'We want this': Hong Kong election tourists join Taiwan rallies

Jerome TAYLOR, Yan ZHAO
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Ahead of the elections, Hong Kongers have become an increasingly common sight at incumbent Tsai Ing-wen's rallies

At a raucous election rally for Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, Hong Konger Karen Leung surveyed the huge crowd of excited flag-waving voters as a rap song blasted over the loudspeakers and sighed: "We want to have elections like this."

Leung is one of scores of Hong Kong election tourists who have travelled to Taiwan this week to witness something denied to them -- universal suffrage.

Tsai, who is seeking a second term, has repeatedly invoked the seven months of pro-democracy protests engulfing the financial hub as a warning call for what might happen should Beijing succeed in its wish to one day take control of Taiwan.

Her opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party favours warmer ties with China, but has also promised to defend the island's freedoms.

In the days running up to Saturday's presidential and parliamentary elections, Hong Kongers have become an increasingly common sight at Tsai's rallies.

"I feel like there is hope here (in Taiwan)," Leung, a 26-year-old accountant, told AFP after getting a tote bag stamped with Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests slogans at a booth on the sidelines of Tsai's final rally on Friday night.

"Taiwan has its freedom and they are standing up to China," she added.

Hong Kong's democracy activists have long maintained close ties with Taipei, an island that transitioned from decades of dictatorship into one of Asia's most liberal democracies.

But months of violent pro-democracy protests in the city has intensified Taiwanese interest -- as debate rages about how close to tack to its giant authoritarian neighbour.

The phrase "Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan" has become a popular slogan among supporters of Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

- Long struggle -

Kyle, a 26-year-old Hong Konger at Tsai's Friday night rally, said he took inspiration from how Taiwan shook off its own dictatorship under Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek and also have resisted pressure from Beijing's communist leadership.

"The people of Taiwan bled and even sacrificed their lives until they had democracy," he said.

"In Hong Kong, we only have struggled for several years in fighting for democracy, so there is no reason for us to give up so quickly."

The island does not recognise the concept of asylum. But under Tsai's administration, officials have turned a blind eye to dozens of Hong Kongers who have fled there -- and Taiwanese supporters have also sent gas masks and helmets to protesters.

"The movement in the past year has brought Hong Kong and Taiwan closer," Ivy, a 36-year-old social worker who travelled from the city, told AFP.

"Taiwan has helped Hong Kong. They didn't drive away the Hong Kong youngsters who fled our city," she said at the Tsai rally.

A smattering of the financial hub's flag and pro-demonstration slogans have now become commonplace at Tsai's rallies.

When Tsai appeared at a Thursday night rally, the crowd shouted the popular protest chant: "Free Hong Kong, revolution of our times."

Some Taiwanese have even dressed up as protesters from the restive city.

A 19-year-old, who gave his surname Lu, was greeting participants draped in a pro-democracy Hong Kong flag and wearing a yellow construction helmet -- a symbol of the city's protests -- and holding a placard urging young people to vote.

"I'm showing my support for the Hong Kong frontline protesters who are fighting the police," he said. "I am worried that what's happening in Hong Kong could happen in Taiwan."