Taiwan takes a sobering lesson from Hong Kong

As elections loom on Taiwan, the struggle in Hong Kong to keep democracy alive is making Taiwan skeptical of a “one country, two systems” deal of its own with China.

Ann Wang/Reuters
Supporters of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attend a campaign rally in Changhua,Taiwan, Jan. 7.

The world’s fixation on the democratic protests in Hong Kong is playing havoc with China’s effort to woo a nearby neighbor. 

This Saturday Taiwan, the island off the Chinese coast that seven decades ago never succumbed to a takeover by the Communist regime in Beijing, will hold national elections for its president and legislature.

The two leading parties generally disagree on their strategy in dealing with their gigantic nearby neighbor. The sitting president, Tsai Ing-wen, and her Democratic Progressive Party have taken a relatively hard line against reunification with the mainland. Her chief opponent, Han Kuo-yu, represents the Kuomintang party, which takes a warmer view toward relations with Beijing.

Mr. Han had been doing well in polls, but since last summer as the democratic protests in Hong Kong captured world headlines, his stock has fallen severely. Ms. Tsai now has a comfortable lead in polls.

The concept of “one country, two systems” was meant not only to assure Hong Kong that its democratic government would remain when it transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997. It was also meant to entice Taiwan, another prosperous democracy, to voluntarily join with China in a similar fashion.

Now some Hong Kong protesters are fleeing to Taiwan to avoid prosecution and telling their personal stories, giving the people of Taiwan a close-up view of that struggle. 

The idea that Beijing could point Taiwan to Hong Kong as a positive example of “one country, two systems” at work is a failed strategy, at least for now. A recent magazine survey in Taiwan found that 90% of respondents said China’s “two systems” model would not work for their island.

In her campaign President Tsai has used the slogan “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” as an overt warning to voters. In a recent debate she quoted a letter from a Hong Kong resident that included the line, “I ask Taiwan’s people not believe the Chinese Communists.”

The election has also seen its own use of disinformation and “fake news.” How much may be coming directly from the Chinese government is unclear. 

In one case a fake notice on social media purporting to be from the Taiwan government falsely said it was deporting protesters who arrived from Hong Kong. Another claimed President Tsai’s doctoral dissertation from the London School of Economics was a fake, even though the school itself confirmed it was legitimate.

The government has warned the public that such efforts are underway, and social media companies like Facebook and Google have promised to be more vigilant. 

As Taiwan has emerged in recent decades as a fully functioning democracy, it has found itself waffling back and forth in its attitude toward Beijing. Should it keep relations warm and allow China to woo it with incentives aimed at moving opinion on the island toward political union? Or should Taiwan make clear that it has chosen a different path and will look to its future by developing stronger relationships with other Asian nations such as Japan and the countries of Southeast Asia? 

At the moment, Hong Kong’s struggles under Chinese rule are making that an easy choice.

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