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The ripple effect of the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests on Taiwan politics

Taiwan international solidarity rally in support of Hong Kong anti-China extradition protests on June 16. Photo taken by Benson Tsang. Used with permission.

It may not be surprising to learn that recent demonstrations in Hong Kong against proposed amendments to local extradition laws have had a significant impact on Taiwan. The events triggered a number of solidarity rallies, in which many expressed the fear that Taiwan could suffer a similar fate to Hong Kong if it were to revert to Chinese control.

The majority of Taiwanese mainstream media are aligned with the pan-Blue (pro-Kuomintang) coalition and, given their perceived tendency to downplay negative news about mainland China, have not given extensive coverage to the Hong Kong protests. The massive protests on June 9, however, followed by the two-million-strong demonstrations on June 16, did capture the attention of a majority of Taiwanese.

Taiwanese also participated in international solidarity rallies against the Hong Kong extradition law. For seven consecutive days following June 9, Taiwanese civil society groups, including former Sunflower Movement activists, church groups, socialist organizations, Hong Kongers resident in Taiwan, Taiwanese residents of Japan and Democratic Progessive Party spokespersons, took turns to host rallies. The largest mobilization thus far has been the rally on June 16 organized by a new  coalition of NGOs called the Taiwan Citizens’ Front. It attracted 10,000 participants.

Protest against “red capital” in Taiwan media industry on June 24. Photo from Facebook page: Impolite TW (Attributive)

Also resonating with the Hong Kong solidarity protests was the massive rally against Beijing's influence in Taiwanese media on June 24. The event attracted 100,000 participants, a sign that organizers and protesters have taken the deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong since the handover to China in 1997 as a forewarning for Taiwanese society.

The situation in Hong Kong seems to have forced politicians from the Kuomintang (KMT) party to backtrack on political statements in which they have advocated the implementation of a “One Country, Two Systems” in Taiwan similar to Hong Kong's.

Taiwan has been a de-facto self-ruling state since 1949, when the KMT was defeated in the Chinese Civil War and subsequently relocated to the island. In 1992, the KMT signed a “One China” consensus with Beijing, in which both parties have agreed that both mainland China and Taiwan constitute a single country—but interpretations of what that consensus entails are strongly disputed.

In Chinese president Xi Jinping's 2019 new year address on cross-strait relations in January, he reaffirmed that “One Country, Two Systems” is the framework for the unification of Taiwan with China under the 1992 “One China, with different representations” consensus. Though the KMT stressed that Taiwanese people are not ready to accept the implementation of “One Country, Two Systems”, it continues to embrace the “One China” consensus, and did not deny the “Two Systems” framework in principle.

Yet the fallout in Taiwan after protests in Hong Kong has led KMT presidential contenders, including Eric Chu, Terry Gou and Han Kuo-yu, to reverse course and state that they would never allow “One Country, Two Systems” to be implemented in Taiwan.

This reversal was perhaps most dramatically visible in the case of Han Kuo-yu, the current KMT mayor of Kaohsiung municipality and a potential KMT candidate in the 2020 president election. Han has built a reputation for being “pro-China”, openly expressing his support for “One-China” Consensus and vowing to develop closer trade relations with China by attracting Chinese investment. In March, during a trip to Hong Kong, he met with the director of Hong Kong’s Beijing Liaison Office Wang Zhimin in a manner that circumvented normal diplomatic channels.

Even after the one million-strong anti-extradition rally in Hong Kong, Han has refused to comment on China's policy in Hong Kong, claiming that he “didn’t know” about the Hong Kong protests.

However, after Terry Gou, another potential KMT president candidate, publicly denounced “One Country, Two systems”, Han reversed course and claimed that system would only be implemented in Taiwan “over my dead body” — an expression originally attributed to DPP city councilor Wang Shi-jian during the Sunflower Movement, the massive 2014 protests against the KMT's trade bill that proposed turning Taiwan into a China free-trade zone.

The sudden reversals of course by Han and other KMT candidates on the issue of “One Country, Two Systems” is likely an election strategy rather than a sincere political choice—a reaction to the ripple effect of Hong Kong anti-China extradition protests. In fact, an uptick in election polling ratings for current president Tsai Ing-wen, as well as her victory in the DPP presidential primary over former premier William Lai, have also been attributed to the influence of protests in Hong Kong. Tsai has been taking Hong Kong as a reference to the future of Taiwan, stressing in a speech on June 10 that:

一國兩制對台灣來說,是絕對不能接受的。一旦接受一國兩制,我們就會失去捍衛自由、民主與人權的權利,也會失去選擇自己未來的權利。

我也要呼籲台灣人民繼續關注香港的發展,一起來撐香港,也一起來保衛台灣。

Taiwan could never accept One Country Two Systems. Once we accept the framework, we will lose our rights to defend freedom and democracy, we will lose our rights to decide on our future.
I want to urge Taiwanese people to pay attention to Hong Kong's development, to support Hong Kong and to defend Taiwan.

The political circumstance that has led to the swing in public opinion is similar to the spike in popular support for Tsai after Xi Jinping's new year speech on cross-strait relations.

On the other side of the coin, the public denunciation of “One Country, Two Systems” by the pro-China KMT could also generate a ripple effect in Hong Kong, as Beijing would now be well aware that its policy on Hong Kong is not just about the city, but has greater implications for its “One China” dream.

Currently, the extradition bill has yet to be fully withdrawn in Hong Kong. Periodic waves of protests continue. Though the Hong Kong government shows few signs of backing down, it has been noted that public appearances by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam have become increasingly rare in the past weeks. It is obvious that Beijing has softened its grip on Hong Kong for the moment, but the course of future events in Hong Kong still looks uncertain.

For more about Hong Kong's anti-China extradition protest, visit Global Voices’ special coverage page.

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