Hong Kong Protests May Offer Taiwan’s Leader Political Advantage, Analysts Say

July 7, 2019 Updated: July 9, 2019

BEIJING—Recent anti-government protests in Hong Kong are echoing in Taiwan, possibly giving the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen a lift in her campaign to resist Beijing’s pressure for political unification and win a second term in next year’s elections.

The demonstrations sparked by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s now-shelved push for an unpopular extradition legislation have turned a glaring spotlight on China’s “one country, two systems” framework for ruling the former British colony, the same formula that Beijing envisages imposing on self-governing Taiwan.

The island is a de-facto independent country with its own democratically-elected government, but China has claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, to be united in the future, through military means if necessary.

That framework has never found much support among Taiwan’s voters. Events in Hong Kong now seem to be handing Tsai even more ammunition to attack political opponents who have argued that an accommodation with Beijing could be reached.

“People on the street understand that President Tsai took the anti-extradition law episode as a boost for her campaign,” said Andrew Huang, strategic studies professor at Taiwan’s Tamkang University. Tsai is part of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has historically supported formal independence from mainland China.

The largely student-led demonstrations in Hong Kong have found broad support among their Taiwanese counterparts, prompting sympathy protests outside Hong Kong’s representative office in the capital, Taipei.

A protester holds up a sign with the words “Reject Chinese Communist Party and Red Media, Support Hong Kong Protest Against Extradition Bill,” in a rally in Taipei, on June 23, 2019. (Chen Pochou/The Epoch Times)

That’s created common cause among democracy advocates in Hong Kong, which reverted to the Chinese regime’s rule in 1997, and Taiwan, where a separate republic was established in 1949 after the National Party lost to the Chinese Communist Party during the civil war.

The Hong Kong protests “highlight that the system clearly designed to entice Taiwan into unification talks has been a dismal failure,” said Western Kentucky University political scientist Timothy S. Rich, a close observer of Taiwanese politics.

“Tsai can use the Chinese threat to Hong Kong to reposition herself and her party as protecting democracy, that it is right to be cautious in regards to China and cross-strait relations,” according to Rich.

Hong Kong protesters oppose the extradition bill because it could send suspects to mainland China, where they might be exposed to torture and politically biased trials in courts under the control of the ruling Communist Party. That tapped into deeper running concerns over Beijing’s moves to reduce the scope for democracy and civil society in Hong Kong, which was promised it could retain its own Western-style legal, economic, and political institutions until 2047.

In Taiwan, that poses a dilemma for the China-friendly opposition Nationalist Party which was dislodged from power at the national level in 2016.

Beijing responded by cutting ties with Tsai’s government over her refusal to recognize Taiwan as an integral part of China. It has sought to deepen Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation by poaching away allies and barring its representatives from global gatherings, while cutting the number of Chinese tourists and circling it with warplanes to rattle voters’ nerves.

Chinese soldiers
Chinese soldiers stand on the deck of transport dock Yimen Shan in the sea near Qingdao in Shandong province on April 23, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP/Getty Images)

The threatening moves serve China’s narrative that attempts to bring Taiwan under its control, the goal Chinese leader Xi Jinping sees as part of his future political legacy.

In a January speech panned across Taiwan’s political spectrum, Xi again endorsed “one country, two systems” as Taiwan’s future, while asserting that the ruling Communists “made no promises to abandon the use of force” to bring Taiwan under their control.

Taiwan’s 23 million residents are overwhelmingly opposed to political unification with communist China.

Subsequent policy developments toward both Hong Kong and Taiwan have only added to concerns about Beijing’s intentions, said Steven M. Goldstein, director of the Taiwan Studies Workshop at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

“Does this benefit Tsai? Perhaps indirectly in the sense that it may complicate her opposition’s efforts to find a more positive formula for relations with the mainland,” Goldstein said.

The Nationalists, the DPP’s main opposition, have yet to rally behind a single challenger among a slate of contenders including Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu and Terry Gou, who stepped down last month as chairman of Foxconn, the world’s largest contract assembler of consumer electronics for companies such as Apple.

Missouri State University political scientist Dennis Hickey said he expects Tsai’s administration will seek to make the most of the “one country, two systems” issue as a cudgel against her opponents.

While it’s widely understood that the formula has no market in Taiwan, that won’t stop the DPP from accusing its opponents of planning to “sell out Taiwan,” Hickey said.

The Hong Kong protests, and the fear of Chinese encroachment on democratic freedoms may “refine the parameters of publicly acceptable discourse” on ties with China, Drun said.

By Christopher Bodeen

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