There has been a change in tone of Taiwan’s official support to the Umbrella Movement but it might have little to do with defending democratic value but a political and diplomatic move.
2014 has seen two significant civil disobedience movements in the Greater China region. First in Taiwan the Sunflower Movement and now the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Both were initiated by students and have galvanised a worldwide attention. One of the student leaders of the Sunflower Movement, Chen Wei-ting, was denied access to Hong Kong in late June for the annual march on July 1st. Neither he nor another student leader, Lin Fei-fan, make the trip to support the Umbrella Movement this time. Diplomatic ties with China have restrained Taiwan’s response to mostly verbal support, and even that did not come explicitly on the Umbrella Movement. The original effort was to pave way for the Ma-Xi summit in conjunction with the APEC Economic Leaders’ Week coming up in November, making it a sensitive time for Taiwan to comment on China-related matters. But an interesting development has unfolded since October 8th.
Official press release was issued by the Mainland Affairs Council which operates under the Executive Yuan on September 30th. The ROC government expressed “sincere concern and support for the Hong Kong people’s pursuit of democracy.” It supported Hong Kong to undertake democratic universal suffrage and urged the mainland and Hong Kong authorities to listen to the people’s voices. By allowing a smooth democratic progression in Hong Kong, the Government believed this will have “strong significance for long-term cross-strait development and be a key milestone on the whole ethnic Chinese society’s path towards democracy and rule of law.” The Council has warned their nationals not to go to the occupy areas in Hong Kong.
On September 29th, Day 2 of the Umbrella Movement and a day after the tear gas was used by the Police, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou spoke about Hong Kong at the opening of an annual meeting of the World Taiwanese Chambers of Commerce in Taipei, “we fully understand and support Hong Kong people in their call for full universal suffrage.” He urged “the mainland authorities to listen to the voice of Hong Kong people and use peaceful and cautious measures to handle the issue,” and called for Hong Kong people to use “peaceful and rational methods” to highlight their appeal. He also said that “we believe that it would be a win-win situation for both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland if universal suffrage could be adopted.”
Speaking as the Chairman of Kuomintang in a party meeting the next day (September 30th), Ma said freedom and democracy are the core values of KMT, and ‘Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong’, ‘high degree of autonomy’ and ‘universal suffrage for Chief Executive election’ were the promises to Hong Kong people from the mainland.
It is clear that Ma and his government intended to direct their focus on the issue of universal suffrage rather than on the Umbrella Movement itself, which is both an unlawful protest and a direct challenge to Chinese Communist Party’s power. Universal suffrage, however, has been granted by CCP under a certain framework but many in Hong Kong claim it will only render a fake election. By focusing on universal suffrage, the diplomatic impact is far less consequential and at the same time, aligns with the democratic values of Taiwan.
However, on October 10th, the Taiwan’s national day, President Ma stepped up the rhetoric. It was the first time since the Umbrella Movement started that a government official showed support specifically on the movement itself. “I express my unwavering support once again to the action of Hong Kong people in their pursuit of universal suffrage for the Chief Executive election…Thirty years ago, Deng Xiaoping said ‘let some people get rich first’, so why not adopt it on Hong Kong? Let some people have democracy first and realise the promises the mainland gave to Hong Kong seventeen years ago – ‘Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong, high degree of autonomy, universal suffrage for the Chief Executive election and remain how things were in Hong Kong for fifty years’.“
This followed the official announcement on October 8th that former Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew Wan-chang will once again represent Ma to meet with China President Xi Jinping during the APEC meeting in November, marking the collapse of the Ma-Xi summit. In an exclusive with Harbour Times, Taiwan famous pundit, Wang Hsing-ching, who is also known as Nanfang Shuo (南方朔), believed the change in Ma’s tone had little to do with the pressure he received from within the nation but rather, it was due to a deterioration in relationship with China. An unconfirmed rumour suggested that Ma was scheduled to meet with Xi in Singapore in August but Ma called it off at the last minute, angering China. True or not, the collapse of the Ma-Xi summit in November suggests the cross-strait relationship is no longer very harmonious. In this context, Mr Wang said Ma’s comment will not further dampen the relationship; it is already severely degraded. He also considered Ma’s speech on October 10th to be opportunistic, as direct support was given only after the Umbrella Movement showed some success.
The soft approach that President Ma took initially was attacked by legislators from the opposition party, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). DPP has articulated support for the Umbrella Movement and has decided to propose a motion to denounce ‘one country two systems’ as a backing to Hong Kong’s democracy.
Support from Taiwan for the Umbrella Movement has remained verbal though there has been a change in content. It will continue to depend much on the cross-strait diplomacy which is a delicate issue when Ma is facing heavy pressure from his people to boost the economy without being too close with China. Ma’s open support to the movement might be a political maneuver to garner more support in the nation. It is possible he had the same motives when he told Al Jazeera in an interview that Taiwan does not support the implementation of ‘one country two systems’ in the nation.