Tea Leaf Nation

‘Today’s Hong Kong, Today’s Taiwan’

‘Today’s Hong Kong, Today’s Taiwan’

As protesters calling for universal suffrage continue to fill streets in downtown Hong Kong, some in Taiwan — which has its own government and military, but which mainland China considers a rogue province — have noticed. That’s because China’s constitution contemplates "reunifying the motherland," meaning that China’s own reunion with once-colonial Hong Kong arguably provides a template for how it might approach Taiwan in the future. Below, Lin Fei-fan, a leader of the student protesters who occupied the Taiwanese legislature in March to protest passage of a Taiwanese trade pact with the mainland, shares his reaction to recent events. Foreign Policy translates. 

TAIPEI — Since Sept. 22, the Hong Kong Federation of Students has initiated a Hong Kong-wide university student class boycott, the Hong Kong high school student organization Scholarism has organized a high school student class boycott beginning Sept. 26, and Occupy Central movement leaders announced the launch of that movement early on the morning of Sept. 27. Hong Kong police immediately followed with two days of strong repression and attempts to disperse the protesters. The overly forceful response by Hong Kong police on Sept. 28 — including the use of riot police, pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets — only served to attract even greater international attention. 

Many Taiwanese watching Hong Kong have repeated the slogan, "Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan." But over the past several days, many friends from Hong Kong have told me that they believe "Today’s Hong Kong, today’s Taiwan" is a more suitable slogan. That is because the relationship between Taiwan and Hong Kong is close, and our respective plights are linked. Even though differences exist in the historical development of their relationship to the mainland, as well as their social contexts, Hong Kong and Taiwan both face enormous pressure from China’s rise, and their respective fates thus intersect. 

In 1996, Taiwan held its first presidential election, marking a new democratic milestone. The next year, Hong Kong stepped into an entirely different fate when its sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China. With such markedly different types of development, why do Taiwan and Hong Kong have such a close relationship in 2014? It doesn’t matter if it’s the speech used in their respective movements, or the measures adopted by the movements. During the Sunflower Movement in March, Taiwan’s activists yelled, "It’s our country, we will save it; it’s our future, we will decide it." Hong Kong activists have cried, "I protect my city; we decide our own fate." I believe the key reason for this similarity is that "China factors" have created similar crises in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. China uses its massive capital and economic power as well as its military strength to engage in political interference and expansion towards other countries and regions, directly or indirectly eroding their foundations for democracy and freedom. 

The sphere of influence from these China factors is by no means limited to China’s neighboring countries; we can clearly see the gradual increase of China’s influence even in Europe and the United States. But it is certain that the East Asian countries and regions close to China experience the pressure of China’s rise first, and most directly. And bearing the brunt of this pressure are Hong Kong and Taiwan, both facing an essentially unified set of integrated measures. The main goal of the "one country, two systems" policy by which China governs Hong Kong is to provide a template for Taiwan, but the developments of recent years clearly show China placing increasingly tight restrictions on Hong Kong’s self-governance. It’s not just that China has reneged on its promise that Hong Kong’s system would remain "unchanged for 50 years." A more serious problem is that conflicts within Hong Kong society have proliferated. The wealth disparity there cannot be solved via existing structures, and the huge influx of mainland tourists, as well as mainlanders who become Hong Kong residents, have also created even more social problems. Taiwan faces similar concerns. We have seen that Taiwan and the Chinese government have signed a number of trade agreements exposing Taiwan to industrial outsourcing, falling salaries, increases in the disparity between rich and poor, national security risks, and other crises.   

Yet these are not the only factors that have bound together the fates of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In addition to the pressure from "China factors" that both regions face, China’s respective policies towards Hong Kong and Taiwan are interconnected. I believe that the white paper that China recently issued in June regarding "one country, two systems," which made clear that "one country" was more important than "two systems," was a pledge not just to the people of Hong Kong, but also a call to Taiwan. And the speech that Chinese President Xi Jinping gave on Sept. 28 in Beijing about cross-strait unification once again emphasized that "one country, two systems" would remain China’s guiding principle in its relations with Taiwan. This was not only an appeal to Taiwan; it was also a wake-up call for Occupy Central.   

A crucial question is this: How will we face the continued pressure from China’s inexorable rise? I believe that as the attempts by Western countries to stem China’s growing political influence among its East Asian neighbors have proven weak, and as Taiwan and Hong Kong’s democratic mechanisms are in trouble, the civil societies of Taiwan and Hong Kong have become crucial lines of defense. We should work hard to further integrate the civil societies of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even other East Asian nations, using grassroots democracy, grassroots society, and political organizing to build a line of defense to deter China, in response to the even grimmer China threat to come. 

Translation by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian