The brutal crackdown on street protests in Hong Kong over a planned extradition bill has turned an entire generation against Beijing and shaken the business community’s trust in the city’s rule of law.
The damage for the Chinese government, however, goes beyond the former British colony: the demonstrations have galvanised Taiwan’s will to defend its democracy and independence. The events could also upend a presidential race Beijing hopes will bring to power a more China-friendly government.
Over the past four months, politicians vying for nomination as the presidential candidate of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) have blamed Tsai Ing-wen — the incumbent who is calmly but stubbornly resisting Chinese pressure to define Taiwan as a part of China — for rising cross-strait tension, and have pledged to bring peace and economic prosperity through better relations with Beijing.
But over the past week, the KMT’s presidential hopefuls have decried police brutality in Hong Kong, criticised the extradition bill, now suspended by that territory’s government, and reiterated that “one country, two systems” — the formula under which Hong Kong was given back to China — is out of the question for Taiwan.
“For any Taiwan politician running for office, proposing a peace agreement with China and one country, two systems policy platform is the kiss of death,” said Ketty Chen, vice-president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, a government-backed think-tank.
On Sunday, thousands of people gathered in central Taipei at a rally in support of the Hong Kong protesters, an unusual display of solidarity. Having lived in a de facto independent state since 1949 and in a democracy since the early 1990s, Taiwan’s people long felt that what was happening in Hong Kong did not apply to them.
“People in Taiwan of course knew that Hong Kong had become part of China under one country, two systems. But in the Taiwanese mind the situation in Hong Kong was a bit abstract,” said Ms Chen.
“But then, the young people in Taiwan, the generation that had never lived under an authoritarian regime, they saw the Hong Kong people fighting for free and fair elections,” she added, referring to Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. “Since then, I have seen a steady increase in Taiwanese paying attention to Hong Kong.”
Ties between young activists and civil society groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan have grown quickly in recent years.
But the effect from the Hong Kong protests has broadened apprehension in Taiwan beyond the youth and social activist circles. “Those in Taiwan that lean more towards the KMT may not share the anti-China sentiment that the very young feel, but they are shocked at how the Hong Kong government treats the people,” said Klavier Wong, an independent researcher from Hong Kong who looks at social movements and national identity in Hong Kong and Taiwan. “It is about freedom and democracy.”
The Chinese leadership itself prepared the ground for these values taking priority in the minds of Taiwan’s voters over economic complaints. In January, Xi Jinping, China’s president, again peddled one country, two systems as a model for Taiwan’s unification with China. His insistence on a formula that the Taiwanese public has consistently rejected has alarmed many in Taiwan and helped boost Ms Tsai’s flagging popularity.
With Mr Xi’s tone-deaf approach, Taiwan’s view on Hong Kong — the testing ground for one country, two systems — “has become a lot more personal”, said Ms Chen. She pointed to growing talk among Taiwanese netizens that they felt their nation was under existential threat. “This existential threat is very real to the Taiwanese now,” she said.
Ms Tsai may have benefited already. Polling for the presidential primary in her Democratic Progressive party was conducted on Monday to Wednesday last week — as the drama in Hong Kong was unfolding. The primary poll results indicated that Ms Tsai has a good chance of winning next year’s election — a sharp turnround from media polls published over the past few months that saw her trailing almost every potential opponent.
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