Who's courageous? HK's Carrie Lam or Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen?

December 19, 2019 08:00
The author is seen in a conversation with Chen Ming-chi, deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, in Taipei last week. Photo: Michael Chugani

Modern history has its share of courageous leaders. Gandhi springs to mind. So does Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor a courageous leader? The very thought of it insults most Hongkongers. That's why it was surreal to see President Xi Jinping praise her handling of anti-government protests as courageous when they met in Beijing on Monday.

Lam is Hong Kong's most despised chief executive since reunification. She single-handedly caused the city’s worst political disaster ever, resulting in deaths, injuries, over 6,000 arrests of mostly young people, hatred between the public and the police, and a deeply polarized society.

In the more than six months since her now-abandoned extradition bill triggered an anti-China uprising, she has hidden from the people, daring only to see her political allies, and too afraid to tell mainland leaders the truth about Hong Kong public opinion. That’s not courage. It’s cowardice. Yet the country’s top leader applauded rather than admonished her.

If I were Lam I would have been embarrassed. Millions had marched in protests against her governance. Thousands of Hongkongers young and old have been exposed to police tear gas. Children barely into their teens have criminal records now because of her. Voters overwhelmingly rejected her political allies in the district council elections. Yet she smilingly relished Xi’s praise, showing how hopelessly out of touch Lam and mainland leaders are with the people.

If the label of courage should be bestowed on a female leader in our region, I would choose Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen. She has faced down powerful Beijing in defending Taiwan’s democracy while Lam acted as a Beijing proxy to whittle away Hong Kong’s freedoms. I was in Taiwan last week after an absence of many years. To say I found it refreshingly free is an understatement.

My four days in Taipei were plenty enough to help me understand why so many Hongkongers prefer Taiwan to the promised opportunities of the Greater Bay Area, why so many protesters have sought refuge there, and why so many young people want to emigrate there.

You can taste and smell the freedom. Unlike on the mainland, you can check into a hotel or ride the subway without being subjected to facial recognition cameras. The presidential office building had just a handful of guards even though a foreign dignitary was visiting on the day I passed by.

There were no armed guards at the Mainland Affairs Council building, which also houses sections of the Foreign Ministry, when I went there to interview Deputy Minister Chen Ming-chi of the Mainland Affairs Council. I didn’t have to go through security screening, facial recognition, or bag search. What a difference from entering the Government House in Hong Kong or even a subway station in the mainland!

Taiwan is gearing up for a pivotal general election next month in which voters will decide whether to re-elect Tsai and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or vote for her rival, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang Party (KMT). Whoever wins will have my support because it is a democratic choice.

My interview with Chen enlightened me on DPP’s position on Hong Kong’s protest movement, protesters seeking refuge in Taiwan, and cross-strait relations. If there is a takeaway from an interview, my takeaway from the conversation with Chen is this: “We do not use live bullets on our own people.” It immediately reminded me of the Hong Kong policeman who shot a black-clad protester at point-blank range. Much of what Chen said won’t strike a chord with the Hong Kong or mainland authorities. But in a free society, people and even government officials are allowed to speak their mind.

Chen used diplomatic language in the interview but his message was clear. He said he saw no reason not to support Hong Kong’s protest movement. That’s a double negative. When I pressed him to be more specific he said the Hong Kong protesters are not rioters and Hong Kong has become a showcase of a failed one country, two systems.

Even the Beijing-friendly KMT has said it will not accept one country, two systems. That, to me, means Deng Xiaoping’s visionary idea of one country, two systems – tested through Hong Kong – for unification with Taiwan has come to a dead end. That is one of many reasons why Hongkongers who support the protest movement see Taiwan as a beacon of hope.

Taiwan speaks the language of freedom and free elections. Tsai could win or lose. It is up to the people. But Hong Kong people have no power to oust Lam even though she is undemocratically elected and is the most hated leader since reunification. If Xi says she is courageous, then she is courageous regardless of what Hongkongers believe. It is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Chen did not use diplomatic-speak about Taiwan’s support for Hong Kong protesters wishing to seek refuge in Taiwan. He said they are welcome if they use legal means to enter Taiwan. He admitted the protest had helped the DPP boost its popularity in the coming elections, with opinion polls showing about 90 percent of Taiwanese opposing one country, two systems.

But opinion polls can be both reliable and unreliable. They rightly predicted Boris Johnson would win in Britain’s Brexit election but wrongly predicted Donald Trump would lose in the last US election. For Hong Kong’s protest movement, a DPP win would be a morale booster. Taiwan would remain a safe haven for Hongkongers. Chen told me he would help them in every way legally possible.

But a KMT win could end Taiwan's open support for the Hong Kong protest movement. As a Beijing-friendly party, it would come under increasing pressure to distance itself from the Hong Kong protest movement. If the KMT buckles under that pressure, it would mean an erosion of Taiwan’s democracy.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.