Could Hong Kong protests give Tsai Ing-wen the edge in Taiwan’s presidential race?

Sarah Zheng

Against a carpet of brightly coloured flags and banners supporting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at a rally in Taipei on Sunday, Lumino Chang’s sign stood out. It read: “Free Hong Kong, revolution now.”

The 23-year-old Taiwanese medical worker said he was inundated with photo requests and questions from other Tsai supporters at the event, and even featured on the leader’s Instagram with a caption urging people to continue “bravely and resolutely supporting freedom and Hong Kong”.

“Hong Kong and Taiwan both face Chinese Communist Party repression, so there is some form of revolutionary affection between us,” Chang said.

“If we only care about Hong Kong because it’s related to our interests, it’s a bit too self-interested, but it’s a major factor to help sway the public and convince political figures to care about these issues.”

Ahead of Taiwan’s presidential poll in January, the unrest that has grown from the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has propelled cross-strait relations between Taipei and Beijing to become a central election issue.

Analysts say the Hong Kong factor has bolstered Tsai’s momentum as she prepares to face off against Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, who represents the mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), as the message from her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is focused on defending Taiwan’s national sovereignty.

In contrast, Han has focused on economic and domestic policy issues, with the KMT’s cross-strait policy aimed at easing tensions with Beijing, which has less appeal for many voters, observers say.

Tsai’s latest campaign advertisement makes the assurance that “Taiwan will not become Hong Kong”, while calling on voters to reject the “one country, two systems” model of semi-autonomy in Hong Kong that Beijing has also proposed for Taiwan.

Beijing regards self-governed Taiwan as part of its sovereign territory to be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Han Kuo-yu will represent the mainland-friendly Kuomintang in January’s poll. Photo: EPA-EFE

Elizabeth Larus, an expert on Taiwanese politics at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, the United States, said that in most polls Tsai had a significant lead over Han, bolstered by young voters who supported the Hong Kong protesters.

“The Tsai camp clearly has momentum, while Han appears to be stuck looking for the right message, which is much too late in the campaign cycle,” she said.

Han has been less outspoken on Hong Kong, although he has advocated for genuine universal suffrage in the city and criticised one country, two systems. But both he and his party also support the “1992 consensus” – an understanding that there is only “one China” but with different interpretations of what “China” means.

Relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated under Tsai, as Beijing insists the 1992 consensus is a prerequisite for dialogue between the two sides, a condition the DPP rejects.

Larus said if Taiwan’s voters believed Beijing had stepped away from the “different interpretations” part of the definition, the policy would “not have much marketability for Han’s campaign”.

“Certainly, some of these middle voters will vote for Han because they see him as the candidate least likely to perturb Beijing further and most likely to restore good relations with Beijing, for the sake of Taiwan’s stability, not because they agree with him on the 1992 consensus,” she said.

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Liu Cheng-shan, a political-science professor at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University, agreed that the 1992 consensus no longer resonated with middle voters, adding that Han was struggling to shed his Beijing-friendly image, particularly after a March visit to Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

“The protests have made the Taiwanese people – most of whom were politically sceptical of Beijing to begin with – develop this alertness, which as the situation has developed has turned into nervousness,” he said.

“As the Hong Kong situation has become more tense, Beijing’s hard line has been an obstacle for Han to win over middle voters.”

The DPP and KMT, along with their smaller opponents like the New Power Party, agree that one country, two systems is not tenable in Taiwan, with polls showing more Taiwanese rejecting the model after the tumultuous events in Hong Kong. But the major parties continue to clash on how the relationship with Beijing should be handled.

Hsu Yu-jen, a KMT legislator who has served on the foreign affairs and national defence committee, said the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong had in essence heralded the end of one country, two systems in the former British colony, which Taiwan would not accept. Tsai and the DPP wanted Hong Kong to be “more chaotic as this would be better for them in the elections”, he said.

“Hong Kong has already become one country, one system, showing there is no chance to reach a good outcome in fighting with the Chinese regime. Tsai Ing-wen has been very confrontational against China, and tense cross-strait relations are not good for Taiwan, so we need to find a middle ground that is not confrontation,” he said.

But Hsu said he agreed with the remarks made by Han’s running mate and former Taiwanese premier Chang San-cheng that the KMT’s 1992 consensus needed to be made more relevant.

“Cross-strait policy is very complex,” he said. “We need to have an internal debate on whether we should have the 1992 consensus or some other new idea.”

Taiwan’s main political parties agree that one country, two systems is not tenable. Photo: EPA-EFE

Wang Ting-yu, a DPP lawmaker and chairman of the foreign affairs and defence committee, said the 1992 consensus was essentially the same as one country, two systems, with Beijing and Taipei set for more direct confrontation now that Chinese President Xi Jinping had directly proposed one country, two systems for Taiwan.

“We have realised that dictatorship and democracy cannot coexist, that the experiment of a free democratic system under the higher rule of dictatorship has failed,” he said.

“Taiwan is a country that has had a democracy for many years, with its own economy and military. Hong Kong has already fought them like this – how would Taiwan accept [one country, two systems]? If Taiwan accepts this, it will be the next generation’s tragedy.”

Wang said that while Hongkongers could not vote out their leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the Taiwanese could vote against Xi’s governance proposal to show him it would “not only cost the support of people in Hong Kong, but in many other places as well”.

Medical worker Chang said he would continue to try to make Taiwanese people more aware and understanding of the events in Hong Kong.

“No matter what happens in Hong Kong, everyone has seen the outcome of one country, two systems,” he said.

“We hope their movement will be successful for the sake of the Hong Kong people, but if it really fails, then Beijing’s next target of repression will be Taiwan.”

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