Why is Carrie Lam being told to meddle in Taiwan's elections?

March 22, 2019 17:01
Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets with Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu at the Government House on Friday. Photo: ISD

How many times have you heard officials insisting that Hong Kong should not get involved in other people's affairs and its corollary, that other people should not meddle in Hong Kong affairs?

So what are we to make of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's hosting of a high-profile meeting with Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected mayor of Kaohsiung who is seen as the rising star of Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) party?

Han arrived in Hong Kong with a 30-strong delegation in a visit arranged by Beijing's Liaison Office, so the politics of what's going on are hardly subtle. In short, Beijing is doing everything it can to ensure a KMT victory in upcoming elections and would very much like to see incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen defeated because she and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) refuse to kowtow to Beijing and are viewed as "splitists" advocating independence for the island.

The leadership in Beijing is playing a tough game with the DPP, on the one hand threatening military action to bring Taiwan to heel while on the other heavily dabbling in the island's politics in the hope of persuading voters that abandoning the ruling party will lead to greater prosperity and harmony for Taiwan’s people.

The KMT’s problem is that it lacks a charismatic leader but following Han's impressive triumph in the DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung, the bosses in Beijing believe that they may have found someone who is both ready to establish close relations and topple the DPP.

There is some precedent for this kind of Taiwan election meddling as back in 2001.  China orchestrated the visit to Hong Kong of the then Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou when he was in the frame as the KMT’s presidential candidate. He was hosted by the then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Maybe Beijing imagines that this trip helped contribute to Ma’s subsequent success in the presidential poll. Whether it did or not is very hard to tell but the People's Republic of China is most definitely trying to boost Han’s credibility in a trip that will also take him to Macau, Shenzhen and Xiamen.

It is a clear demonstration that the Mayor of Kaohsiung has Beijing’s backing which, at least in the minds of the Chinese Communist Party, will not only ensure that he can become the KMT candidate for president but also win the presidential election.

Whether this kind of open support for Han will turn out to be helpful remains to be seen because even Taiwanese voters who are disillusioned with the DPP and favor a less confrontational approach to Beijing remain far from convinced that Taiwan would be better off if it were to be reunited with the mainland.

On the contrary, consistent public opinion poll evidence demonstrates that most people are satisfied with a status quo that vigorously maintains Taiwan's separateness while not wanting Taipei to aggravate their big neighbor.

So, where does Lam fit into all this? The answer is she will fit in wherever she is told to fit by Beijing. The visit to Hong Kong is part of a strategy to emphasize the benefits of the "one country, two systems" concept being applied to Taiwan and, more specifically, to allow Lam to indirectly endorse Han.

The grey men in Beijing still seriously believe that the offer of a Hong Kong-style arrangement to the people of Taiwan will encourage them to return to the embrace of the motherland. The reality is that the steady erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy only serves to persuade most Taiwanese not to fall into this trap and that includes KMT supporters who want better relations with Beijing.

Han therefore is unlikely to be doing himself any favors by coming to Hong Kong and Macau. As for Lam, she is yet again reduced to the role of being a bit player in China’s bigger games.

She might plausibly have told her bosses that it would be better if Hong Kong could keep out of Taiwanese affairs. She could have argued that one of the reasons why SAR officials steer clear of having relations with Taiwan is because it's complicated and could lead to having contact with the present government which in turn could be interpreted as endorsing the legitimacy of the DPP, a party much hated in Beijing.

Indeed, the convolutions that stem from this fear have now landed Hong Kong in a mighty mess over plans for new extradition arrangements which started with an attempt to deal with a Hong Kong fugitive from justice wanted in Taiwan and has ended up with a singular failure to even negotiate with the Taiwanese authorities over this matter and the introduction of a highly contentious extradition plan which would cover both Taiwan and the mainland, raising fears about arbitrary arrests in Hong Kong for people who would then be at the mercy of the mainland’s dubious judicial system.

And while all this is going on Lam is being called upon to play a role in the upcoming Taiwan elections – whatever happened to the insistence on not meddling in external affairs?

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.