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Opinion

Hong Kong protests inspire Taiwan to amp up resistance to China

Mass demonstrations in Taipei show the young fear unification with the PRC

The protests in Hong Kong which have reverberated around the world have had more impact on Taiwan than anywhere else.

The anxieties they triggered about Beijing's intentions toward Taiwan came to the boil in demonstrations in Taipei. On Sunday June 23, for example, a rally by around 5,000 mostly young people against Hong Kong's controversial extradition bill was followed by a much larger protest involving hundreds of thousands criticizing Chinese influence on Taiwan's media.

They urged the government to take action against the so-called "Red Media," a reference to local outlets purchased by business people with interests in China.

While the Red Media are at the front of the Taiwanese protesters' complaints, the extradition law is clearly not far behind. The fear that Beijing is tightening its grip on the former British colony exacerbates Taiwanese people's fears about their own futures -- and brings Taiwanese and Hong Kongers closer together.

The protests in Taiwan can be traced to the beginning of this year. On January 2, the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Message to the Compatriots in Taiwan, when China urged reunification, China's President Xi Jinping prepared his own Message to the Taiwanese, reiterating the call for unification and putting both Taiwan and the U.S. on high alert.

Xi avoided altogether the previous tacit understanding between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang under the so-called "1992 Consensus" that there was "one China but with two different interpretations." This so-called consensus supposedly left open whether sovereignty rested in the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) or the People's Republic of China and has been used by the Kuomintang as its cross-strait policy platform in past elections.

Instead, Xi emphasized that the principle of "one country, two systems," which already applies to Hong Kong, was the only option for Taiwan. Xi reiterated that "while Chinese do not fight Chinese," Beijing would not forgo the military option if it deemed it necessary.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen pre-empted Xi's message by delivering a strongly worded New Year speech, which clashed with his. She introduced the four "musts" as the crucial foundations determining whether cross-strait relations can develop positively. She demanded China acknowledge the existence of the Republic of China and handle cross-strait differences peacefully and on equal footing.

Tsai's defiance earned her a new nickname: La Tai Mei ("tough Taiwanese girl").

Hong Kong's protests against the bill, which would allow extraditions to mainland China, have had tremendous political and psychological impact on Taiwanese, especially younger people. Youngsters in Taiwan now think that, if one country, two systems is implemented in Taiwan, their freedom of expression and to assemble will be doomed as they think it is in Hong Kong.

Lam Wing-Kee, one of the five Hong Kong booksellers, who disappeared in 2015, only to turn up months later in Chinese custody to "confess" his supposed crime on television, told the crowd at the Taipei Anti-Red Media rally, "If Taiwan is ruled by the mainland in the future, every one of you might have to run for your lives just like me."

For those of us who live in or work in Taiwan, the link between Beijing's hardened stance on Taiwan and Hong Kong's extradition law proposal is quite obvious. Most Taiwanese, including those who vote for the KMT (now in opposition), enjoy the freedom and protection of rights that comes with the democratic system, and there is no desire to give that up.

With a presidential election due early next year, Taiwan's national identity, sovereignty and the extent to which political candidates plan to defend its democratic way of life are the center of debate.

Tsai has declared her views. The KMT, which has long leaned closer to Beijing, is still to make its official position clear, as the five presidential candidates in the party primaries have concentrated on economic issues.

However, they may yet be pushed to refocus on Beijing: a recent survey from Taiwan's Academia Sinica showed most respondents now value sovereignty over economic gains in cross-strait relations. This pro-independence spirit will, in my view, last long after the polls -- for as long as China continues to try to stifle Taiwan.

The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy's 2019 survey, due to be released this month, will echo last year's result, that the overwhelming majority of people -- 73% -- believe that even though democracy is imperfect, they thought it was still the best form of government to live under.

The Taiwanese government is amending legislation to safeguard Taiwan's sovereignty and national security by outlawing "Chinese community surrogates" such as the Red Media, local political parties and civil society organizations that are spreading the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda and participating in official political events organized by the PRC.

In her most recent speech at Columbia University on July 13, during her stopover to visit Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the Caribbean, Tsai reemphasized that the conviction of Taiwanese stands with the young people in Hong Kong, and the "one country, two systems" experience there demonstrated to the world that authoritarianism and democracy cannot coexist in one place.

If Xi sticks with his hard stance toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, it will only drive people in Hong Kong and Taiwan closer together and make it impossible for Beijing to fulfill its hopes of unification.

Ketty W. Chen is vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

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