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Hong Kong democrats find a deeper resonance in Taiwan's orderly election

Democratic example

Taiwan freely elected its first female president in last weekend's election which was closely watched in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory under Chinese rule. 

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    Hong Kong student journalists take a photograph in front of a poster of Democratic Progress Party, DPP, presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (l.) and her running mate Chen Chien-jen, at the party headquarters in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 14, 2016.
    Chiang Ying-ying/AP
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In the weeks ahead of Taiwan’s Jan. 16 elections, Yueng Wen estimates that “nearly half” his student friends went from Hong Kong to Taipei. They watched, participated, tweeted and got to know every detail of the voting, which saw Taiwanese elect their first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, and deliver a knockout blow to the long-ruling Nationalist Party (KMT).

Mr. Wen, a slender graduate student at Hong Kong University, took part in mass protests in 2014 to demand free and fair elections in this former British colony. Like many residents, he worries that Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, is losing its distinct identity and freedoms as Beijing asserts tighter control.

“We really appreciate the Taiwan elections,” Wen says. “I am skeptical of both political camps there and it would take me 30 minutes to tell you why. But what we appreciate is choice. Taiwanese have a real choice, and we in Hong Kong do not.”

Recommended: China's rocky relationship with Hong Kong: 10 key moments

For years, Hong Kong and Taiwan have lived in largely separate realms and have not paid much attention to each other. Beijing has not encouraged any official ties between the two entities, one of which it rules under special laws of autonomy (Hong Kong), and one of which it claims (Taiwan). Hong Kong chief executives do not visit Taiwan; official traffic from Taiwan to Hong Kong has mostly included city mayors.

Yet in the past three years, youth in Hong Kong and Taiwan are being drawn together, online and in person, by shared interests that revolve around Chinese politics and their own future. They are meeting, holding conferences, and for the first time sharing insights into how their own leaders are dealing with superpower China.

 In Hong Kong last weekend one of the most-read tweets came from Taiwanese rocker-turned-politician Freddy Lim: “Don’t let Taiwan’s future be like Hong Kong’s present.”

Mr. Lim’s politics emerged out of Taiwan’s student-led “Sunflower movement” that staged a weeks-long sit-in in 2014 of government buildings in Taipei to protest trade deals with China that the KMT was trying to enact in ways that students said lacked transparency. His political party, formed in November, now holds five seats in that legislature.

In Hong Kong, Taiwan’s elections came amid fears over the apparent abduction of five members of a publishing firm and bookstore that specializes in gossipy accounts of Chinese politics. One was later paraded on Chinese TV making a confession. The Global Times, a hawkish Chinese newspaper, commented that it was “not only reasonable but legal” to investigate the company because it had undermined China’s “rule of law system.” 

'One country, two systems'

The "one country two systems" formula by which China has ruled Hong Kong since 1997 was initially conceived as the formula by which China would someday govern Taiwan, according to Hong Kong University law professor Michael Davis.

“China’s heavy handed policies – the abduction of the bookseller is one example – are driving Hong Kong and Taiwan into each other’s arms,” says Prof. Davis, who is active in human rights and democracy groups. “For Taiwanese it says, look at what “one country two systems” actually looks like. We don’t want any part of it.”

For the democratic camp in Hong Kong that seeks freer elections including a direct vote for its leader, Taiwan’s orderly and peaceful election serves as a counter to the Chinese Communist Party’s oft-stated message that democracy breeds instability. 

“I would sum up the victor of Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan with one word – hope,” says Margaret Ng, a former barrister and prominent pro-democrat.

She said that after working for decades for greater self-rule, many pro-democrats in Hong Kong had lost hope as China blocked reforms. “Our feeling is that if things can change in Taiwan they can change here. That isn’t a rational feeling or easily analyze-able, if you will. But it is inspiring … for us to see the youth from the Sunflower movement and the [Umbrella] movement working together.”

A new generation 

Lau Yui Siu, a veteran commentator for Hong Kong radio, who has traveled back and forth between Hong Kong and Taiwan for decades, notes that 98 percent of Taiwanese voters today are not from mainland China and as result don't remember first hand the Chinese civil war that birthed modern Taiwan. 

“Most Taiwanese now no longer feel a close link to the mainland, the youth can’t relate to the decisions of Beijing,” he says.

This year, Mr. Lau brought university media class, including nearly a dozen Chinese students, to observe the Taiwan elections. He says the experience was eye opening. 

“For the mainland students it was surprising that they saw many in their generation expressing their feelings and their viewpoints without fear and worry. We gathered in [Tsai Ing-wen’s] Taipei headquarters the night of the election victory with balloons and partying and people acting happy crazy until midnight. That wouldn’t happen in China.” 

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