Asia

Watching Hong Kong: Taiwan on guard against China

  • 13 October 2014
  • From the section Asia
A student protester holds an umbrella with messages written on the fabric in front of Liberty Square to show support for Hong Kong pro democracy rallies on 1 October 2014 in Taipei, Taiwan
Image caption In Taiwan, students have rallied in support of the Hong Kong protests, adopting the latter's symbols including the umbrella and yellow ribbons

Hong Kong's Occupy Central demonstrations may be losing steam, but Taiwan's movement to resist China is only intensifying.

While improved ties with China in recent years have been welcomed by many here, others worry about Beijing's growing influence.

Its recent refusal to let Hong Kong decide who can run for chief executive confirms Taiwanese suspicions that China would never allow Taiwan to govern itself if the two sides reunified.

"Relations are now at a low point. It's not just because of Occupy Central. After [Taiwan's] own 18 March movement, people who are suspicious of Beijing have become more of the mainstream," said Kou Chien-wen, a political science professor at National Chengchi University.

"It's an accumulation of the past few years. So many agreements have been signed with China, but the ordinary person's income hasn't increased - of course that has to do with the poor distribution of wealth."

Fears that Taiwan could become another Hong Kong are growing also because China's President Xi Jinping seems more intent on reunifying with the island than his predecessor.

Image caption Thousands of Taiwanese gathered at Taipei's Liberty Square on 1 October in support of Hong Kong's protests. The sign pictured here reads: "Embracing freedom amid wind and rain."

'Reclaiming' territories

Mr Xi, the son of a communist revolutionary who helped found the People's Republic of China, believes China must reclaim territories such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, which were taken by foreign powers when it was weak.

Taiwan is next on the list. Mr Xi has said a final resolution must be reached and the issue cannot be passed down from one generation to another.

"Xi Jinping has indicated his sense of urgency," said Lai Chung-chiang, a lawyer and founder of Taiwan's Occupy Legislative Yuan, which in the spring stopped the legislature from approving a controversial trade deal with China.

"He has hinted that by the two 100th anniversaries - that of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049 and of the formation of the Communist Party of China in 2021 - there should be a certain level of resolution on the Taiwan issue."

Wariness about China is also fuelled by worries that Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, who is seen by many people as favouring eventual unification, is trying to bind the island to the concept that there's only one China, with Taiwan a part of it, before his term ends in 2016.

Taiwan, however, will be much tougher for Beijing to take back. Not only does it have its own military and government, it has a long history of fighting for democracy, dating back to the late 1800s when it resisted Japan's colonial rule.

Taiwanese people later fought one-party rule by the Kuomintang government, after it fled here from China in the late 1940s. Taiwan eventually became a vibrant democracy, enjoying universal suffrage in presidential elections since 1996.

Image caption Mr Ma is seen as favouring eventual reunification with China, but has also called on China to adopt democracy

"If you ask Taiwanese people whether they want to give up their democracy because of economic benefits from China or China's military threat, most people would say no," said Mr Lai.

So far, Beijing's approach to Taiwan seems similar to the one used on Hong Kong - drawing the two closer economically.

China is already Taiwan's biggest trade partner and investment destination, but in recent years, it has also become its top source of tourists. Thousands of Chinese tourists flood into Taiwan daily, boosting the island's economy.

Deals Beijing has signed or hopes to ink would allow Chinese companies to invest in the island's service sector - from convenience stores to advertising - and allow Chinese goods to enter on lower or no tariffs. Taiwan would get the same and more in China.

While some believe such deals are good for Taiwan's economy, others see them as traps. "For them, the purpose of pushing for economic integration is to push for political unification," Mr Lai said.

Operating outside the realm of political parties, but with opposition party and powerful politicians' support, Taiwan's activists were able to do the unthinkable earlier this year - seize the parliament for 24 days and get a government promise to pass a law to allow greater scrutiny of future deals with China.

Talks with China are now stagnating. Next on their list: stop all negotiations with Beijing under Ma and help China-wary candidates win upcoming elections.

They might just succeed. The activists enjoyed nearly 50% public support for their demands for greater scrutiny of government deals with China, according to a government survey, partly because - unlike Hong Kong - they did not disrupt traffic.

Image caption Protesters in Taiwan occupied the legislature from March to early April this year

Democracy suggestion

Beijing may need a new strategy to win over the Taiwanese. The "one country, two systems" formula it used on Hong Kong is unacceptable to the Taiwanese.

President Ma last week suggested an alternative for China: become democratic - starting with Hong Kong.

"Doing precisely this would be a sure-fire way to convert crisis into opportunity. It would definitely be a win-win scenario for both the mainland and Hong Kong, and would be strongly welcomed by the people of Taiwan," Mr Ma said. "Such a course of action would be a huge boost for the development of cross-strait relations."

But even if China becomes democratic, it may not be enough. Unlike Hong Kong people, many Taiwanese don't see the island as a part of China.

Most are descendants of Chinese immigrants who came here way back in the 1600s and 1700s; they have few emotions for China. Some even refer to the ruling party Kuomintang as "occupiers".

"Our goal is to protect Taiwan's political and economic self-determination," said Mr Lai.

So while Hong Kong's protest numbers may be dwindling, for many Taiwanese, the battle has just begun.

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