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Why Taiwan is watching Hong Kong very closely

How ‘one country, two systems’ plays out in Hong Kong could factor into Taiwan’s 2020 elections.

- September 3, 2019

The recurrent protests in Hong Kong on the past 13 weekends suggest that the “one country, two systems” (OCTS) model offers no magic formula for blending incompatible political systems under a single flag. Hong Kong is watching closely — but so is Taiwan, the reason China conceived OCTS.

In January, Taiwan will hold presidential and legislative elections. With Taipei-Beijing relations at the center of the campaign, here’s how the unrest in Hong Kong may factor into these elections.

Hong Kong became a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, at the end of a 99-year lease to Britain. The Basic Law under which Beijing promised to govern Hong Kong is rooted in the OCTS model. It states that Hong Kong would be part of the PRC’s sovereign territory — but for 50 years would retain many of the features that differentiate it from what Hong Kongers call the “mainland.”

‘One country, two systems’ and Taiwan

When the PRC was founded in 1949, its jurisdiction did not extend to Taiwan, an island 100 miles off its coast. Since then, China and Taiwan have had separate governments. Nonetheless, Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory, and it seeks to incorporate the island into the PRC. OCTS, a concept Deng Xiaoping introduced in 1978, was designed to facilitate that union.

OCTS has never had much currency in Taiwan; most Taiwanese oppose absorption into China. Fewer than 10 percent approve of unification, and many of those envision Taiwan taking over China, not the reverse. Most Taiwanese prefer the status quo: neither unification with China nor a formal declaration of independence.

Unification is unpopular — and so is OCTS. Even before the Hong Kong protests began, a survey in March found that almost 80 percent of Taiwanese rejected OCTS. The unrest in Hong Kong reinforces their conviction that OCTS is wrong for Taiwan.

Taiwan is a multiparty democracy, and its leaders pay close attention to polls like these. While domestic issues are important, managing relations with Beijing successfully is paramount. Voters’ confidence in the ability of Taiwan’s candidates and parties to keep the relationship stable and fend off pressure for unification tends to be the most important variable shaping their vote choice.

Tsai Ing-wen’s fortunes were flagging

Just a few months ago, pundits were predicting little chance that incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen would win a second term. A year ago, her approval ratings were so low that a Los Angeles Times headline read, “Taiwan’s president is now less popular than Trump.”

There were many reasons for Tsai’s low ratings. Beijing rejected dialogue with the Taiwanese leader, choosing instead to intensify its political, military and economic pressure. Progressive supporters were disappointed by Tsai’s inability early on to pass initiatives such as marriage equality, while opponents attacked her economic policies.

In November 2018, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — the big winner in 2016 — was crushed in local elections. Taiwan’s other major party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which advocates closer engagement with the mainland, rode to victory on the “Han Wave” — a wave of support for political outsider Han Kuo-yu, the KMT mayoral candidate in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-biggest city.

Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong raised Tsai’s standing

But Taiwan’s bookmakers now have Tsai back in the race. The turnaround began in January, when she defended Taiwan’s autonomy fiercely after Chinese President Xi Jinping affirmed Beijing’s determination to unify the two sides under OCTS. The upswing continued in May, when the legislature approved marriage equality, and accelerated in June, when Tsai beat back a primary challenge.

The Hong Kong unrest is boosting Tsai’s momentum even more. A year ago, many voters worried that her refusal to accept Beijing’s terms for dialogue was undermining Taiwan’s economy and inviting unnecessary friction. They were open to the KMT message that limited accommodations to China could revive the island’s economy and reduce political pressure from Beijing to reunify.

Xi’s January 2019 speech made the KMT’s position look naive to many voters, and the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong reinforces that judgment.

Most Taiwanese think the Hong Kong protesters are defending their freedom against an encroaching authoritarian central government. An August poll found that 57 percent of Taiwanese support the Hong Kong protests; only 19 percent do not. Sympathy for the protests is especially strong among young adults: 75 percent of 20-something Taiwanese support the Hong Kong protests.

Taiwanese reactions to Hong Kong’s unrest forced the KMT to alter its stance. Han’s 2018 mayoral campaign centered on his “pragmatic” way of dealing with Beijing, an approach he promised would pay big dividends for Taiwan. During a March visit to the mainland, Han said he “strongly supports” the 1992 Consensus, Beijing’s mantra for resuming dialogue.

After the Hong Kong protests heated up, Han changed his tune. In June, he declared his opposition to OCTS, which he said would be implemented in Taiwan “over my dead body.” In half a year, Han has gone from condemning Tsai’s resistance to Beijing’s demands to trumpeting his own.

What does this mean for Taiwan’s 2020 presidential race?

Tsai and Han are unlikely to be the only candidates in January. The twists and turns of the past few months have exacerbated divisions within the KMT, increasing the likelihood of at least one independent candidacy with significant KMT backing. For now, the chaos is benefiting Tsai: Recent polls show her leading in all the likely matchups.

Still, analysts see dangers for Tsai, and for Taiwan, in the ongoing conflict in Hong Kong. Tsai’s statements of concern for the protesters, including offers of refuge in Taiwan, have drawn Beijing’s ire. A top Chinese official even accused the DPP of instigating riots in Hong Kong with the aim of undercutting OCTS.

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are rising. While Beijing’s focus is on Hong Kong for now, Chinese leaders have a long memory — and the protests won’t go on forever. For the moment, though, Taiwan’s voters are viewing Hong Kong as an example of what can go wrong with one country, two systems, and that’s helping Tsai.

Shelley Rigger is Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College and the author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. She is in Taiwan as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar studying Taiwanese youth attitudes.