Hong Kong Crisis Leaves Little Appetite In Taiwan to Allow China Any Closer | Opinion

Hong Kong's mass protests this summer will undoubtedly become a turning point in the relations between the Special Administrative Region and Chinese mainland. Many wonder about the future of "one country two systems" in Hong Kong. How will Hong Kong's protests impact Taiwan and cross-Taiwan Strait relations?

The protests began as the city's residents opposed a government-proposed extradition bill that would allow a Hong Konger to be extradited to Taiwan, where he allegedly murdered his pregnant girlfriend. The bill, if passed by the city's legislature, would apply to jurisdictions Hong Kong doesn't already have an agreement with, including mainland China, Taiwan and Macao. Hong Kong residents fear that they may face trial on the Mainland in the future.

What worries the Taiwanese most is the island's future relations with China. "One country two systems" that is being practiced in Hong Kong and Macao was developed by Deng Xiaoping as a special arrangement of cross-strait relations after a future reunification. However, Taiwan's major political parties and public have consistently rejected this model. The consensus in Taiwan is that the Republic of China, Taiwan's official name, is a sovereign state that is different from Hong Kong, a British colony before being returned to China.

Unsurprisingly, Taiwan's current pro-independence government led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was quick to use the Hong Kong crisis to attack the notion of "one country two systems." The Republic of China's presidential election is to be held on Jan. 11, 2020. Elections in Taiwan typically feature two themes: economy and cross-strait relations. Having performed dismally in both areas, Taiwan's incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen had a slim chance of getting re-elected until the Hong Kong protests broke out.

In her party's primary earlier this year, Tsai faced tough challenges from former premier Lai Ching-te. Tsai projected herself as a "spicy Taiwanese sister" who would vehemently reject Beijing's absorption scheme and defend Taiwan's sovereignty. She became the DPP's presidential nominee after barely defeating Lai, but most polls suggest that she lags far behind the opposition KMT's candidate Han Kuo-yu. The "cigarette smuggling scandal" during her recent overseas trips further dimmed her re-election hope.

Hong Kong's chaos may turn out to be a windfall for Tsai. As Hong Kong's unrest unfolded, Tsai repeatedly voiced support for the city residents' defense of freedom and declared failure of "one country two systems." Meanwhile, her government launched a new wave of "red scare" by magnifying the alleged penetration into Taiwan's society by the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite the U.S. pledge to not interfere in Taiwan's elections and Tsai's lackluster performance in office, she seems to be Washington's favorite pick. Recent U.S. efforts to salvage Tsai's campaign include allowing her to make high profile transit stops in New York and Denver, selling a new batch of $2.2 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, and dispatching warships to sail through the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan is likely to shift further away from Beijing politically as a result of developments in Hong Kong. No matter who wins the presidential election, Taiwan is going to forcefully resist China's reunification ambition in the aftermath of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. KMT's Han, who visited the Mainland and Hong Kong in March 2019, was compelled to clarify his position on cross-strait relations. He emphatically asserted that "one country two systems" could only be introduced in Taiwan "over my dead body."

Taiwanese and Hong Kong societies share something in common: deep discontent with declining economic conditions and high anxiety about their fading edges over the Mainland. Taiwan and Hong Kong used to be the so-called "Asian Tigers"—four East Asian economies that achieved rapid growth between the 1960s and 1990s. Today, Singapore and South Korea—the other two "tigers"—are more economically competitive and politically stable, leaving Taiwan and Hong Kong behind. Taiwan and Hong Kong are also experiencing brain drains as young professionals seek opportunities elsewhere, including the Mainland.

Living in societies with more freedom than their brethren on the Mainland, people in Hong Kong and Taiwan are naturally distrusting of an authoritarian government in Beijing, whose clout seems hard to break. Deteriorating economic conditions and loss of superiorities over the Mainland have created a prevailing atmosphere of frustration and resentment. Such economic anxiety and political fear combine to form a powerful force inimical to China, whose original sin as a non-democracy makes it vulnerable to any accusations from a free society.

Hong Kong's unrest and its impact on Taiwan also worry liberals inside China who consider the two places as beacons of hope for economic liberalization and political democratization on the Mainland. Reformers in China do not want Hong Kong and Taiwan to fail; nor do they like Hong Kong and Taiwan to blame their internal problems on the Mainland. The Chinese government has handled the Hong Kong protests with remarkable restraint so far, but does Beijing have enough patience as the protests turn violent and threaten Hong Kong's stability? More importantly, how will Beijing deal with severe centrifugal challenges from Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere in greater China?

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​