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Hong Kong Seen from Taiwan

BLOG - 30 August 2019

"One country, two systems" never had an appeal in Taiwan. The green camp (independence-leaning, pro-Taiwanese national identity) concluded very early that there was no chance an authoritarian regime would allow the existence of an open and democratic free society. This view, that no status quo is viable and "one country, one system" is the only possible endgame, after a painful period of transition, is of course comforted by the gradual erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. 

On the other end of the Taiwanese political spectrum, even the most pro-China political forces in the blue camp have rejected the Hong Kong model and asked for a better deal. They sometimes used the formula "one country, three systems." Their starting point: The Republic of China has thrived in Taiwan with all the characteristics of a sovereign state and the island will not be treated as a colony returning to the motherland. Indeed, unlike Hong Kong in 1984, Taiwan has functioning democratic institutions and a strong military.

Seen from Taiwan, Hong Kong is not a test of whether "one country, two systems" can be a success story and one day win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese population for a peaceful unification with China. Rather, each step taken by the Chinese Communist Party that undermines freedom of press or individual rights, each expression of social discontent, each image of violence, is interpreted as further evidence that "one country two systems" is a death trap for Taiwan.  

This is reflected in the public opinion polls conducted by National Chengchi University in Taipei. The protests in Hong Kong against the extradition law and Xi Jinping’s January 2019 speech reemphasizing "one country two systems" as China’s bottom line for Taiwan have had a tangible impact on the statistics collected during the first six months of 2019: the rise of "Taiwanese-only identity" (+2.4% at 56.9%), a sudden decrease of "both Taiwanese and Chinese identity" (-1.7% at 36.5%) after five years of increase, and a rise of support for "maintaining the status quo indefinitely" (+2.9% at 26.9%) and "maintaining the status quo and move towards independence" (+4.8% at 19.9%).

The more salient the question of values and the sovereignty issue are in the electoral race, the greater the chance of DPP victory.

This should therefore come as no surprise that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and President Tsai Ing-wen benefit from the Hong Kong crisis. As the January 2020 vote nears, President Tsai’s campaign for reelection has received an unexpected boost. She has for herself the advantage of clarity and consistency when she pledges that "Taiwan will not become the second Hong Kong as long as I am president".

Historically, the DPP embodies the Taiwanese struggle against authoritarianism, the defense of individual rights and the promotion of democratic values. The more salient the question of values and the sovereignty issue are in the electoral race, the greater the chance of DPP victory.

Her main opponent from the Kuomintang (KMT), Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, has failed so far to show similar clarity and consistency. Han famously declared that Taiwan would never accept "one country, two systems", "unless it is over my dead body." But on a trip to Hong Kong, Macao and Shenzhen last March, he accepted an invitation to a closed-doors meeting off the record at the Liaison Office of the Chinese government – the entity through which Beijing rules the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, at least on the most important matters. If this was intended as a calibrated move to create some space for strategic ambiguity, the risk did not pay off.

To his audience in China, Han was offering space to pretend that the KMT would not seek open confrontation over "one country, two systems." To his public in Taiwan, he was aiming to demonstrate his ability to reopen communication channels with the PRC in order to negotiate economic agreements (the official purpose of his trip was to win markets for Taiwanese agricultural products). But perhaps inevitably for someone without strong credentials as a leader, his ambiguous stance mostly raised doubts in Taiwan that he may pursue a hidden agenda in cooperation with Beijing. 

The Hong Kong crisis raises the bar for the opposition to convince the electorate that a pro-China business stance can coexist with the resolute defense of Taiwan’s political system and social model. In power under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016), the KMT also faced a social movement led by the youth against its push to conclude with Beijing a service trade agreement without democratic oversight. The 2014 Sunflower movement resulted in an occupation of Taiwan’s Parliament and the rising influence of a new generation of social activists. It also became a major source of inspiration for Hong Kong. For Hong Kong citizens who value political freedom, Taiwan is an attractive destination, as shown by the increase by 28% of Hong Kong emigration to Taiwan during the first half of 2019. 

This human proximity is perhaps what former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa really had in mind when he blamed "foreign forces" in Taiwan for the demonstrations and the violence. But he seemed to allude to organized and covert government support. He provided no evidence however, and there is none in the public domain either. In reality, the signs point in the exact opposite direction. Apart from political declarations in support of free democratic elections in Hong Kong as the only way out of the crisis and moral encouragement for the pro-democracy activists, the Taiwanese government is watching idly how the situation develops.

This passive attitude is the result of ideology – the DPP government defends a national identity centered on Taiwan, which reduces the incentive to provide activists with material support. This explains why Foreign Minister Joseph Wu is on the frontline to comment on Hong Kong affairs in the media and not Chen Ming-tong, the Chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council who manages relations with Hong Kong, Macao and Mainland China. It is also the result of a Mainland Policy that favors caution and restraint, what critics call constrained paralysis. President Tsai has learned from experience that Beijing would respond to any misstep by Taipei with reactive assertiveness. 

For Hong Kong citizens who value political freedom, Taiwan is an attractive destination, as shown by the increase by 28% of Hong Kong emigration to Taiwan during the first half of 2019. 

In this context, what would be the impact of more violent law enforcement action in Hong Kong, or the deployment of the People’s Armed Police Force in the name of counterterrorism? There is concern in Taiwan that Beijing is already trying to instill fear in the Taiwanese society through violent law enforcement and the untraceable manipulation of gangs in Hong Kong. More violence would undoubtedly send a shockwave, but would likely reinforce the spirit of resistance in Taiwan. 

Taiwan so far benefits from heightened US-China strategic competition. The Tsai administration has launched the 2019-2021 "Action Plan for Welcoming Overseas Taiwanese Businesses to Return to Invest in Taiwan" and the early results have been promising. Taiwanese industries are key actors in the ICT global supply chains and have historically thrived on adjusting to the demand for manufacturing solutions emanating from the US market. They are essential partners if the Trump administration’s strategy to reorganize the global supply chains away from the Chinese Mainland is to succeed. Taiwan also benefits in the area of military security, with new US arms sales, and frequent shows of force by the US Navy in the Taiwan Strait. The fear that the United States will one day betray Taiwan again, like in the 1970s, will never completely disappear but the level of trust in the Trump administration is currently rather high in Taipei. 

The choice of the Chinese Communist Party to view and to practise "one country two systems" as a phase of transition to the full absorption of Hong Kong within the PRC is the source of the unrest in Hong Kong and has a cost on cross-strait relations as well. When he was mainly thinking of "one country, two systems" as a way to maintain coexistence between socialism and capitalism rather than between an authoritarian state and an open and free society, Deng Xiaoping had promised in 1984: "Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this." But he undid his promise in the same interview, with a warning. "The crux of the matter, the decisive factor, is whether the policy is correct. If it is not, it will change; otherwise it won't." That it is more likely to change in terms of reduced autonomy for Hong Kong will make matters worse for Beijing.

 

Copyright : Sam YEH / AFP

 

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