Hong Kong, China, and the Taiwan elections: An electoral civil war

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An analysis of the presidential election in Taiwan, and how Hong Kong is and will be affected by the race and its outcome.

Photo: Lotus Pond in Kaohsiung, Taiwan by Cordelia Cho.

Prior to the 2016 presidential and Legislative Yuan (the parliament) election in Taiwan, my two-part analysis of the bilateral Hong Kong – Taiwan relationship, Hong Kong’s vital interests and Closer hearts, Troubled love – concluded that the cooling of relations, if prompted by pressure from the central government, would signal further deterioration in Hong Kong’s autonomy.

If one measures relations by government-to-government interaction, then relations indeed cooled subsequent to the Democratic Progressive Party winning a majority in the Legislative Yuan, and DPP President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government followed the lead of the central government in freezing official interactions over Tsai’s China policy that does not include the 1992 Consensus, which was the basis of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s China policy. Subsequent events preceding the introduction of the extradition bill signaled the depth to which official bilateral relations had already deteriorated. Such events include the impounded Singapore military vehicles in Hong Kong after their use at a training exercise in Taiwan, and Hong Kong’s documentation issuing delay that prevented a Taiwan-designated government official representative in Hong Kong from reporting to his post.

However, if relations are measured by protest organisation and non-establishment political party leadership’s interactions with the Tsai administration, legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party and DPP-aligned independent and smaller party legislators, as well as Taiwan civil society organisations, than relations appear to be flourishing. 

Measured by more practical metrics, Taiwan remains one of Hong Kong’s principal trading partners for imports and domestic exports. Amid ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, visitor arrivals from Taiwan fell to 78,484 in November 2019, down from 151,502 in November 2018.

Unresolved Murder Case – Potential for Consensus in Hong Kong

Regardless of who is Taiwan’s next president, or which party is the majority (or in the absence of a majority, the largest) in the Legislative Yuan, Hong Kong society can hopefully have at least one consensus with regard to Taiwan: Justice for Poon Hui-wing.

In the days after Chan Tong-kai’s release from prison in Hong Kong last October, the Taiwan government’s changing statements (depending on the agency and official speaking) varied from an expectation that Hong Kong and Taiwan first sign a bilateral judicial cooperation agreement as well as allow Taiwan police to fly to Hong Kong to accept Chan’s surrender (an impossibility for a variety of reasons, making the requests unnecessarily political) to confusion over whether Reverend Canon Peter Douglas Koon would be allowed to accompany Chan to Taiwan. The forensic evidence is in Taiwan and there is no need for Taiwan to demand transcripts of any statements Chan made to police or prosecutors in Hong Kong given that he is offering to confess.

Hong Kong’s political future, and Taiwan’s post-election electoral politics past, need not further delay justice. Stakeholders across Hong Kong’s political spectrum can unite in calling on Taiwan’s next government to eliminate any unilaterally imposed hurdles that prevent Chan from flying to Taiwan and going on trial.

Taiwan’s Election Will Occur Successfully, With or Without Hong Kong Observers

Notwithstanding that Taiwan has successfully held numerous democratic elections in recent decades, including multiple peaceful transfers of power between political parties at the central and local government level, foreign scholars and politicians retain an unusual interest in observing the election. The visitors even expect candidates make time to chat in the days before voting day; a delegation of visiting Chinese dissidents suggested that Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu did not meet with them because he is unable to address their questions about human rights and the autocratic government China.

In the hours before the election, Demosisto reported on its Facebook page that Lily Wong Lee-lee was stopped at Hong Kong International Airport and prevented from flying to Taiwan where she planned to observe the election. This follows last month’s court ruling that prevented Joshua Wong from flying to Taiwan to observe the election. Wong had visited Taiwan in September at the invitation of The Light Foundation, an advocacy group affiliated with the Democratic Progressive Party. Notwithstanding media claims that Joshua Wong has fans in Taiwan, Taiwan’s election will proceed without him or his colleagues. 

Similarly, a video released this week features fifteen district councillors thanking Taiwan’s DPP, non-government organisations, and people for their recent support, and encourage people in Taiwan to “return home to vote” and to cherish Taiwan’s democracy. The message appears to be that Taiwan’s voters should return the incumbent DPP to power. Last September Denise Ho Wan-see participated in a parade and rally in Taiwan to support Hong Kong; in response to media and politician criticism Taiwan government officials confirmed that it is legal for foreign activists to participate in such events. However, Taiwan’s election law precludes foreigners from advocating for candidates. Given the central and SAR governments’ accusations about foreign interference in Hong Kong, along with concerns in Taiwan about China’s interference, it might be best for Hong Kong politicians to be more prudent in their advocacy for candidates or parties in Taiwan.

Expand Relationships Across Party Lines

Last October Joshua Wong criticised Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s comments about a police shooting in Hong Kong, though it appeared that Wong’s analysis of Mayor Ko’s comments was based on a screenshot from a local television station in Taiwan in which the chyron took Mayor Ko’s comments out of context. In fact, Mayor Ko’s full quote was a criticism of the central government in Beijing and its failure to sincerely respond to protest demands. With Ko’s new political party, the Taiwan People’s Party, expected to win several seats in the Legislative Yuan, combined with the reality that Ko will be mayor until the end of 2022 and might be a presidential candidate in the January 2024 election, pro-democracy parties and organisations in Hong Kong should consider expanding rather than damaging relationships in Taiwan. Should the Kuomintang exceed expectations in the election, relations will need to be built with it too, especially as Jason Hsu, one of the few Kuomintang politicians who met with Hong Kong democracy leaders and was bold enough to tweet about it, was removed by the Kuomintang from the party list for the next Legislative Yuan.

According to media reports in Hong Kong, pro-establishment politicians who have observed Taiwan’s election in the past will not do so this year. While this is not a surprise in light of recent events, and their presence as observers is unnecessary, the reduction in personal interaction between Taiwan and Hong Kong politicians across the spectrum of views in both locations is an unfortunate development. 

Near Term Bilateral Relations Uncertain

Commentators who welcomed Tsai’s frequent comments about the Hong Kong protests went so far as to say they hope that Taiwan’s presence and supportive position will continue to constitute a moderating factor in Hong Kong. The reality is that Taiwan’s ability to provide more than a supportive position after tomorrow’s election is limited.

Between the executive branches of government in Hong Kong and Taiwan, it is easy to assume that Hong Kong – Taiwan bilateral relations will improve if Han Kuo-yu is elected or will remain poor if Tsai is elected to a second term. For the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Han is unlikely to satisfy their expectations that Taiwan should provide asylum or other types of assistance. Whether Tsai in a second term will continue to champion Hong Kong or if she only did so in recent months for electoral purposes, as alleged by Hong Kong Baptist University student union president Keith Fong, is also unknown; over the second half of 2019 supportive statements from Taiwan outpaced substantive action beyond adjustments to university application procedures.

Joshua Wong stated during his September 2019 visit to Taiwan: “Today’s Taiwan, Tomorrow’s Hong Kong” (a chant by participants in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in March 2014, which preceded Occupy Central). A focus on today by elected politicians in both locations might also help build a better bilateral tomorrow.

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