Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took a calculated risk last week when he openly expressed his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
Perhaps realizing its impact, he appeared to strike a more conciliatory tone toward China by saying Taiwanese solidarity with their Hong Kong cousins should not affect cross-strait relations.
Ma’s deliberation on this sensitive topic is understandable at a time of increased cooperation between Taipei and Beijing.
But he must be weighing it against Taiwan’s future, something that looks increasingly like eventual political reunification with the mainland.
Despite his nationalist pronouncements, Ma is seen in Beijing as the best hope in a long time for advancing that idea.
In recent months, Chinese President Xi Jinping has proposed a governance principle for a Taiwan under a unified China along the lines of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems”.
At the same time, talk of a historic meeting between the two leaders has been rife.
This is the backdrop against which Ma views the Hong Kong protests. Their outcome — and impact on “one country, two systems” — will shape Taiwan’s approach to cross-strait relations for the forseeable future.
The Taiwanese see that future far off. An overwhelming number prefers the status quo and despite the boost to the island’s fortunes from closer economic integration with the mainland, most Taiwanese see closer relations with China as something of a political risk.
In the past summer, students dramatized their opposition to a cross-strait services agreement by taking over parliament in what became known as the Sunflower Movement.
In an interview with the New York Times, Ma said that if China can allow full democracy in Hong Kong, or if it becomes more democratic, “we can shorten the psychological distance between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait”.
Ma also praised the Hong Kong protesters for their peaceful demonstration.
Beijing treated Ma’s comments as meddling in China’s internal affairs and urged him to respect its decisions regarding Hong Kong’s democratic development.
It was the second time in a month Ma had spoken out for the Hong Kong protesters. On Oct. 10, he used part of his national day address to voice his support for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy.
Ma has learned a lesson from the Sunflower Movement and should know how to balance Taiwan’s interests with those of the mainland.
Already, he has lost some domestic political capital during the past six years after agreeing to a closer cross-strait relationship that is mainly driven by the mainland.
Ma is being increasingly seen by his own people as being pro-unification and his economic policies a threat to the island’s own sovereignty.
The Taiwanese believe that the more economic concessions they get from Beijing, the more they will be asked to give something in return.
The Sunflower Movement was as much a rebuke of Ma’s cross-strait economics as a rejection of his politics. Ma’s government was forced to shelve the agreement but that has not stopped other initiatives.
In the meantime, Taiwan people are happy to maintain the status quo but they will continue to watch developments in Hong Kong to see for themselves how Beijing will resolve “one country, two systems”.
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