Of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese dreams

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. File   | Photo Credit: AP

The landslide re-election victory for the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan earlier in January has presented Beijing with a second pressing challenge in its backyard. In late-November, pro-democratic political parties swept the local district council elections in Hong Kong, which were widely seen as a referendum on the protests that have roiled the Special Administrative Region since June.

On the surface, Taiwan and Hong Kong may seem to have little in common. Unlike Hong Kong, which returned to China’s fold in 1997, Taiwan has been entirely self-ruled since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island to set up the ‘Republic of China’. Also, unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan has a thriving democracy and has held direct elections to choose its leaders since 1996 — incidentally, one of the five demands voiced by the tens of thousands who have taken to Hong Kong’s streets in recent months.

A referendum on China

Differences aside, the events in Hong Kong and Taiwan are not entirely unrelated. If the local elections in Hong Kong were a referendum on the protests, the DPP and Ms. Tsai made sure the elections in Taiwan ended up becoming a referendum on China — and specifically, on the “one country, two systems” model that is at the centre of debate in Hong Kong, and is seen by Beijing as an eventual solution to the ‘Taiwan question’.

One of the DPP’s most evocative campaign advertisements, which aired on television three days before the polls, drew a contrast between the daily life of a young Taiwanese and that of a young Hongkonger. As one slept peacefully on the train ride home from work, the other was on the streets evading tear-gas and riot police. Protect democracy, it urged voters, or Hong Kong’s future awaits.

Earlier this year, Ms. Tsai was trailing in the polls and looked set for defeat, but the events in Hong Kong revitalised her campaign. She has been outspoken in her support for the protesters. No surprise that since coming to power in 2016, Beijing has gone after Ms. Tsai, accusing her of pursuing a pro-independence agenda and making no secret of its preference for a Kuomintang (KMT) return. The KMT had pushed closer economic relations with Beijing. It backed a first-of-its-kind economic cooperation agreement in 2010, and the then-leader Ma Ying-jeou, whose term ended in 2016, held a landmark meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015.

With Ms. Tsai on the other hand, Beijing has pushed with even more vigour an international strategy aimed at isolating Taiwan. By the end of 2019, Taiwan was left with only 14 UN member states that maintain diplomatic relations, after losing the Solomon Islands and Kiribati which both shifted to recognising Beijing. With every year, the list grows shorter.

Yet Beijing’s pressure, in some ways, worked to Ms. Tsai’s advantage and reinforced her campaign’s message, as she swept home with 57% of the votes. In her victory speech, she said this election’s results “carry an added significance, because they have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back.” Ms. Tsai said that through Beijing’s “increasing pressure and proposal of a ‘one country, two systems’ model for Taiwan, China has hoped to force us to accept conditions that are entirely unacceptable.”

Where does this leave the future of “one country, two systems”? While Ms. Tsai sees the election as a resounding rejection of the model, Beijing sees things differently. Indeed, during a December visit to Macau to mark the 20th anniversary of its return to China, Mr. Xi said, “Macau’s successful experience speaks volumes about the viability and strength of one country, two systems, as long as we are committed to it and act on it”.

Mr. Xi’s remarks were seen as being directed at Hong Kong, but carried relevance for Taiwan as well. Mr. Xi outlined what he viewed as the core of the model, which was “recognising that ‘one country’ was the premise and precondition for ‘two systems’.” Apparently drawing a contrast with Hong Kong, Mr. Xi praised the people of Macau for “standing by the red line of the ‘One China’ principle” and having a “tradition of loving the motherland, as well as a strong sense of national identity, belonging and pride”. The problem for Beijing is that fewer and fewer people, both in Taiwan and Hong Kong, appear to share this view that elevates “one country” over the “two systems” part of the formula. The recent election results in both territories make that clear, as do polling data that show delicate shifts in how Taiwanese and Hongkongers view their relationship with the mainland.

Sense of autonomy

Polls conducted in Taiwan by the National Chengchi University in June 2019 showed that 56.9% identify as being only ‘Taiwanese’, up from 54.5% a year earlier, the first time that number had increased since a 60.6% peak in 2014. While 36.5% identify as being Taiwanese and Chinese, 3.6% identify as only Chinese. On the choice between independence and reunification, 86.1% favoured maintaining the status quo. Within this group, 26.9% preferred to maintain the status quo indefinitely, 19.9% preferred to maintain the status quo and move towards independence (up from 15.1% in 2018) while 8.7% wanted eventual unification (down from 12.8%). A poll conducted at the same time by Hong Kong University found that the number of people who identified only as ‘Hongkongers’ was the highest since the 1997 handover, at 53%. While 23% identified as “Hongkongers in China”, 11% identified as Chinese and 12% as “Chinese in Hong Kong”. These may seem to be subtle differences, but they have consequences. A record 71% said they were not proud of being a national citizen of China, a number that went up to 90% among the 18-29 age group.

China’s leaders believe that the country’s “great rejuvenation”, which Mr. Xi has declared as the “China dream”, will not be complete without Taiwan’s return, for long the holy grail for the Communist Party. They believe the tide of history is on their side, and that the island of 23 million people (roughly the population of Beijing) will inevitably return to the fold.

They may be right, and perceptions can, no doubt, change. Yet, if Beijing wants them to move in a favourable direction, the results have shown it will probably need to offer more than the stability, security, and economic growth that its model promises, when issues of identity and values are involved. At a time when China’s leaders have spoken confidently of offering “the China model” as a solution for the world, what better evidence to offer than show its flexibility when faced with challenges closer to home?

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 6:43:08 PM |

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