Taiwan Ignores Hong Kong Handover Protest

If Beijing had any hope of wooing Taiwan with the successful example of a satisfied and pliant Hong Kong, those hopes were dashed last weekend when the biggest crowd since 2004 showed up in the city’s central district to protest the arrival of President Hu Jintao.

Beijing’s leaders regard Hong Kong’s “one country-two systems government” as a key to China’s master plan to assuage the suspicions of the unification-wary Taiwanese. But as the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong's 1997 handover to China was marked by tens of thousands marching on government headquarters instead of cheering for Hu, it is increasingly clear that Hong Kong as a role model for Deng Xiaoping's brainchild failed.

To the Taiwanese, Hong Kong’s relationship to Beijing hardly seems to matter. They have never contemplated following in Hong Kong's footsteps in the first place. A glance at Taiwan's mass-circulation newspapers on the morning of July 2, the day after the handover protest brought anywhere between 60,000 and 400,000 people into the streets, showed that none bothered to headline the story.

That strongly suggests that dissatisfaction in the territory with Beijing’s rule has little to no significance to the Taiwanese. Firmly occupying the front pages of both pro and anti-unification newspapers were instead detailed accounts of the fall of President Ma Ying-jeou's buddy and KMT rising star Lin Yi-shih, who resigned from his post as the Cabinet secretary-general last week amid bribery allegations.

That isn’t to say that Taiwan's anti-unification opposition parties didn't seek to capitalize on the events, which were embarrassing to their arch adversary, the Chinese Communist Party. On the eve of the anniversary, Su Tseng-chang, the chairman of the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party and a likely candidate in the 2016 presidential elections, used his Facebook page to urge his fellow countrymen to be aware of the disappointing lessons Hong Kong has absorbed from deepening its economic, social and political ties with Beijing.

“How much have democratic values, freedom and human rights gone down the drain under 'one country, two systems'?” Su posted. “We must pay attention to the direction Hong Kong is heading.” But that was about it.

That Taiwan doesn't seem overly alarmed is because it has never felt itself to be Hong Kong's peer. Taiwan's Republic of China Constitution stipulates that the government in Taipei is the ruler over the whole of China including Hong Kong. Accordingly, the ruling Kuomintang, which in all the decades since it lost the Chinese Civil War has remained steadfastly loyal to the concept of ruling all of China, regards the relationship between Taipei and Hong Kong as one between government and governed.

That is a clearly different perception from the one in Beijing, whose leaders see the two territories on an almost equal footing as political entities and Chinese chattels.

Although bilateral relations were somewhat closer between Taipei and Hong Kong when it was still a British colony, they began to fade after the 1997 handover to China. From 2000 to 2008, when pro-independence advocate Chen Shui-bian was Taiwan’s president, the two drifted further apart. Even the anti-Communist factions in Hong Kong strongly disagreed with Chen's openly promoted drive to separate Taiwan permanently from China. Equally, the Chen administration didn't want to be seen anywhere near a Chinese SAR, avoiding rapprochement like the plague.

But there are additional reasons for observers to doubt that issues that brought the Hong Kong population into the streets would directly affect cross-strait relations. Those issues include growing dissatisfaction over the slow pace of democratization, the irritating behavior of mainland tourists and the influx of pregnant mainland women overwhelming local maternity wards.

“Beijing used to think Hong Kong set a great example for enticing Taiwan to rejoin or join Mother China; there is less confidence that this would work now,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. “But would bad news between Hong Kong and mainland people damage the prospect for cross-Strait unification? Not much. This is mainly because there is next to no market in Taiwan for the ‘one country, two systems’ model anyway.”

As to the lack of interest displayed by the Taiwanese media, Tsang finds that it is a little disappointing but not totally surprising.

“What happens in Hong Kong matters little to Taiwan. Perhaps the Taiwan news media is too focused on Taiwan itself and then the mainland, and thus relegates Hong Kong to a lower area of interest,” he said.

According to Huang Kwei-bo, director of National ChengChi University's Center for Foreign Policy Studies in Taipei, the anti-unification camp can be expected to exploit the developments to oppose closer ties between Taiwan and mainland China and to attempt to warn the Taiwanese of the unreliability of Beijing’s leaders in terms of implementing and safeguarding democracy. The KMT government's attitude is more productive, however, Huang says.

“Key KMT officials have reiterated that the most important criterion for judging the distance between Taipei and Beijing is human rights. That is, other than socio-economic and cultural exchanges, no politically profound improvement in cross-Strait relations will be made if mainland China remains authoritarian with the communist rule as the top priority,” he said, although he doesn’t expect the issue to slow the current pace of cross-strait negotiations.

He Jia-ling, a Sinologist and teacher of Chinese as a foreign language in Taipei, delivered a significantly bleaker assessment. It is obvious, she said, that Beijing has been treating Hong Kong lavishly, with significant currency and trade advantages under the Closer Economic Partnership between the two, because it wants to make one country, two systems attractive to Taipei.

Hong Kong doesn't matter much,” she said. “The Taiwanese know anyway that Hong Kong's press freedoms and other privileges won't make it over here the day Taiwan agrees to unification.”


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