Hong Kong’s protests have begun to simmer down in the past few weeks, after significant political unrest in October and November plagued the city. The protests, which became so chaotic that the protestors carpeted the roads with bricks, barricaded tunnels, disrupted traffic and trains, and forced schools to close, have become more sporadic and less violent. However, this relative calm in Hong Kong might not last long with President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent re-election in Taiwan. Her monumental win might signal that the turmoil in Hong Kong is not yet close to its end, as protestors may feel emboldened to demand more and perhaps provoke a response from China.
Tsai, who has been president of Taiwan since 2016, campaigned on strong anti-authoritarian principles and the reassertion of Taiwanese sovereignty, following threats from Chinese President Xi Jinping to increase pressure on Taiwan. Her competitor Han Kuo-yu ran on a message of “Peace or Crisis” regarding Taiwan’s relationship with Xi’s China, pressing for a warmer relationship between the two countries. This urging for peace with mainland China appeals to large businesses, who rely on Chinese trade and markets. However, threats from China to use force in Taiwan and the protests in Hong Kong seemed to embolden anti-authoritarian feelings in Taiwan.
In fact, many give credit to the Hong Kong protestors for Tsai’s overwhelming win in Taiwan. Earlier in the year, Tsai was projected to lose reelection, before the protests in Hong Kong bolstered anti-mainland sentiment and turned the election into a fight to maintain Taiwanese sovereignty. Despite having witnessed Beijing’s backlash against the Hong Kong protests, Taiwanese voters seemed to overwhelmingly support Tsai. Her win in Taiwan is an indication of the rippling effect the Hong Kong protests have had in the region, sparking similar attitudes in regions whose autonomy may also be under threat.
The protests in Hong Kong began in June, with an extradition bill that would allow for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to both Taiwan and mainland China for crimes. The bill led to a critical examination of China’s relationship with both Hong Kong and Taiwan. In recent years, Beijing has tried to encroach upon Hong Kong’s greater democratic freedoms, and this extradition bill was seen as an intolerable encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy, igniting the protest movement. Businesses, foreign governments, and citizens feared this bill would allow the mainland to extradite citizens for any crime, including political dissent. Since the protests began, more than six thousand people have been arrested in Hong Kong.
The pro-Beijing Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, withdrew the bill in September after months of protests. However, it was followed by four other demands from protestors: an inquiry into police misconduct, a retraction of a statement calling the protests “riots,” amnesty for any arrested protestors, and universal suffrage.
The slogan “Today Taiwan, Tomorrow Hong Kong” has gained popularity after Tsai’s win, as democracy supporters in Taiwan hope that Hong Kong will one day gain the same level of autonomy and freedom as Taiwan. Hong Kong has much more economic and political freedom than mainland China, as its constitutional document, Hong Kong’s Basic Law, grants independent legislative, executive, and judicial powers, as well as an economy free from China for fifty years. However, Hong Kong does not have as much autonomy as Taiwan, ever since the British returned the nation to China in 1997 as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China under the system “One Country, Two Systems.” The slogan “Today Taiwan, Tomorrow Hong Kong” refers to pro-democracy citizens’ desire for Hong Kong to become as autonomous as Taiwan, a self-ruled island which claims complete independence from China, despite China claiming it as part of its territory.
With Tsai’s win, it seems unlikely that China could gain control over Taiwan without using military force, as there have been clear opposition from the Taiwanese government for unification. Xi offered Taiwan a similar proposal to the “One country, Two systems” agreement that allows China to control Hong Kong, but Tsai rejected it, arguing that Hong Kong protesters have been sacrificing their lives as a result of this system. Some Taiwanese people worry that one day China will attempt to take control of Taiwan, resulting in a situation similar to that in Hong Kong, with citizens fighting for freedom. However, with the rising popularity of the slogan “Today Taiwan, Tomorrow Hong Kong”, it has become clear that Xi’s attempts to sell China’s relationship with Hong Kong as a model for Taiwan are not viable anymore. Taiwan has become a source of motivation for Hongkongers who are finding strength in a democratic country similarly striving to protect its own freedom from mainland China. Tsai’s electoral win and firmness in the face of Chinese intimidation highlight the inefficacy of Xi’s aggressive strategy and reinforce the resolve of the Hong Kong protestors, showing them that their fight could lead to concrete and substantial political change.
Tsai’s win, although a substantial victory for supporters of the pro-democracy movement in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, might have made the region more dangerous and susceptible to influence from Xi’s administration. Feeling pressure from Tsai’s win, Xi has claimed that his government will use force if necessary to prevent Taiwan from moving towards “complete independence” from mainland China, meaning Taiwan would lose its autonomy. Force could entail increasing military pressure around the nation using artificial islands in the South China Sea, adding more economic pressure, and provoking Taiwanese allies (there are only fifteen small nations that recognize, and thus would perhaps defend, Taiwanese sovereignty). This previous summer, Xi’s administration decided to ban individuals from traveling to Taiwan in order to apply pressure on Taiwan’s economy, and the coming months might see more threats from mainland China.
Tsai’s win may also exacerbate the aggression of the Xi administration towards the situation in Hong Kong. The foreign minister of China, Wang Yi, warned months ago that, “No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, it is very clear that Hong Kong is a part of Chinese territory,” and with clear pro-democratic sentiments in Taiwan and Hong Kong protestors fueled by glimpses at freedom, mainland China might feel a need to use force to reestablish its regional power. American analysts say, in the past, Xi has not loosened his grip after threats to his control. Recently, Xi replaced China’s head representative in Hong Kong with a Communist Party official with “experience in tough security measures”.
Xi is not willing to lose his control over either Taiwan or Hong Kong. Renewed support for democracy after Tsai’s win might embolden protesters to demand more from mainland China and persist until freedom is truly achieved. However, her win may also push Xi to employ aggressive tactics, as a reaction to the strong pro-democracy sentiment growing in areas he aims to control. Xi is likely deterred by the fact that, if he were to take a more hardline stance towards Hong Kong or Taiwan, the United States and other democratic countries would likely come to their defense. The Trump administration has declared its support for Taiwan and could use relations with Taiwan to gain leverage over China. Also, with his decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, President Donald Trump has regained the ability to restore American military presence in the Pacific, signaling to mainland China the possible repercussions of threatening US allies.
The coming weeks after the election will serve as an important indicator for the futures of both Hong Kong and Taiwan, as Hong Kong protesters feel little pressure to relents, and Xi may decide it is time to take drastic steps to ensure long term control over Hong Kong.The photo featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The original photo can be found here.