original version of the article is available here.]