The Other Island: What Role Will The Taiwanese Election Play In The Hong Kong Protests?

For the last few months, the eyes of the world have been fixated on a small island just off the coast of China. That island, of course, is Hong Kong. Beginning in March, the island city, one of the world’s most important commercial and finance hubs, has been wracked by protests that have captured the imagination of millions in the West as a struggle for freedom and democracy, even creating perhaps the biggest crisis the National Basketball Association has endured in years. Mostly overlooked during this process, however, have been major political events taking place on yet another island off of mainland China’s coast that, in the eyes of China’s ruling Communist Party, is no less a part of their territory than Hong Kong. January 11, 2020 will be the date of Taiwan’s Presidential election. While few in Western media covering Hong Kong have mentioned this, the elections there have as much potential to change the dynamic in Hong Kong, just as the Hong Kong protests have already changed the race on their sister island.

In order to understand Taiwanese politics, one has to begin in 1949, the year that the decades-long Chinese civil war (interrupted by a truce to fight the Japanese in WWII) between the nationalist Kuomintang, led by General Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong’s Communists ended in a Red victory. Chiang and his remaining supporters fled to the island of Taiwan where, bolstered by American political and military support, he maintained his claim to be the legitimate government of China- to this day, the Taiwanese state is known as the Republic of China, and even has seats in its parliament allocated for the mainland provinces. Chiang maintained rule by martial law in Taiwan as a one-party state for the duration of his life, but his son and successor as President, Chiang Ching-Kuo, ended martial law in 1987, shortly before his own death. When the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, that meant necessarily “un-recognizing” (on paper at least) the Republic of China- the latter lost its seat in the United Nations, and officially the United States has no embassy there despite it being one of our closest allies. This is due to the fact that the People’s Republic, while opening up economic ties with the island after Mao’s death, maintains an ironclad political line that there is but one China, of which Taiwan is and forever will be, a province. If Taiwan were to ever drop the pretense of being the Republic of China and declare independence, it would be crossing a red line with Beijing after which all options, including military, would be on the table.

This dynamic has hung over Taiwanese politics ever since the transition to democracy in the 1980s, and defines the split between its two major parties. Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang remains as one of them, only now, in an ironic twist of fate, it is an advocate of friendlier relations and closer ties with the PRC. Opposing the Kuomintang is the Democratic Progressive Party, more liberal and western-leaning, which is nominally pro-independence but has never taken concrete steps towards doing anything about it when in power, for fear of Beijing’s retaliation.

Incumbent President Tsai Ing-Wen is of the Democratic Progressive Party, and prior to the Hong Kong protests, her prospects for reelection were looking grim indeed, with a slumping economy sent her approval ratings downward. The KMT performed relatively well in 2018’s local elections, and their Presidential nominee, Han Kuo-yu, led Tsai in the polls. The Hong Kong protests have turned all of this on its head.

Ever since the protests began, Tsai has latched onto them as the central issue in her campaign, and the results have been promising so far, as she has surged into the lead in polling. The Communist Party has viewed it’s arrangement with Hong Kong- “one country, two systems” wherein Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy compared to the rest of the mainland (it was an extradition bill perceived as curbing that autonomy that sparked the protests)- as a model for eventual reunification with Taiwan, something that PRC President Xi Jinping has continued to forcefully advocate for in both speech and policy. Hong Kong turning into a powder keg has made that prospect seem more unappealing as ever for the majority of Taiwanese, causing many to flock to the DPP.

On its end, Beijing sees Taiwan as affecting the Hong Kong protests, not the other way around, with both the Communist Party and pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong itself taking the line that separatist forces within Taiwan have acted as agents provocateur, and of using blackmail tactics to recruit student activists. Taiwan has, of course, vigorously denied these claims, but it has fostered a belief among the pro-Beijing camp that the Taiwanese election will mark a turning point when, with Tsai less motivated to lean on Hong Kong as a campaign issue, support for the protests will dry up.

Is Taiwan the key pivot point in the Hong Kong protests? Although the role it has played is clear, even if the Kuomintang were to rally and win in January, the protests will almost certainly not disappear because of that. They began due to a homegrown, real concern shared by many Hong Kongers about the erosion of their quasi-autonomous status where they had been able to enjoy both the economic benefits of ties with the mainland, but also a degree of liberalization not shared by the rest of the PRC. Is the leadership of the PRC misguided in believing that the election will cause Taiwan to take a step back? It seems unlikely. Rather, it may be that they are holding back on a larger crackdown out of concern for damaging the KMT’s prospects even more than they already have been. In the long run, Beijing will never give the protesters what they want; the party leadership’s commitment to full reunification, including Taiwan, has been too strong to turn back now. I fear that the Taiwanese election ending will allow Beijing to take the actions against the protesters that it has held back on doing so far, with grave consequences for all involved.