A merged Chinese-Taiwanese flag. Image: iStock/Getty Images
Taiwan has strict limits on Chinese involvement in Taiwan companies. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

The last six weeks have seen record crowds take to the streets in Hong Kong, first to protest a proposed extradition bill which rights activists argue could allow for both Hongkongers and visitors critical of China to be deported to mainland China for trial.

The massive size of some of the protests (nearly two million protesters out of a population of seven million) and the international media attention they drew eventually led to an apology from Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who declared the legislation “dead,” and reportedly offering her resignation. However, protesters fear the bill may be resurrected. Student leaders are now calling for an independent inquiry into excessive police violence, full amnesty for those arrested, and the removal of Lam from office. And as the demonstrations in Hong Kong continue their relentless pace, the protesters’ message is taking on a wider resonance.

Systems fears

The protests reflect serious concern over due process under China’s judicial system, which saw the detainment of two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, on espionage charges in December, and a death sentence handed down to another Canadian for drug trafficking. Their detentions are thought to be in response to Ottawa’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, wanted in the US on fraud charges, and have drawn international condemnation and the issuance of travel warnings by some countries.

Thanks to social media, photos and videos of the Hong Kong protests have been widely circulated and are proving especially troubling to many Taiwanese, who can foresee facing similar threats to their judicial system and liberties. Meanwhile, Taiwanese who depended solely on “red media,” outlets that are perceived to be influenced by China, were left in the dark for days, as news of the protests was slow to be released.

Taiwanese fears over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposed “one country, two systems” framework for Taiwan were again fueled in January after he refused to rule out the use of force to annex Taiwan in his annual “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” speech. Over the past year, Xi has backed his strong language with shows of force, ordering the circumnavigation of  Taiwan by Chinese naval vessels and aircraft and the carrying out of military exercises not far from Taiwan’s shores. Beijing has long threatened the use of force to annex the de facto independent island, but with its strongest military show yet, Xi’s saber-rattling approach is creating greater consternation among Taiwanese.

Tipping point?

Years of slow economic growth and stagnant wages have led many Taiwanese to place concerns over the economy above those of national sovereignty. But as the military threat from China grows, concerns over sovereignty appear to be putting economic concerns in the shade.  According to an annual poll conducted in March by Taipei research institute Academia Sinica, a majority of respondents now value Taiwan’s sovereignty over economic gains.

The survey asked respondents, “When it comes to cross-Strait exchanges, some people believe that Taiwan’s economic benefits are important, while others believe that Taiwan’s national sovereignty is important. Which one do you think is more important?”

In 2013, when the poll was first conducted, 55% of respondents chose economic benefits over 39% for the nation’s sovereignty; the gap narrowed following the 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, which protested against the policies of economic integration with China adopted by former president Ma Ying-jeou and the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Economic concerns became more prominent after the election of the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party in 2016. According to the academy, the results tend to closely correlate with whichever political party is in power; under the DPP there is typically more concern over the economy.

However, according to the latest survey, this correlation no longer holds true, as 31% of respondents chose economic benefits over the nation’s sovereignty (58%) under DPP rule.

Disillusionment grows

This reversal of priorities started before the Hong Kong protests, driven by Xi’s adoption of an aggressive military and diplomatic posture toward Taiwan.  Further, the slowing of China’s economy (which one professor at Renmin University of China estimates grew at 1.67%) along with an ongoing trade war with the US, may have led many Taiwanese to become less optimistic when looking to China for economic benefits.

The protests in Hong Kong could also lead to a loss of support for the pro-China KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu. Han’s campaign message of “make Taiwan rich” and his recent visit to China have alarmed many who fear he is willing to sacrifice sovereignty for increased investment from China. Likewise, Terry Gou, a potential independent presidential candidate and founder of Foxconn, a major Apple supplier that operates factories in China, could see a similar loss of public support should Gou maintain sizable assets in China.

With the ill-conceived decision of Beijing’s hand-picked Hong Kong chief executive to put forth a controversial extradition bill, China’s leadership has again scored an own goal in its attempts to win the hearts and minds of both Hongkongers and Taiwanese. And with each new blunder by Beijing, Taiwanese voters in 2020 may be further compelled to choose a president who prioritizes sovereignty over wealth.

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