China: The challenges of Hong Kong and Taiwan

September 09, 2019 14:28
Hong Kong’s current protest movement has turned Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, who opposes unification, into the frontrunner in the hotly contested January presidential race. Photo: Reuters

Twenty-two years ago, when Hong Kong became part of China, the former British colony’s relationship with Taiwan became part of China’s cross-straits relationship. Thus, when the pro-independence politician Chen Shui-bian became president of Taiwan in 2000, China’s fury was felt in Hong Kong.

One Chinese official, Wang Fengchao, then deputy director of China’s Liaison Office, called on the Hong Kong press not to report Taiwan independence news, saying that such reports promoted Taiwan independence, despite a guarantee of press freedom in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

Another official, He Chiming, called on the Hong Kong business community not to trade with pro-independence businessmen in Taiwan.

China wanted to isolate advocates of Taiwan independence and ensure that they received no support from Hong Kong. In those days, there was no Hong Kong independence movement. That came later, after it became clear that the Communist Party was not going to allow real democracy, which many thought had been promised in the Basic Law.

Today, there are independence advocates, though their numbers are small since most people recognize its impracticality, with Hong Kong relying on China for food and water. China likes to depict protesters – especially violent ones – as being pro-independence. This is clearly untrue. Of the five protesters’ demands, not a single one has to do with separatism.

Beijing seeks to isolate Taiwan, limiting its international space. Thus, the Solomon Islands, one of 17 countries still recognizing Taiwan, appears poised to switch sides and recognize China.

The Chinese government has announced that it intends to “reunify” with Taiwan using the “one country, two systems” formula but its shabby treatment of Hong Kong has only strengthened Taiwanese opposition to unification.

In fact, the current protest movement has turned President Tsai Ing-wen, who opposes unification, into the frontrunner in the hotly contested January presidential race.

Where the current Hong Kong protests are concerned, China accuses “foreign forces” and “black hands” of being behind the turmoil, making clear that it means the United States and Taiwan.

It will not recognize that the millions of people who have taken part in the protests are expressing their anger at the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the way the Chinese government has narrowed Hong Kong’s autonomy, especially since Xi Jinping gained power in 2012.

Ironically, China’s strong-arm tactics in Hong Kong have strengthened ties between Hong Kong’s opposition forces and Taiwan. The current crackdown has generated a flow of Hong Kong activists seeking haven overseas. Two have been granted asylum in Germany. More than two dozen are believed to have made their way to Taiwan.

Last week, three Hong Kong political activists – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Lester Shum and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick – visited Taipei and met lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. They called for solidarity between Hong Kong and Taiwan and asked Taipei to grant asylum to those who flee Hong Kong for fear of arrest.

On Friday, the Interior Ministry announced that although Taiwan doesn’t yet have a refugee law, existing legislation was adequate for allowing Hongkongers to relocate to the island.

Support in Taiwan for Hong Kong is tangible. Private groups, including churches, have contributed helmets, gas masks and goggles to protesters. Over a period of weeks, donated items numbered in the thousands.

Joshua Wong, who returned to Hong Kong on Sept. 8, said while in Taiwan, “We hope today’s Taiwan would become tomorrow’s Hong Kong.”

Certainly, pro-independence forces in Taiwan and pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong are linking up, with a growing sense that the destinies of the two territories are interwoven.

This has ignited in China deep anxiety. But Beijing should realize that it is a development that resulted largely from its own actions in Hong Kong, where over the last six or seven years it has been steadily strengthening its grip, reducing room for dissent, and even seeking to control the independent judiciary through interpretations of the Basic Law.

Such efforts continue. Only last Tuesday [Sept. 3], at its fourth press conference in a row, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing said that all three branches of the Hong Kong government, including the judiciary, must stand up to end the violence and restore order.

From Beijing’s perspective, it seems, the situation is dire. That same day, President Xi Jinping, in addressing party members, warned officials to be ready to “struggle against” the challenge posed by three regions: Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999.

The Communist Party is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary in power. Maybe it is time for it to realize that repression is counterproductive. It certainly isn’t the only instrument in the toolbox.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.