On Oct. 10, the Republic of China or Taiwan celebrates its 113th birthday. Its citizens will put aside their sharp divisions over politics, wealth and language and sing the national anthem more loudly because of two events of the last two weeks.
One is the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the other the statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping that Taiwan must follow the Hong Kong model. Both have pushed the island further away from China.
No one has been watching the protests more closely than the people of Taiwan, who see in Hong Kong their possible future. On Sept. 26, Xi told a small pro-unification party in Beijing that “peaceful unification and ‘one country, two systems’ are our guiding principles in solving the Taiwan issue”.
It was the first time he had made such a statement since becoming head of the Communist Party in 2012.
The Taiwanese are dismayed by what they have seen — the first use of tear gas by police against local people since the handover and a paralyzed Chief Executive unable to respond to the protests. A stone’s throw from the protesters, in their base in Central, are soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, able to move against them at a moment’s notice. Units of the People’s Armed Police are on 24-hour standby in Shenzhen.
“The government and people of the Republic of China are deeply concerned about recent developments in Hong Kong,” said President Ma Ying-jeou in a statement on Sept. 29, the day after the use of tear gas.
“Taiwan has had universal suffrage for some time. Each time we hold elections, many of our Hong Kong friends come to Taiwan to observe the proceedings. We fully understand and support the Hong Kong people’s demand for universal suffrage. We believe that, if a system of universal suffrage can be realized there, both Hong Kong and mainland China would benefit,” he said.
Few foreign leaders have given such a clear endorsement of the protestors. More than 10,000 people took to the streets of Taipei to support them.
It was in 1996 that the people of Taiwan were able to elect their president for the first time — Lee Teng-hui. Now they vote for president, vice president, legislators, mayors, county magistrates and even village chiefs.
If Taiwan joined China, would this system remain in place?
Taiwan people consider the residents of Hong Kong similar to themselves, in terms of education, living standards and sophistication, and entitled to the same democratic rights they have enjoyed for nearly 20 years.
So they were shocked by the National People’s Congress decision in July to limit narrowly the terms of the vote for chief executive in 2017.
“Beijing has shown itself to be colonialist and manipulative in its handling of Hong Kong,” said an editorial this week in the opposition Liberty Times. “This has shown its promises of ‘one country, two systems’ and a high degree of autonomy to be entirely empty.”
The second shock has been the behavior of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. In his public appearances, he has been like a faceless leader of a Chinese city or province, fearful to say anything that might upset his bosses in Beijing. He represents them to the Hong Kong people, not the other way around. No politician in Taiwan could last this way for one week.
It was as early as the first week of July 1997 that, through the words of then President Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan rejected the ‘one country, two systems’ model given to Hong Kong a few days earlier.
This was repeated on Sept. 26 this year, within hours of Xi’s statement. “Taiwan has never accepted this policy,” Premier Jiang Yi-huah told the Legislative Assembly. “Our proposal is to retain the status quo, under the constitution of the Republic of China.”
Opinion polls over the last 10 years show that more than 80 percent of the public support the status quo.
Tsai Ying-wen, chairman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and its likely presidential candidate in 2016, said: “Taiwan’s future will be decided by its 23 million citizens. That is the consensus of the vast majority of Taiwan society.”
Watching Hong Kong struggle to maintain its autonomy has turned more Taiwan people against China. A survey by Taiwan Political University published in July found a record level of support for Taiwan independence, 23.8 per cent; 60.4 per cent said that they were Taiwanese and 32.7 per cent said they were Chinese, a record low.
Xi said that Hong Kong is the model for Taiwan. The events of the last two weeks have united opinion in the island that it should not be their future.
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