Transborder Linkages Reinforce Identity Formation in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Transborder Linkages Reinforce Identity Formation in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Transborder Linkages Reinforce Identity Formation in Hong Kong and Taiwan

At a joint media appearance last month with US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in Taipei, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) stated, “Our life has become increasingly difficult as China continues to pressure Taiwan into accepting its political conditions, conditions that will turn Taiwan into the next Hong Kong.” Wu’s linkage of developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan is an overriding theme bridging two parallel social movements that have mutually reinforcing demonstration effects. Recent developments in Hong Kong, including China’s passage of a national security law for the territory and the postponement of the city’s legislative elections, initially slated for this month, have heightened people’s concerns about Hong Kong’s rapidly deteriorating autonomy and democratic freedoms and its implications for Taiwan.

Taiwan is closely watching the developments in Hong Kong. While Hong Kong’s civil society is resisting “mainlandization,” Taiwan is resisting Beijing’s “Hong Kongization” (香港化) of the island’s politics, economy, and society. Both places are experiencing social movements and identity formation that will continue to affect Taiwan-Hong Kong-China relations over the long run. Moreover, enhanced transborder linkages and communication between social activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan have created spaces for information sharing, learning, and reinforcing political and social solidarity.

Social Movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan

Recent protest activism that has come to shape social movements and identity formation in Hong Kong and Taiwan includes the Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) and Umbrella Movement (雨傘運動) in 2014 and the anti-extradition bill (反中送) protests that began in 2019. To be sure, social movements are not reducible to individual protest rallies and anti-government demonstrations. [1] Social movements represent the broader, contentious confrontations involving a group of disenfranchised and disaffected people who continuously challenge political elites, usually through extra-institutional means. [2]

Young people have emerged at the forefront of social movements in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The younger generation of social activists, who grew up utilizing social media and technology and are more likely to embrace a distinctively Hong Kong or Taiwanese identity, have voiced their grievances on a range of economic, political, social justice, and environmental issues. [3] Young people in Taiwan and Hong Kong also have another pressing reason to join protests: they face dimmer economic prospects compared to previous generations, including a challenging job market, stagnant wages, and widening socioeconomic inequality. Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) and Lester Shum (岑敖暉), two young leaders of the Umbrella Movement, have made a name for themselves in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Likewise, Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) became the most visible student leaders of the Sunflower Movement, which resulted in a temporary occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan in 2014. The Sunflower Movement broke a prevalent stereotype of Taiwanese youth as part of the soft, unmotivated, and apolitical “strawberry generation” (草莓族).

Identity Formation

The two parallel social movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan are intimately tied to local identity formation. Social activists were motivated to resist perceived Chinese political and cultural assimilation, or what has been termed the “mainlandization” of Hong Kong and, by extension, the “Hong Kongization of Taiwan.” [4] Thus, Beijing’s heavy-handed actions vis-à-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan have been a key driver of social activism and identity politics in those two places, though to a greater extent in Hong Kong. While Taiwan’s social movements tended to involve more domestic issues, Hong Kong’s social movement was inherently China-focused, given its governance model under “one country, two systems.” [5]

Despite Taiwan and Hong Kong’s substantial economic integration with China, local identity formation has continued to strengthen in both places. [6] The Chinese economic lure has failed to win the hearts and minds of the general public, especially among the youth in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Conversely, it has created the unintended opposite effect of igniting concerns in Hong Kong and Taiwan about the costs of economic engagement with China, which planted the seeds for the Sunflower and Umbrella Movements.

To be more precise, social movements and identity development are two mutually reinforcing processes. That is, strong identification with a distinct Hong Kong and Taiwanese identity, particularly when it is perceived to be under threat from Beijing, may spur activists to join such movements. Meanwhile, the experience of participating in anti-China protests, including engagement with other like-minded activists that share similar indigenous identities, can reinforce and further strengthen self-identification with Hong Kong or Taiwan. For involved individuals, the end result is moving farther away from viewing themselves as exclusively Chinese, if at all. 

Transborder Linkages

Social activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan have found common cause as both sides seek to resist China’s multifaceted pressure campaigns. Through the creation of civil society and organizational networks, such as the New School of Democracy (華人民主書院) in 2011—founded by Chinese democracy activist Wang Dan (王丹) in Taipei—Hong Kong and Taiwanese activists not only shared information and movement tactics, but also created linkages between their two respective social movements. [7] Taiwanese students have shown support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, as seen with the creation of Lennon Walls (連儂牆) across universities in Taiwan in response to the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019.

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have frequently visited Taiwan in recent years to build relationships and exchange ideas. For instance, Eddie Chu (朱凱廸), Lester Shum, and Joshua Wong visited Taiwan in September 2019 and met with Sunflower Movement leader Lin Fei-fan, who had recently become Deputy Secretary-General of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) . “I hope people can brainstorm together on how to win this war against Beijing’s white terror and authoritarian rule,” said Shum. A delegation of Hong Kong district councillors also visited Taiwan to observe the island’s January 2020 presidential and legislative elections. “We want to learn and gain more experience, to help Hong Kong people as they struggle on their democratic road in the future,” said Raymond Tang (鄧威文), a district councilor who was part of the delegation. Hong Kong activists have also appealed to Taiwan’s government to set up a mechanism to offer shelter to Hong Kong protesters who face intense pressure from Beijing. According to National Taiwan University professor Ming-sho Ho, who spoke at a recent virtual seminar hosted by the Global Taiwan Institute, Taiwan has become an overseas base for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists.

Post-Sunflower Movement Era

Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, though it lasted for only one month, was a watershed moment in the island’s domestic politics. The Sunflower Movement has changed the island’s political landscape and arguably continues to shape political activism, particularly among Taiwanese youth. Many young former Sunflower Movement activists later joined Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) presidential campaign for the 2016 election and subsequently entered the government. Several new political parties known as the “Third Force” (第三勢力)—as distinguished from the two major political parties the DPP and Kuomintang (KMT)—also emerged from the youth activism of the Sunflower Movement. These third parties include the New Power Party (NPP, 時代力量) formed by now-independent legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐), the Social Democratic Party (SDP, 社會民主黨), and the Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP, 台灣基進黨, formerly known as Taiwan Radical Wings 基進側翼). In the 2016 elections, only the NPP (among the “Third Force” parties) won seats in the Legislative Yuan. Additionally, the TSP gained one seat on the Taipei City Council with the election of Miao Poya (苗博雅) in the 2018 local election. In the 2020 legislative election, the NPP won three seats, while the TSP won one seat. Taiwan is a testament to the notion that social movements can engender political change and can turn protest activism into electoral and institutional participation.

Going forward, current anti-China social movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan will continue to fuel tensions in these two places with Beijing. As the Chinese government continues to deny democratic rights to the people of Hong Kong and exert various forms of pressure on Taiwan, the indigenization of identity in both places is likely to rise accordingly. These strengthened local identities, coupled with past movement experiences and growing organizational networks, will only facilitate the emergence of new protests and confrontations with Beijing in the future. Enhanced transborder ties between activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong, who are tied together by a common cause, can serve to provide external political solidarity and psychological support to overcome a formidable adversary.

The main point: Hong Kong and Taiwan’s social movements have emerged in response to the need to protect local identities and political freedoms from rising Chinese control and influence. Social activists in both places have formed a transnational network of support and political solidarity against a common adversary.

[1] Ming-sho Ho, Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019), p.11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.62.

[4] Ibid., pp.40-41.

[5] Ibid., p.68.

[6] Ibid., p.45.

[7] Ibid., pp.92-93.