Taiwan Votes 2016 Part II: Closer hearts, Troubled love

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Like Romeo and Juliet, closer hearts can be tragic when parental wishes come into play. In a bizarre twist, Hong Kong’s relationship with one of its most important trading partners could be at risk even as Hong Kong politicians, activists become more aligned.


In the first part of this series, Ross Feingold discussed how Hong Kong’s vital interests are impacted by Taiwan’s presidential and legislative election. The second part of this series discusses how the election results might impact Hong Kong society and bilateral Hong Kong – Taiwan relations.

On Saturday, January 16, 2016 Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨) won a decisive victory in both the presidential election and in the 113 seat parliament, the Legislative Yuan. DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) received 56.1% of the vote, easily defeating Eric Chu Li-luan (朱立倫) of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party (31.0%), and James Soong Chu-yu (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party (12.8%). The DPP obtained a majority of in the Legislative Yuan of 68 seats, up from 40, while the KMT’s seats fell to 35 from 64. The New Power Party, led by musician Freddy Lim (林昶佐) and competing in elections for the first time, won five seats.

Business persons, diplomats and government officials in Hong Kong should pay close attention to the election for what lessons can be drawn for Hong Kong’s future political development.


Validate your mandate: vote

The election result itself was not a surprise. However, the relatively low voter turnout compared to past direct presidential elections, especially on a sunny and mild January day, did come as a surprise. Taiwan’s Central Election Commission reported voter turnout in the election was 66.2%, compared with 76.04% in 1996, 82.7% in 2000, 80.28% in 2004, 76.33% in 2008 and 74.38% in 2012. Tsai’s 56.1% equates to 6,894,744 votes, versus 2012’s result, when she received 6,093,578 votes and lost to incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) who received 6,891,139 votes. While it’s fair to say that Tsai won an impressive mandate, especially versus pre-election polls that showed her with around 45%, throughout her term critics will cite the low turnout to argue against the strength of her mandate.

In Hong Kong’s most recent Legislative Council election, turnout for the geographical constituencies was only 53%. While this can be cited to argue that the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong’s mandate as the largest party in LegCo is limited, the same argument would apply to the pan-democrat parties. Thus, voters should not ignore the opportunity to make a statement by exercising their right to vote.

Legislative Yuan : Rise of the rebels

DPP leaders’ optimism that they would win an outright majority in the legislature proved correct. Whether the DPP government can work smoothly with the new Legislative Yuan remains to be seen. Maneuvering has begun to select a new Legislative Yuan speaker, as the 15-year incumbent, Wang Jyn-ping (王金平) was from the ousted KMT.

At the first party leadership meeting after the election, President-elect Tsai proposed that the legislative speaker be “neutral” and not participate in party activities. How will this work in practice remains to be seen, especially as any politician elected speaker would naturally be a senior party member.

Interestingly, President-elect Tsai, who is party chairman, did not suggest that the President should be above involvement in party politics. This could be perceived as an indication that she will work directly to maintain control over the party caucus. The two most recent presidents Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP and President Ma of the KMT often were unable to exercise control over their party legislative caucuses, even when they concurrently served as party chairman. Ms Tsai may plan for stronger party discipline.

The biggest surprise in the Legislative Yuan election was the emergence of the NPP, which won three constituency seats and two at-large seats. In the aftermath of 2014’s Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運) to occupy the Legislative Yuan in order to delay a trade agreement with the mainland, several new political parties formed, most notably the NPP and the Social Democratic Party. These parties are known as the “Third Force” and their rise parallels localist parties emerging from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement; such as HK Indigenous and Youngspiration.


Movement, division

Like many social movements, Sunflower Movement members could not remain united. They split into the NPP and the Social Democratic Party. The latter subsequently decided to ally in the election with the existing Green Party, which proved to be a failure as the alliance won no seats.

In fact, among the NPP’s winning candidates, Freddy Lim was a long time social activist and famous thrash metal musician. Party leader Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) is also a long time social activist who joined the Sunflower Movement, though not a founder. Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸) became a public figure in 2013 after her brother died under suspicious circumstances during military service, and was not involved in the Sunflower Movement, and Kawlo Iyun Pacidal (高潞·以用·巴魕剌) is a long time activist on issues that impact Taiwan’s aboriginal communities. The fifth NPP legislator is a 49-year old political science professor, television host and writer on political issues.

Student leaders from the Sunflower Movement clearly diffused their strength by splitting into multiple parties, and gave up public leadership roles to long time social activists and professional politicians. The transition from civil society activist to politician proved difficult, and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement leaders should take note.

