Hong Kong’s anti-government protests loom large in Taiwan election. But who benefits?

Kimmy Chung

“Hong Kong is not far from Taiwan, just the distance of a flight ticket; Taiwan is not far from Hong Kong, just the distance of a ballot.”

That is a popular saying shared online in the two places as Taiwan’s presidential election approaches on Saturday. It resonates with Hong Kong protesters because one of their core demands is for the head of the city’s government to be elected by popular ballot, a system already in place in Taiwan.

For Taiwanese voters, the saying was a timely reminder to return home to cast their vote.

Among those heading back was first-time voter Mrs Kao, a mother of two in her 50s.

Supporters of Han Kuo-yu attend an election campaign in Taipei. Photo: Reuters

“I’ve never voted before, even when I was living in Taiwan. I just did not care and found candidates from both camps were not good enough,” said Kao, who moved to Hong Kong 15 years ago.

For the first time, Kao wanted to make her voice heard even though she had to spend thousands of dollars on flight tickets and take leave from work.

“It is pathetic to see Hong Kong losing its freedoms and democracy. It reminds me that I have to cherish my vote, and safeguard democracy in Taiwan,” she said.

“I don’t want Taiwan to lose its democracy and end up like Hong Kong.”

In her eyes, the choice between incumbent Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and her populist rival, Kaohsiung city mayor Han Kuo-yu from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), was clear.

“Han will lead our path closer to China. The closer to China, the greater the danger for our democracy,” she believed.

The protests in Hong Kong have also led younger voters to support Tsai.

One of them is Natalie Wang – not her real name – who has worked for a retail company in Hong Kong for more than five years.

‘Make the right choice’: the Hongkongers championing democracy ... in Taiwan

Tsai came to power in 2016 by defeating her main rival, Eric Chu Li-lun of the KMT. But thirty-something Wang said she did not go home for that election as she did not think either candidate would make much difference.

“After closely witnessing what has happened in Hong Kong, I understand how politics will affect our lives and I just feel the urge to return home and cast my vote,” Wang said.

The protests, sparked in June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, have since morphed into a wider anti-government movement.

Wang said she joined the massive protests in June, and recalled how “shocking and moving” it was to see a million people taking to the streets in solidarity.

The protests served as a warning sign for Taiwan, she said.

Hong Kong has been rocked by anti-government protests since June. Photo: Kyodo

“Beijing has already suppressed our diplomatic space and reiterated that Taiwan is part of its territory … If a pro-Communist Party candidate wins this time, Taiwan could be the next Hong Kong,” Wang said. “And it would be us handing it over to them, with our own hands.”

KMT candidate Han supports the “1992 consensus” – an understanding that there is only “one China” but with different interpretations of what “China” means. But relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated under Tsai, as Beijing insists the consensus is a prerequisite for dialogue between the two sides, a condition the DPP rejects.

In January, President Xi Jinping, whose administration in Beijing regards Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to reclaim it, proposed that the two sides send representatives for unification talks under the “one country, two systems” model, which already gives limited autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau.

Tsai immediately rejected the proposal, saying no one in Taiwan wanted one country, two systems, given its application in Hong Kong.

Tsai Ing-wen and her main rival Han Kuo-yu. Photo: AFP

Against the backdrop of Xi’s proposal, Tsai has successfully reframed the 2020 poll as a vote to save the island of 23 million people from being annexed by the mainland and people from losing their ability to identify as Taiwanese, according to observers.

Her campaign office on Tuesday released a video, using split screens to compare the daily routines of Taiwanese and the chaotic protest scenes Hongkongers have faced over recent months, giving a strong message to not “let Taiwan be like Hong Kong”.

To Ceci Lin, 30, who has lived in Hong Kong for almost seven years, Tsai’s warning of “Today’s Hong Kong; tomorrow’s Taiwan” has simplified many local factors and history in both places.

Yet Lin, not her real name, conceded the protests prompted her to return home to vote for Tsai, although she grew up in a KMT-supporting family.

“The Hong Kong protests made me more worried about the idea of one country, two systems,” she said.

Taiwan’s repurposed ageing military bunkers

However, Han is not without young supporters.

On Thursday night, his backers joined a mass rally in Taipei, with the organiser estimating the turnout at one million. Among the relatively small contingent of young participants was 28-year-old Joey. He argued that Tsai’s policies would turn Taiwan into an unstable society, like Hong Kong.

“The stronger the stance we hold against Beijing, the tougher the tactics Beijing will come up with in handling cross-strait relations,” he said.

“I am afraid Tsai’s route will only lead us in Hong Kong’s direction.”

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Hong Kong’s anti-government protests loom large in Taiwan election. But who benefits? first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting.