An Umbrella for the Sun(flower)

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2014 will be a year for the Greater China region to remember – first the Sunflower Movement in Taipei and now the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. This tale of two cities sees an irreversible
change in societies driven by a political enlightenment led by Generation Y.

In recent years, more and more Hong Kong people have started to eye the democratic course Taiwan has charted since the Wild Lily Movement of 1990. To some Hong Kongers, Hong Kong and Taiwan are allied in a fight for democracy and for this reason, Taiwan’s response to the Umbrella Movement is particularly crucial to both the ‘leftists’ in Hong Kong fighting for ‘genuine’ democracy and to those Taiwanese seeking to maintain the status quo – not too close with China, not officially independent.

Since the Umbrella Movement first started, diplomatic ties with China have restrained Taiwan’s response to mostly indirect verbal support for the movement. The upcoming Ma-Xi summit on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Week in November makes it a sensitive time for Taiwan to comment on China-related matters. However, an interesting development has unfolded since October 8th.

On September 29th, Day 2 of the Umbrella Movement and a day after the police used tear gas, 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.” He 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.”

This tone was similar to the responses from the White House and the Downing Street. An 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’s adoption of 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.”

Also on September 30th, the same President Ma, Chairman of Kuomintang, spoke of Hong Kong again in a party meeting. He 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. The rhetoric was still in line with the Mainland Affairs Council and the global diplomatic community.

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, a direct challenge to Chinese Communist Party’s power. By focusing on universal suffrage, the diplomatic impact is far less consequential and at the same time, aligns with the democratic values of Taiwan.

Not good enough
The soft approach that President Ma took 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 means of supporting Hong Kong’s democracy.
President Ma didn’t take that lying down and stepped up the rhetoric. It was the first time since the Umbrella Movement started that a government official showed support specifically for the movement itself. “I express my unwavering support once again to the recent 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 Taiwan Vice President Vincent Siew Wan-chang (蕭萬長) 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.

MaXi-mum discord
In an exclusive with Harbour Times, famous Taiwanese pundit, Wang Hsing-ching, aka Nanfang Shuo (南方朔), explained he believes the change in Ma’s tone had little to do with the pressure he received from within the nation but was rather due to a deterioration in his 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 that the cross-strait relationship is no longer very harmonious. In this context, Mr Wang said Ma’s comment will not further damage the relationship; it has already been severely degraded. He also thinks Ma’s speech on October 10th was opportunistic, as direct support was given only after the Umbrella Movement showed some success.

All politics are local
Professor Xu Si-jian (徐斯儉) from the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica also came down to the same conclusion, agreeing that Ma’s change of tone was a diplomatic gesture after Ma-Xi summit was called off. He also speculated that Ma’s support to the Umbrella Movement was due to the upcoming election in November in which the electorate will vote for the heads of 6 municipal governments and 17 provincial city governments. A poll in August conducted by TVBS revealed that DPP was leading the KMT by 6% in polls (DPP:49% v KMT: 43%).
Ma’s support came at a sensitive time. The annual poll conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University this year showed record highs (23.8%) supporting outright independence and 60.4% identifying themselves as Taiwanese. The change in sentiment in Taiwan, especially after the Sunflower Movement and the conflicts amounted from the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, have prompted Ma’s government to adjust its strategy. It is possible that Ma 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.

Talk talk talk
Blue or green, the governing party in Taiwan will have to be sensitive to the heightened sentiment against the mainland influence in Taiwan but at the same time, to maintain a stable cross-strait relationship to boost the nation’s economy. Anything other than verbal support from the ROC government will be a cost too high for Taiwan. Hong Kong is on its own.