17 February 2020
The student protests in Taiwan have raised the political temperature in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP
The student protests in Taiwan have raised the political temperature in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

WEEKENDER: Missing jet, Taiwan protests trouble Beijing

While making a belated move to handle the political fallout of the missing Malaysian commercial airliner, Chinese leaders this week were bracing for more uncertainties in cross-strait relations and political reform in Hong Kong as a standoff between student protestors and the Kuomintang government over a trade deal dragged on in Taiwan.

Beijing: President Xi Jinping on Wednesday sent a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur, Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, to press for more details about the fate of Flight MH370 shortly after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared the jet had “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean. The sudden announcement sparked angry protests from relatives of mainland passengers on board the missing flight in Beijing.

With the families’ frustration over the Malaysian authorities’ handling — or, more accurately, mishandling — of the crisis turning into anger, the central government understood the vital importance of putting more pressure on Kuala Lumpur for it to intensify the search efforts, and being seen to have done so.

An official Xinhua report quoted Zhang as saying he hoped Malaysia would strengthen its information-sharing with China and provide Beijing with the data that led to the conclusion that the “ill-fated flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean”.

Pressure on the political and diplomatic fronts aside, Beijing is also eager to show its hard power in terms of search and rescue capabilities. China has deployed airplanes and ships to join the unprecedented international search and rescue operation in the southern Indian Ocean. 

But Beijing’s massive deployment has ironically laid bare the wide gap between China and leading Western countries, in particular the United States, when it comes to high-end technological knowhow and equipment such as radar and intelligence-gathering badly needed in such occasions as searching for a missing plane.

Despite the fact that most of the passengers on board the Malaysia Airlines flight were mainlanders, China has not played a leading role in the international operation. Far from it, its role has been arguably marginal.

With the fate of the jetliner still uncertain, the high-priority task for Beijing is still search and rescue. Also on the agenda is how to minimize the damage caused by the crisis to ties with Malaysia, which has been on better terms with Beijing compared with some Asean nations. Tourism, for example, has taken a hit. The number of Chinese visitors to the Southeast Asian country has dropped by nearly half.

China’s weakness in search and rescue capability as exposed in the crisis has served as a sobering reminder of the current level of the nation’s overall strength, although the size of its economy only trails the United States.

Taipei: The protracted tussle between the KMT government led by President Ma Ying-jeou and student protestors over the cross-strait deal, which has been compounded by intraparty and KMT-DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) rivalry, looks set to profoundly affect politics on the island and mainland-Taiwan relations.

Indeed, the battlefield over the trade deal has broadened. Although Ma has backed down by agreeing to re-submit the legislation to the Legislative Yuan for a clause-by-clause scrutiny as originally demanded by students, he is faced with the demand for a new law aimed at supervising mainland-Taiwan agreements, which the protestors have set as a precondition for the handling of the trade pact.

That will be hard for Ma to swallow. The proposed law would derail Ma’s mainland policy, which features closer economic cooperation and a cautious move towards political dialogue between leaders from both sides. Ma has publicly expressed hope that a meeting with Xi could coincide with the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit to be held in Beijing later this year.

Hopes for what could be a historic summit looks dimmer following the political uproar in Taiwan. It would be even worse for Beijing if the protests inflict deep wounds on the ruling KMT, resulting in the DPP’s return to power in the 2016 presidential election.

The 2016 race may still be far off. But like it or not, the Xi leadership may have to face up to the reality that the momentum for conciliation across the Taiwan Strait will slow down, if not be halted, as the political chaos in Taiwan refuses to go.

Hong Kong: Scenes of upheaval in Taiwan over alleged attempts to railroad the cross-strait trade pact and the people’s anxiety over closer ties with the mainland have drawn mixed feelings among the city’s seven million people.

Some are worried the plan to blockade Central against a “fake” universal suffrage could spin out of control as it has happened in Taiwan’s government headquarters and legislature. Some, who support the Occupy Central movement, were inspired by the show of student power in Taiwan.

The Taiwan protest has further raised the political temperature in Hong Kong as the first round of consultation on political reform nears its end in early May.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.