How HK protests have transformed Taiwan

July 02, 2019 08:01
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said the massive protests in Hong Kong prove that the “one country, two systems” principle is absolutely not feasible. Photo: Reuters

The protests by millions of Hong Kong people against a proposed extradition law have been followed around the world – but nowhere has their impact been bigger than in Taiwan.

First, they virtually ensure the re-election next January of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, who was only eight months ago facing political oblivion.

Second, they mean that, if Beijing wants to unify with Taiwan peacefully, it will have to find an alternative to “one country, two systems”.

On June 16, thousands of Taiwan people joined Hong Kong students and graduates outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei to voice their opposition to the extradition bill, on the same day as the giant march here.

On June 17, the four parties in the parliament issued a joint statement. One paragraph read: “The legislature expresses support for the citizens of Hong Kong in their pursuit of democracy and freedom. It urges the Hong Kong government to withdraw the extradition bill."

President Tsai said that the massive protests in Hong Kong had proved that the “one country, two systems” principle was absolutely not feasible.

The intensity of opinion in Taiwan has forced her likely opponent in the January election, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang, to say that, if elected president, he would not pursue “one country, two systems”.

The island’s boisterous news weeklies reflect the public mood. In its latest issue, Today Weekly (今周刊) has a red front page with black typeface. “The people of Taiwan must remember this lesson. Hong Kong is being forced to die. Freedom of speech is limited. The rule of law is being shaken. Its status as a financial center is uncertain.”

On its front page, Business Weekly (商業周刊) has a photograph of thousands of Hong Kong protestors with the two characters of its name in yellow, being twisted by the wind. “The New Battleground in the Sino-US Conflict,” reads the headline.

In a long article, Today Weekly traces the history of events since the Joint Declaration in 1984. “From hope to hopelessness, ‘the one country, two systems’ experiment after 22 years has almost collapsed,” reads the headline.

It quoted a survey of Hong Kong University showing that only 15 percent of local people identify themselves as Chinese, the lowest since 1997.

It listed the five occasions since 1997 that the National People’s Congress has issued “explanatory judgements” overruling decisions taken in Hong Kong.

The reason why Taiwan people follow events here so closely is that, ever since the 1980s, Beijing has proposed for them the same “one country, two systems” formula applied to Hong Kong.

This was repeated on Jan. 2 this year by President Xi Jinping. “The principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ and ‘one country, two systems’ are the best approach to realizing national reunification … The social system and way of life in Taiwan will be fully respected, and the private property, religious beliefs and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan compatriots will be fully protected after peaceful reunification is realized … We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means."

If Xi aimed to win the hearts and minds of Taiwan people, he had the opposite effect. Looking at Hong Kong, they do not believe his promises. President Tsai immediately responded to his speech with a strong rejection, which greatly improved her popularity.

The Hong Kong protests have made her even more popular. A poll of 16,000 people by the DPP announced on June 13 found that she would beat Han Kuo-yu in an election by a margin of 11 percentage points.

But, only in November last year, the KMT received 48.8 percent of the votes in municipal elections island-wide, against 39.2 percent for the DPP. Tsai had to resign as chairperson of the DPP.

The KMT won because mainly of economic issues – stagnant wages, low economic growth, high property prices, bad relations with Beijing and incessant faction fighting within the DPP.

These issues remain; and many people, perhaps the majority, believe that the KMT could manage the economy better than the DPP, since it has been the ruling party for most of the period since 1945 and has closer ties to business.

But anger over the extradition bill and a sense that Beijing is strangling Hong Kong have overwhelmed these economic concerns.

As many in Taiwan say, it is President Xi and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor who are campaigning for President Tsai.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.