16 February 2019
Tsai Ing-wen celebrates after her election victory. Despite her overwhelming mandate, Tsai is expected to temper her pro-independence stance to avoid provoking China. Photo: Reuters
Tsai Ing-wen celebrates after her election victory. Despite her overwhelming mandate, Tsai is expected to temper her pro-independence stance to avoid provoking China. Photo: Reuters

Why Taiwan won’t be another Hong Kong

Many Hong Kong people think Taiwan could be another Hong Kong on the assumption that the growing influence of Beijing on Taipei could gradually bring the island under Chinese rule.

But after the landslide win of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Saturday’s presidential and parliamentary elections, it’s clear Taiwan people want an independent Taiwan, not a special administrative region of China.

Earlier, they stamped their patriotic mark by standing behind a Taiwanese artist who was forced to apologize under pressure from the mainland after waving the Taiwanese flag during a television performance of her Korean pop band.

While many pro-Beijing commentators say the DPP’s victory is mainly due to the bad policies of the Kuomintang (KMT) administration under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, the fact is that anti-China sentiment has been spreading across Taiwan.

Things came to boil after the government secretly negotiated a cross-strait trade pact with China, triggering mass protests in the summer of 2014 that came to be known as the Sunflower Movement.

The legislature was forced to shelve the agreement.

The Taiwanese are not opposed to a mutual relationship with China but not under the KMT.

It is quite easy to understand why they distrust the KMT after Ma’s historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in November in which the former openly embraced Beijing’s “One China” policy.

The Taiwanese saw Ma’s gesture as a repudiation of the 1992 “consensus” between Beijing and Taipei that left the principle of a single China to each other’s interpretation.

Initially, cross-strait issues were not a key talking point during the election campaign.

But in the end, the results reflected voters’ unease over those issues.

DPP standard bearer Tsai Ing-wen captured 6.89 million votes for president and her party won more than half of the 113 parliamentary seats.

New Power Party, a nascent force born out of the Sunflower Movement, got five seats, or more than 5 percent of the vote.

The new government comes to office with a strong mandate to pursue a neutral, transparent and more equal cross-strait agenda.

Beijing is not thrilled by the prospect and will insist that the “One China” policy is the foundation of cross-strait relations.

In her victory speech, Tsai said Taiwan and China “have a responsibility to do their utmost to find mutually acceptable ways to interact… and ensure no provocation and no surprises”.

Tsai is likely to adopt a two-pronged approach to appease Beijing without sounding soft on her party’s pro-independence stance.

On one hand, she may keep the incumbent officials in the Mainland Affairs Office to maintain the already established communication channels with Beijing.

On the other, Tsai might establish a transparent mechanism for all China-related policies.

Either way, it will be a big test for Tsai and her incoming government.

No doubt her overwhelming mandate helps, but Tsai will have to be more open about Taiwan’s foreign relations beyond cross-strait ties to reassure her compatriots.

Closer links with friendly nations such as the United States and Japan will benefit her government in navigating the testy geopolitical waters.

The “One China” policy has denied Taipei a voice in international affairs and in the global economy despite Taiwan’s key role in the technology supply chain, agriculture and culture.

The policy has pigeonholed Taiwan into Beijing’s ideal of a single China.

The flag-waving incident involving 16-year-old Taiwanese pop artist Chou Tzu-yu is just one example of that.

Tsai highlighted the sensitivity of the issue when she criticised Beijing over the incident in her victory speech. 

“This particular incident will serve as a constant reminder to me about the importance of our country’s strength and unity to those outside our borders,”Tsai said.

“This will be one of the most important responsibilities for me as the next president of the Republic of China.”

Tsai made sure no one was in doubt about her meaning — she spoke against a backdrop of the Taiwanese flag and DPP logo displayed prominently together.

At the same time, DPP is shedding its objections to the use of Taiwan’s official name, Republic of China, suggesting a stronger foreign policy stance.

By wrapping herself in the Taiwanese flag and invoking the island’s official name, Tsai is hoping to rally her compatriots at home and abroad behind her agenda.

The aim is to put Taiwan’s future squarely in the hands of its people, a luxury Hong Kong does not have.

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EJ Insight writer

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