Published:  12:32 AM, 12 January 2020

Hong Kong repression pushes Taiwan away from China

The repercussions of protest and unrest can stretch across borders. Events during 2019 have reshaped Taiwanese perceptions towards China and the so-called 'one-country, two systems' in Hong Kong.

The arrangement - which theoretically allows a 'local government' to retain its political and economic autonomy - was first promulgated by Deng Xiaoping. In January 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear he intends to push Taiwan towards unification under this framework.

Hong Kong is experimenting with the viability of 'one country, two systems' - and the aggressive government response to civilian protests has made many in Taiwan worry that the system is simply a facade of Chinese authoritarianism.

The Taiwanese public is growing unsupportive of such a political arrangement as well as other proposals for unification with China. An October 2019 poll conducted by the Mainland Affairs Council in Taiwan found that nearly 90 per cent of respondents opposed the 'one country, two systems' formula.

What is telling is that the percentage of disapproval had increased by almost 15 percentage points over the same poll in January 2019. More than half of respondents also believed that 'one-country, two systems' had failed in Hong Kong.

The protests in Hong Kong have led more Taiwanese citizens to reject eventual political reunification with China. In August 2019, the Center for China Studies at National Taiwan University published a survey indicating that the percentage of the public favoring unification had dropped from around 36 per cent in 2018 to 23 per cent in 2019 - ending a four-year spike in the number of pro-unification supporters. Another survey conducted by National Chengchi University in 2019 reported similar findings.

The rejection of unification corresponds to a surge in pro-independence attitudes. Even the pro-China think tank, the Taiwan Competitiveness Forum, reported record numbers of citizens supporting independence and identifying themselves as Taiwanese in their October 2019 survey. This was also the first survey conducted by the think tank that showed more citizens seeing themselves as Taiwanese than Chinese.

Given the think tank's political leaning, there is reason to believe that the report may have underestimated public support for independence. A survey conducted in 2019 by the Mainland Affairs Council supports this conjecture - the percentage of citizens who prefer 'immediate independence' reached its highest level (around 26 per cent) since 2014.

Shifting political attitudes are also leading citizens to reconsider Taiwan's foreign policy priorities. In a small country that relies on trade, economic issues have long been at the front of people's policy concerns. But the protests in Hong Kong have significantly changed that.

In a survey on China's influence by the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica in March, more people in Taiwan placed the importance of national security above economic benefit (58.3 per cent and 31.3 per cent respectively) when it comes to Taiwan's relations with China. This was the first time respondents had given top priority to national security since the survey was initiated.

Protests in Hong Kong are strengthening negative public perceptions of China in Taiwan. This is leading to a shifting dynamic in cross-strait relations that has manifested in incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen's growing momentum in the lead-up to the January 2020 elections. Developments in Hong Kong have motivated many to frame the election as a mission to secure Taiwan's democratic way of life. Tsai and her pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party appear the beneficiaries of the protests, despite an electoral debacle in the 2018 midterm elections surrounding domestic issues and criticisms of her policies.

Whether Beijing's image continues to worsen in the minds of the Taiwanese public will depend, among other things, on how China responds to unrest in Hong Kong. One thing is clear. Continuing to use violence to crack down on the protests might quell the resistance movement in the short term, but it will ultimately distance China from citizens in both Taiwan and Hong Kong. The public in Taiwan, as Beijing must know, is watching Hong Kong closely.

Fang-Yu Chen is a PhD candidate in political science at Michigan State University. Austin Wang is Assistant Professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Charles K S Wu is a PhD candidate in political science at Purdue University. Yao-Yuan Yeh is Assistant Professor of international studies.
Courtesy: East Asia Forum

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