The protests in Hong Kong fuel Taiwan’s distrust of China
“ONE country, two systems”, the formula supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, was first devised for Taiwan. But it has never held much appeal there, and China’s refusal to cede to the demands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong comes as no surprise. But the confrontation makes it harder to enthuse Taiwan about unification with the mainland.
Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, elected in 2008, has conjoined Taiwan’s economy ever closer with China’s. The hope in China is that this will pave the way for political unification. But even Mr Ma insists the fiercely democratic island has a right to its own sovereignty. Born in Hong Kong, he has backed the democracy movement there. Speaking on Taiwan’s National Day on October 10th, as honour guards twirled rifles and dancing girls imitated butterflies, he argued that Chinese leaders should make Hong Kong a democratic region separate from the mainland, experimenting with political reform as China did with capitalism when it set up special economic zones in the 1980s.
Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has also backed the Hong Kong protests. The DPP has long wanted a formal declaration of independence for Taiwan from China. These days it is less headstrong, anxious to show voters it can manage relations with the mainland. But its supporters would naturally sympathise with the Hong Kong protesters.
Taiwan’s students in particular are worried about Chinese encroachment. They fear Mr Ma’s business agreements come with political strings, and that ultimately Taiwan will become just another Hong Kong. For this reason, students, in a “sunflower” movement in March, occupied the island’s parliament to protest against a services-trade pact with China. On October 1st around 5,000 people, including high-school students, forsook sunflowers for umbrellas, the symbol of the Hong Kong protests, to wave them at a rally in Taipei.
Among ordinary Taiwanese, however, the protests have had little impact. This may be because they already live in a democracy, and some view China as a foreign country. “It’s fortunate that you don’t see a lot of Taiwanese fighting for Hong Kong, as it shows Taiwanese do not feel close to China,” says Ketty Chen, an aide to the DPP’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen.
Coverage of the protests in Taiwan’s press may also have been a factor. Three papers gave them ample space, but the China Times, owned by Tsai Eng-meng, a pro-China billionaire, played them down. When Hong Kong’s police used tear-gas, Taiwan’s Apple Daily screamed: “Hong Kong is Crying.” Mr Tsai’s China Times ran a front-page story on baseball.
Moreover, the great majority of Taiwanese get their news from television, which at first paid the protests scant attention. One reason for this may be the parochialism that afflicts much of Taiwan’s media. But critics also accuse Taiwan’s television stations of being soft on China, as their owners either have business interests there or wish they did. This accusation has been directed even at a popular DPP-leaning cable-news station owned by Sanlih Entertainment Television, which makes soap operas popular on the mainland. After an angry reaction on social media, the television channels gradually stepped up their coverage of the protests. Even then, says Kuang Chung-hsiang, a media analyst at the National Chung Cheng University, reporting tended to be sensationalist and rarely related the protests back to Taiwan.
Mr Ma’s ruling Nationalist party, the Kuomintang, is expected to do poorly in municipal elections at the end of the year, which will set the stage for a presidential vote in 2016. But this has to do with poor governance, not Hong Kong. Mr Ma, one of the most unpopular elected leaders Taiwan has had, is currently battling the fourth food scandal in three years.
China’s Taiwan policies are also unlikely to change much. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has said the Taiwan problem should not be left to future generations. But George Tsai, of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, who is close to Chinese policymakers, says Mr Xi does not want to add Taiwan to a daunting foreign-policy agenda. “If you bring in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the East China Sea: China has no extra energy for Taiwan,” he says. Mr Xi may have to wait after all.