The more Hong Kong rises as the focus of the world’s attention because of the defiance of millions of its citizens against Beijing, so to, indirectly, does Taiwan. Taipei and Hong Kong have tended to empathize with each other’s situations. While their colonial histories contrast greatly, they have both been characterized by their dysfunctional relationships with big brother China, and their grey areas of sovereignty are often in fact used as political tools by Western nations.
With Singapore and South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan were members of the four Asian Tigers who economically developed in the 1970s, and then boomed in the 1980s. They are on very different paths. Hong Kong, of course, is a quasi-democratic society given back to China from its previous colonizer Great Britain just over 20 years ago. Taiwan, on the other hand, has not on paper been controlled by Beijing since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) expelled the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949.
Unlike their fellow Tiger Hong Kong, Taiwan has been completely democratic since 1996, with many of their voters wary of even a semi-unification with the People’s Republic of China. Every election seems to be a conundrum over what to prolong more – the ROC’s democracy hanging in the balance, or that of its economic stability/growth.
So much happened between 2012 and 2016 including both the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Revolution, both of which had tremendous impacts on the world at large and dented the image of China’s soft power. In particular, the current turmoil in Hong Kong appears to be turning more Taiwanese away from having anything to do with China.
Just as many right-of-center Americans see the tariffs as a path towards American companies moving their factories from China to the US, some members of the pro-autonomy Democratic Progressive Party, whose fortunes had been waning along with President Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity, are optimistic about their own companies moving back from China to Taiwan, and revel in seeing their geopolitical rival get punished.
The island is abuzz with rhetoric about the upcoming January 2020 presidential election, particularly the capital city of Taipei, where the new KMT hotshot and candidate Han Guo-Yu, the current mayor of Kaohsiung, was speaking. But the largest potential spark for voting behavior in the 2020 Taiwanese Presidential Election came on the last couple of days when the protests snowballed in Hong Kong against the extradition bill.
In Taiwan itself, thousands of people took to the streets in heavy rain on June 23 to protest the influence of so-called “red media” outlets perceived to be influenced by Chinese money and pressure. As reported earlier by Asia Sentinel. In April, the Chinese-language broadsheet Apple Daily owned by democracy advocate Jimmy Lai reported that Want Want China Holdings Ltd in China, a subsidiary of the Taiwan-based Want Want Holdings Ltd owned by tycoon Tsai Eng-meng, had received up to RMB 477 million Chinese yuan (US$71 million) in subsidies for the China Times Group from the Chinese government between 2017 and 2018.
And if anything, Carrie Lam currently most heavily resembles former Taiwanese President Ma Ying Jeou in his response to the Sunflower Movement, who caved to public pressure and growing accusations of being too cozy with China President Xi Jinping and froze the Cross-strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), not receiving any support at home or in Beijing as a result.
In 2014, the Sunflower movement preceded the Umbrella Revolution by just a few months, and the impact that both resistance events had on Taiwanese politics proved to be gigantic. On November 29, 2014, the DPP won a plethora of local seats, peppering the island, which was at the time run by a KMT president, with green. The DPP won nearly 1 million more votes than rival party KMT, and finished almost 7 points higher.
That was a preview to Tsai’s sweeping victory over KMT candidate Eric Chu in the 2016 presidential election. Many of the reasons for the DPP’s easy victory were correlated not just to the sluggish Taiwanese economy or even what the world saw brought to light with the Sunflower Movement, but rather the Umbrella Revolution of Hong Kong which gave Taiwanese voters a firm reminder of what their future could be after a politician makes the wrong deal with Mainland China.
The Umbrella Revolution and public realization that the Hong Kong voting committees’ candidates had to be vetted by Mainland officials put the possible political reality of unification with the ROC and PRC on hold, and so much of the KMT optimism of what a friendlier Taiwan-China relationship would look like was shattered. Thanks to the outcome of the Hong Kong protests, Taiwanese voters will now most likely find themselves in this same place.
The ROC has lost several allies who recognize them as an independent nations, namely Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador since Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated in May 2016, and the economy has yet to see any noteworthy signs of improvement. That being said, what has occurred in Hong Kong these past two weeks, and the law that the protest stopped bring into question the benign sounding One country, Two Systems policy that Beijing and gung-ho KMT supporters love to utter to try and sooth DPP members who are fearful of a unity-minded future for the ROC and PRC.
Just last year, the DPP saw their party receive similar treatment as the KMT in 2014, as they (the DPP) lost the 2018 midterm elections by nearly 1.5 million votes, and more than 10 percentage points, including in key constituencies Yilan province, and Kaohsiung – the nation’s second largest city.
However, with President Tsai now having wrapped up the DPP primary and the party looking to join forces against KMT candidate Han Guo-yu or Foxconn business tycoon-turned-candidate Guo Tai-ming, how will the picture of tear gas and ideal extraditions of Hong Kongers to Mainland China look to Taiwanese voters?
In spite of economic uncertainty and isolationism, do Taiwanese want to risk moving closer to becoming what they’ve been seeing covered in the news about Hong Kong? Would they even still have the ability to see such news coverage with a free press if they were under Chinese control? Moreover, with Hong Kong’s growing economic inequality gap, can the KMT, Beijing, or even Foxconn continue to point to this for decades prospering quasi-democratic, quasi-Chinese controlled nation as the shiny example of what Taiwan could one day be?
After all, it was just this past January that President Xi gave his 40th anniversary “Letter to Taiwan Compatriots” speech, which reaffirmed the PRC ideals that there should be a One Country Two Party system with them and the ROC. On the 70th anniversary since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was victorious against the Chinese Nationalist KMT, causing them to flee to Taiwan where they have been standing off, divided by 60 miles of the West China Sea ever since, these historical Hong Kong protests may be just what Tsai and the DPP need to stay in the Presidential Palace.
The outcome of the 2020 Taiwanese Presidential election is undoubtedly uncertain, but it is clear that no matter what, Hong Kong’s own political turmoil can once again work to the DPP’s advantage, regardless of the challenges they are currently facing. When the quasi- democracy of Hong Kong is ever in question, it immediately screams to its long-lost brother, Taiwan’s pure democracy, and the voters on the island seldom have trouble hearing this call.
Dan Josephson is a Masters’ Degree holder from National Chengchi University in Taipei. A recent visitor to the island, he teaches Asia Studies at the City College of New York.