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Opinion

Taiwan-Hong Kong solidarity will be a thorn in China's side

Protesters went to Taipei to learn how to run free democratic elections

| Taiwan
Hong Kong protesters hold a banner to ask for the support during Tsai's campaign event in Taipei on Jan. 10: Tsai may come under pressure to provide legal support for Hong Kong refugees in Taiwan.   © Reuters

"Taiwan, let's go! Hong Kong, let's go!" These chants rang out in the streets of Taipei in the hours after Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen was reelected in a historic victory on January 11. Tsai's supporters were joined in celebration by visiting Hong Kongers, marching together with five fingers in the air to represent the five demands from the Hong Kong protests.

This growing solidarity between Taiwan and Hong Kong will be a headache for the Chinese Communist Party. In recent months, successive electorates that are claimed by China have exercised their vote in support of an alternative vision to President Xi Jinping's.

First it was the record turnout at Hong Kong's District Council elections in support of pro-democracy candidates. And in Taiwan, it was a presidential election where a record number of voters were convinced by Tsai's anti-authoritarian message.

Beijing has doubled down on its hard line, by imposing restrictions on the ability of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese to interact. Democracy activist Joshua Wong and other senior figures from the political party Demosisto were refused permission to leave Hong Kong to observe the Taiwanese elections. Another, Lily Wong, was arrested at Hong Kong airport on her way to Taiwan for the election.

But the paradox of Xi's China is that attempts to force both Hong Kong and Taiwan closer to Beijing have had the opposite effect and will be a thorn in his side for some time to come.

The paradox of Xi's China is that attempts to force both Hong Kong and Taiwan closer to Beijing have had the opposite effect.   © Reuters

Historically, Taiwan and Hong Kong have little in common. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, whereas Taiwan has been technically independent since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Hong Kong was incorporated into China during the Qin Dynasty (221-206BC), but it was almost 1,900 years later, after indigenous, Dutch and Spanish migration and colonization, that Taiwan was first annexed by China in 1683.

Today, Taiwan has transitioned to a robust democracy with direct elections to choose its leaders. Hong Kong, with its legislative council and chief executive nomination committee weighted toward pro-Beijing candidates, has not.

A year ago, Xi reiterated his intention to unify Taiwan and China through the "one country, two systems" framework which now applies in Hong Kong. The majority of Taiwanese already had a long-standing opposition to both unification and one country, two systems, but the Hong Kong crisis that broke out in June 2019 provided an opportunity for Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party to reframe the election campaign as a fight against authoritarianism.

The Hong Kong protests played a role throughout Taiwan's election season. Since the protests started, Hong Kongers have flooded into Taiwan, some seeking refuge from the long arm of the Hong Kong Police Force, others engaging in democracy tourism: visiting Taiwan's election and government headquarters to learn more about democratic politics and campaigning.

The day after Tsai was reelected, she posted on Instagram a photograph of a "Liberate Hong Kong" black flag. "Over the last six months, many young people from Hong Kong have been holding signs and flags across Taiwan to remind Taiwanese people about what's taking place in Hong Kong," Tsai wrote. "On the night before the election, I said the world is watching Taiwan defend our fortress of democracy. Friends from Hong Kong, did you bear witness?"

Another campaign video from Tsai compared Taiwan's peaceful life with that of Hong Kong over the last six months, generating hundreds of thousands of shares across social media platforms. "I cried after watching the video," wrote one Hong Konger on YouTube. "I hope you can safeguard the free and democratic lifestyle in Taiwan."

The success of Tsai's approach is demonstrated in part by the number of people who split their ballots in the election, with many Taiwanese voting for Tsai but not the legislative candidates or parties endorsed by her.

Now that the dust is settled on the election, Tsai may come under pressure to provide legal support for Hong Kong refugees in Taiwan. Demosisto's Jeffrey Ngo said: "Hong Kongers know that under Tsai Ing-wen's administration, they won't be sent back to Hong Kong if they decide to flee to Taiwan... The DPP has already done so much for our movement and I think the reelection of Tsai has been an inspiration for us."

Xi's abject policy failures have not prompted a rethink in Beijing: the domestic pressures to appear tough on Hong Kong and Taiwan are a far higher priority than readjusting ineffective policy. The knee-jerk official responses to Tsai's reelection closely mirrored language used about the Hong Kong protests, with officials frequently resorting to blaming foreign forces for the unrest.

If Beijing remains indifferent to wave of public opinion shifting against it in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, it will have to get used to the rallying cry of the past six months: "Today's Hong Kong, Tomorrow's Taiwan."

Natasha Kassam is a Research Fellow with the Diplomacy and Public Opinion Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. William Yang is the East Asia Correspondent for Germany's DW News.

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