The Starlet Victim

One of the more peculiar events prior to election day involved accusations by a China-based singer from Taiwan, Huang An (黃安), that a 16-year old Taiwanese K-pop singer based in Korea supported “Taiwan independence” after she waved the Taiwanese Republic of China flag on a television show. The accused, Chou Tzu-yu (周子瑜), a member of the South Korean girl band TWICE, then became subject of vicious online attacks in the mainland. TWICE’s endorsement deals with Huawei among others, and appearances, in the mainland were jeopardized, resulting in Miss Chou releasing a YouTube video the day before the election in which she somberly declared that “There is only one China… I have always felt proud of being Chinese.” [Ed note – Check the upvote versus downvote on that video).

A survey published after the election by the Taiwan Thinktank, an institution affiliated with the DPP, claimed that over 11% of respondents who voted in the legislative election stated their voting decision was based on the perceived bullying of Miss Chou, i.e., led them to vote for the DPP. However, it’s likely that these voters were predisposed to vote for the DPP anyway is likely. What remains unclear is whether turnout would have been lower absent the incident.

Regardless, the incident will have a chilling effect on the willingness of individuals, whether famous or not, but especially those with business or careers linked to the mainland, to engage in public discourse on identity issues, lest they anger the mainland’s Internet proxy police, the Fifty Cent Party (五毛黨). This certainly applies in Hong Kong as much as in Taiwan, if not more so given the greater level of integration between the SAR and the mainland as compared to Taiwan. To the extent that celebrity participation in the Sunflower Movement or the Umbrella Movement increases exposure and motivates participation, celebrities will certainly be pressured by managers and sponsors to avoid politically sensitive activities.


Hong Kong–Taiwan Relations: Star-crossed

It would appear that the future of Hong Kong – Taiwan bilateral relations depends on the central government and whether or not it is able to work with Tsai’s conception of cross-straits relations. In her post-election remarks and subsequent interviews, she has yet to use the same wording as the Ma government, i.e., “1992 Consensus” and “One China”, leaving the future of government to government interactions in doubt for now.

The Taiwan Thinktank survey referred to above found that voters’ priorities for the new government are economic development (49.1%), employment (26.9%), food safety (25.2%), and elder care (21.0%); cross-straits relations was selected as a priority by only 19.4% of respondents. Thus, Tsai might take the view she has sufficient political capital to move slowly on engagement with the mainland.

Under the previous DPP presidency of Chen Shui-bian, Hong Kong–Taiwan relations began roughly, with Taiwan’s de-facto representative denied an employment visa for over one year. Relaxation of visa requirements for travelers also moved at a slower pace than necessary. In the absence of government-to-government negotiations between the mainland and Taiwan, city-to-city diplomacy efforts between Hong Kong and Taipei led to the welcoming of then-Taipei (and Hong Kong born) Mayor Ma Ying-jeou to visit Hong Kong in 2001, and he was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds and media coverage as a directly elected municipal leader in contrast to the process by which the Chief Executive is elected. As most municipal leaders in Taiwan are currently from the DPP or are independents aligned with the DPP such as Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), such visits are unlikely.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether the progress in Hong Kong–Taiwan relations over the past eight years can be sustained. This progress spans trade, tourism, and other sectors, and included the establishment in 2010 of the Hong Kong-Taiwan Economic and Cultural Cooperation and Promotion Council in the SAR and the Taiwan-Hong Kong Economic and Cultural Co-operation Council in Taiwan to serve as the non-official platform for negotiating cooperation between the two jurisdictions. Financial Secretary John Tsang serves as the Honorary Chairperson, and the membership is comprised of prominent business and community leaders. This was followed in 2011 by the establishment in Taipei of the Hong Kong SAR’s Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office (香港經濟貿易文化辦事處), and the name change of Taiwan’s de-facto consulate in Hong Kong, the Chung Hwa Travel Service (中華旅行社), as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (臺北經濟文化辦事處), the name used by many of Taiwan’s de-facto embassies and consulates throughout the world.

Given the near term uncertainties surrounding mainland–Taiwan relations, expectations for Hong Kong–Taiwan relations must be similarly tempered. However, members of Hong Kong’s academic, business, and diplomatic communities can play a role in encouraging the continued growth of trade and cultural relations, such as by arguing for the ECCPC to continue its work during the transition period and after the new Taiwan government takes office. The cooling of relations, if prompted by pressure from the central government, would signal further deterioration in Hong Kong’s autonomy.


Ross Darrell Feingold is a commentator on business and political issues. Mr. Feingold contributed this article in his personal capacity and the views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.