Hong Kong-Taiwan nexus forged by critical events last year

June 11, 2020 06:00
After China’s announcement of a national security law for Hong Kong, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen responded swiftly, “To all those in Hong Kong currently fighting for the values you hold most dear, I want to say that Taiwan has always given our utmost co

A year ago this week, an unusual relationship started to develop between Hong Kong, a former British colony now a Chinese special region, and Taiwan, a democracy with a highly developed economy.

The two shared much in common. Hong Kong had been folded into China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” rubric, and Beijing intends the same fate for Taiwan.

On June 9, 2019, about a million Hong Kong people protested against a government plan to allow extradition to mainland China. The massive march was dismissed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

But in Taiwan the response was different. There, President Tsai Ing-wen, who was running for re-election, expressed solidarity with the protesters. She said that Taiwan’s democracy was hard-earned and had to be safeguarded and pledged that as long as she was president, she would never accept “one country, two systems.”

Lam’s reluctant suspension of the extradition measure and her refusal to withdraw the bill until September created months of increasingly violent protests. Her adamant rejection of all suggestions for restoring calm, such as by setting up a judge-led commission of inquiry into police violence and the root cause of the disturbances, increased the level of frustration and tension in society.

Tsai used the tumultuous situation in Hong Kong to her advantage, warning voters that “Today’s Hong Kong” could well become “tomorrow’s Taiwan” if the pro-China Kuomintang won the election and agreed to unification with the mainland. She knew that most Taiwan voters had no interest in unification and living under communist rule.

China was not happy to see Taiwan’s growing closeness to Hong Kong. It was a Chinese nightmare to have what it saw as “Hong Kong secessionists” working together with “Taiwan independence forces.”

Tsai won by a landslide, securing more than 57 percent of the vote. The defeated KMT candidate, Han Kuo-yu, received just over 38.6 percent. This had a major impact on the hitherto pro-China KMT. The party elected a new leader, 48-year-old legislator Chiang Chi-chen. Before the vote, Chiang said he was prepared to abandon the “1992 consensus” policy, which he said had been so distorted by Beijing that his party could no longer win elections.

Chiang did not receive the expected congratulatory telegram from Xi Jinping. Previously, each time the KMT elected a new chairman, the Chinese president, in his capacity as communist party leader, would send a congratulatory telegram. This time, the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned Chiang to adhere to the “1992 consensus,” which provides for “one China.”

Though Tsai was elected in January , she wasn’t inaugurated until May 20. Much happened in the intervening months, as the novel coronavirus brought devastation to much of the world. But Taiwan stood out as an island of tranquility. Because of its timely public health response, as of June 7, Taiwan had 443 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with seven deaths. It gained considerable international acclaim because of its success.

In addition, Taiwan had launched a hugely successful mask diplomacy campaign, with the pledge to donate 10 million masks to countries hit hardest by the pandemic, including in Europe and the United States. This won it global goodwill. Senior members of the Trump administration were photographed wearing masks that bore the tiny words “Made in Taiwan.”

At her inauguration, Tsai said both sides of the Taiwan Strait have a duty “to find a way to coexist over the long term.” But this is precisely what China doesn’t want.

Two days later, when Premier Li Keqiang delivered his annual work report to the National People’s Congress, he ominously dropped the word “peaceful” in discussing reunification.

After China’s announcement of a national security law for Hong Kong, Tsai responded swiftly, “To all those in Hong Kong currently fighting for the values you hold most dear, I want to say that Taiwan has always given our utmost concern & support.”

Taiwan’s legislature condemned the law. In a rare statement, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the opposition Kuomintang and other parties jointly expressed “regret and severe condemnation.” Even the KMT, it seemed, could no longer be counted on to back China.

The Hong Kong-Taiwan nexus that has been forged stems from events in both places. In Hong Kong, it was Lam’s attempt to force legislation on an unwilling populace; in Taiwan, it was Beijing’s insistence on imposing unification on Taiwan’s resistant people. Both actions reflect contempt for democratic principles.

Now, cross-straits tensions are rising. In Hong Kong, there is nervousness to see just how much damage the national security legislation will do, and whether the city, which used to pride itself as “Asia’s World City,” can survive as a business hub.

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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.