As the Hong Kong protests rumble on, Taiwan watches with concern
In a stuffy pedestrian underpass near National Taiwan University in Taipei, a Lennon Wall was recently mounted in response to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Inspired by the Lennon Walls that appeared during the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the iteration in Taipei’s Gongguan district has many of the same features: messages of encouragement scribbled on colourful post-it notes, posters condemning police violence and intimidation of journalists, and appeals for support from the international community.
On one side, the post-it notes cover the entire wall, from floor to ceiling. But beneath the colourful veneer there’s an ominous message: “今日香港，明日台灣。” – “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan.”
Since the onset of protests in Hong Kong, a number of Lennon Walls supporting the movement have popped up around Taipei. Their function is dual. On one level, there is sympathy for those protesting and the heavy-handed policing they have been subjected to, but on another, there is also concern for Taiwan’s own future. Many in Taiwan fear that the instability seen in Hong Kong under the ‘one country, two systems’ model – the same one under which Beijing has promised to reunify Taiwan – could erupt here too.
The sensitivity of Taiwan to China stems from the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, Taiwan was politically separated from China when the Kuomintang (KMT) fled the mainland to Taiwan to avoid imminent defeat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The KMT planned on using the island as a temporary base from which to reclaim the entirety of China. At the onset of the Korean War, US naval intervention in the Taiwan Strait produced the political stalemate which remains in place today.
Much of the CCP’s legitimacy since 1949 has been predicated on its ability to reunify the Chinese nation. It finally achieved this with Hong Kong in 1997, but Taiwan remains the last territory still in the hands of an illegitimate government (i.e. non-CCP authority). For this reason, appeals for greater democracy in Hong Kong, or a formal declaration of Taiwanese independence, are among the most sensitive issues in Chinese politics.
In the past few weeks, the same group behind the Lennon Wall in Gongguan, Taiwan with Hong Kong, have been organising weekly protests in conjunction with those taking place in Hong Kong. This Sunday, despite temperatures close to 40 degrees, the group held one of the largest rallies so far, as over 300 came to Taipei’s Huashan Park.
In a nod to ‘Liberty Leading the People’, some attendees took turns standing for photos holding a large black flag which lauded the “revolution of our times”, the same flag has shown up in pictures from the sit-in in Hong Kong International Airport. Others carried posters on which songzhong “反送中” was painted, the slogan of those opposed to the controversial extradition bill that sparked the protests in Hong Kong earlier this year.
The culmination of the rally saw the 300 or so gathered placed in a large human formation, which from above read: “Free Hong Kong”. Hu Chih-hsi, who works at the Judicial Reform Foundation Taiwan, was helping arrange the people. She told me that it was important for Taiwanese people to openly support the demonstrations in Hong Kong.
“Nowadays, Taiwanese people really feel the threat from China,” she said.
“Taiwanese believe that ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong is actually a demonstration from Beijing to the Taiwanese people. Now, its apparent that it doesn’t work [in Hong Kong]. We know that ‘one country, two systems’ won’t work in Taiwan as well.”
Taiwan’s tense relationship with China remains the central cleavage in its domestic politics, and is known known as the ‘pan-green’ – ‘pan-blue’ divide. ‘Pan-green’ parties, of which the Democratic Progressive Party of the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is the largest, encompass positions more favourable to full Taiwanese independence. ‘Pan-blue’ parties, of which the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) is the largest, are viewed as more pro-Beijing.
The interference of Beijing in the Taiwanese media, particularly those considered to be biased toward ‘Pan-blue’ parties, recently boiled over into scandal, after the Financial Times reported on the widespread Chinese influence within their organisations. After its publication, the Want Want media group, sued both the Financial Times and the journalist that wrote the story.
As events in Hong Kong were catalysed by issues that are also central to Taiwan’s political landscape – the relationship to CCP power and demands for greater democracy – the response of political leaders has been watched closely by the public.
In July, the official Twitter account of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) posted a video which showed violent clashes on the city’s metro system, riot police charging at protestors, and streets cloaked in tear gas. Superimposed upon the video was written: “This is Hong Kong of ‘one country, two systems’. Do you want a Taiwan of ‘one country, two systems’? Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan. Condemn violence. Protect democracy.”
The video stopped short of equating voting against the DPP in the presidential election next January with inviting a Taiwan of ‘one country, two systems’, but the implication was apparent. Last month, President Tsai strengthened her own position on Hong Kong by saying that “friends from Hong Kong” would be considered for asylum in Taiwan on “humanitarian grounds”.
Conversely, further back in June, Han Guo-yu (韓國瑜), the presidential candidate for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), attracted criticism after claiming he didn’t know anything about the “parade” happening in Hong Kong. The following day, the Kaoshiung City Government Bureau, where Han is currently the mayor, released a six-point statement in response to the deluge of criticism. A section of the fifth point stated that, “The overwhelming majority of Taiwan people believe that Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’, whether successful or unsuccessful, is not applicable to Taiwan.”
Despite this attempt at re-assurance, many still consider Han’s response to be lacklustre and are worried what victory for him in the presidential election will mean for Taiwan’s future political autonomy.
Michelle Wu (吳奕柔), who also spoke at the rally in Huashan Park, encapsulated this uncertainty. “The circumstances faced by Hong Kong, is the same faced by Taiwan,” she outlined. “Whether it’s in international society, in Taiwan…or in international organisations, we have all been affected by the influence of China.”
Taiwan with Hong Kong plan to hold the rallies for as long as protests in Hong Kong go on. Given the incongruence between protestors demands and the bottom lines of the Beijing authorities, the unrest could continue for months to come. However, any of those attending the rally in Taipei on Sunday hope for one thing in particular; that in observing events in Hong Kong, they are not looking into Taiwan’s own future.