Taiwan’s students are resisting a Hong Kong-style future

Hong Kong has long been seen as the testing ground for peaceful absorption of a democratic territory into the People’s Republic of China.

Susan Evans
29 March 2014

Student-led protesters in Taipei yesterday stormed the Executive Yuan (cabinet) building, occupying the premier’s office overnight until being forcibly evicted just after four in the morning—allegedly with the use of batons, shields and water cannons by riot police, a level of violent crackdown unprecedented in Taiwan’s democratic era.

This escalation in a week of protests may seem an extreme reaction to a proposed free trade agreement with mainland China, which is set to attract investment and give Taiwanese businesses access to the services sector in the world’s second-largest economy. Yet from the perspective of Hong Kong, the picture makes perfect sense.

Hong Kong residents understand that with increasing economic links to the mainland comes the erosion of political autonomy and, at a more fundamental level, the loss of a distinct identity. Hong Kong residents also understand that when it comes to the undermining of democratic systems, the small things count.

This was never about a free trade agreement: export-dependent Taiwan is not known for its anti-globalisation sentiment. The majority of those on the streets are not small business owners, worried about competition, but students supported by lawyers. So against what are they protesting?

Most immediately, the protesters are angered by what is perceived as disrespect for the democratic process, and subordination of popular demands to Beijing’s will. As Linda van der Horst explained last week, the protests were sparked when the Kuomintang (KMT), the ruling party, announced that it would bypass a parliamentary review and send the cross-strait services trade pact directly for approval by the executive.

By attempting to force through the legislation against considerable public opposition, the KMT has revealed that it is more concerned about losing face to its Beijing co-signatories, than about losing credibility among the Taiwanese electorate. As the Black Island Nation Youth Front, a key organiser of the protests, states on its Facebook page: “Why did [student leader] Wei Yang get involved? Because President Ma [Ying-jeou] has been passive and arrogant toward his people, who have been protesting at the Parliament for six days.” In a climate where big business on both sides of the strait has much to gain from closer political ties, this could also be interpreted as putting corporate interests ahead of citizens’ concerns over the long-term implications of greater reliance on China.

This leads us to the second, and more fundamental reason for the demonstrations. The protesters are rejecting Taiwan’s long-term integration into China through ever-greater economic dependence. It is no secret that Beijing is playing the long game with regard to Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beijing first used its growing international clout to prevent Taiwan from joining the many free trade agreements springing up in the Asia-Pacific in the last decade or more. Having strangled the island’s international trade in this way, China was then in a position to offer a lifeline to President Ma Ying-jeou in the form of the Economic Cooperation Framework of 2010, and subsequent agreements including the services trade pact. The end goal is political dependence achieved not through war, but through economic dependence.

Hong Kong has long been seen as the testing ground for peaceful absorption of a democratic territory into the PRC. Around the time of its hand-over from British to Chinese rule in 1997, there was talk of Hong Kong proving the principle that China could permit continued civic freedoms and a democratic system under the umbrella of Beijing rule—setting an example which, in theory, would encourage Taiwan to accept reunification. This idea stemmed, in part, from a sense at the time that the Chinese Communist Party was on a liberalising trajectory. Rather than clamping down on Hong Kong’s freedoms, it was hoped that the rest of China would gradually democratise, so that by the time the 50-year hand-over period was up, the differences between the two systems would be minimal.

17 years on, it has become clear that the reverse is true. Beijing has given little cause to believe that it is committed to political liberalisation, with the current administration under Xi Jinping showing renewed appetite for online censorship as well as questionable arrests of rights activists and lawyers. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s freedoms are eroding and prospects for meaningful democracy are receding. Media as well as local political figures are increasingly accused of altering their behaviour to suit Beijing, as this is now the route to success. As a result, economic development policies target greater integration, as evidenced by the enormous investment in cross-boundary transportation links between Hong Kong and the rest of the Pearl River Delta.

Hong Kong’s netizens have become hyper-sensitised to any indications of the erosion of the city’s political autonomy, and at a more visceral level, to its loss of identity. These feelings go hand in hand with a sense that the local government is unresponsive and high-handed in its attitude—reflecting a political culture rather similar to the rest of China. Many civic groups are now engaged in a war of attrition: when hope of real democracy is so remote, it is entirely rational behaviour to take on the government one issue at a time. Sometimes the issues taken up by civil society are recognisably important, such as last summer’s demonstrations against the introduction of ‘patriotic education’ into Hong Kong’s schools. Other times, the issues seem trivial to the point of being ludicrous, as when up to 100,000 people took to the streets in autumn last year to protest the blocking, without good explanation, of permission for a new public TV channel.

As with this week’s protests in Taipei, the issue at hand was not the real driver. Civil society in Hong Kong and Taiwan are sending a message that, despite concerted efforts by Beijing to encourage people to focus on the economic benefits of greater integration, politics still matters. The protestors want not just the appearance of democracy, but the real deal. Unless Taiwan’s government shows more responsiveness, particularly with regard to issues where Beijing’s interests are at stake, we should expect to see more outbursts over seemingly trivial matters. In a fragile democracy, the small things count.

Some Hong Kong activists appeared among the crowds in Taipei over the last few days. One wore a cardboard placard reading “I’m from Hong Kong. Please Taiwan, step over our corpses and look to your own path.” Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan retains a genuinely competitive electoral system, and therefore still has a chance of a future in which its government chooses, or is able, to put the wishes of the people ahead of the word of Beijing. Taiwanese protestors still have hope; Hong Kong’s protestors know they are shouting into the void.

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