Hong Kong’s shadow: the China factor in Taiwan’s elections

Hong Kong’s shadow: the China factor in Taiwan’s elections

The pro-democracy demonstrations have reinvigorated President Tsai’s faltering re-election campaign.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Taiwan is due to hold elections in January 2020, as voters becoming increasingly concerned over Beijing’s response to the Hong Kong protests and loss of sovereignty to mainland Chinese influences.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The Hong Kong protests inciting Taiwanese fears about mainland China’s infringement of their sovereignty, which is providing a popularity boost to the pro-independence Democratic People’s Party (DPP) and incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen
– More pro-China candidates, such as the Kuomintang’s Han Kuo-yu, are losing ground or are being accused of flip-flopping on relations with Beijing
– The contentious relationship between Taiwan and mainland China will continue to worsen, regardless of who wins, as China progressively isolates Taiwan internationally

Elections in Taiwan on January 11, 2020, represent another potential flashpoint for growing tensions in the Asia-Pacific. The elections for the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislative body, coincide with the presidential election, for which there are currently three possible candidates aiming to secure victory. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, in power since 2016, is currently the frontrunner. Her main rival is the populist mayor of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT), who until recently was beating her in the polls. However, due to the domestic reaction to the protests in Hong Kong and his unwavering support of the ‘One China, two systems’ approach, Han’s support has dropped dramatically in recent months and Tsai has steadily regained her support.

TSAI RISES AS HAN FALTERS

Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr

Tsai has been able to use the protests to garner support for herself and the DPP, presenting the party as a bulwark to Beijing’s growing influence. A hallmark of Tsai’s presidency has been her refusal to kowtow to mainland influence. In June she made statements in support of the Hong Kong protesters and criticised the city’s government, saying it would “not truly solve the problem by making arrests and through crackdowns.” Tsai has directly linked the protests with Taiwan’s own sovereign concerns by stating that the protests make Taiwan “increasingly treasure” their democracy. On September 3, DPP officials hosted Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, a central figure in the protests. These actions have given Tsai a massive boost in the polls; she was previously trailing Han and facing stiff resistance from her own party. The wavering support stemmed from the DPP’s devastating loss in the 2018 local elections, which led to Tsai resigning as chair of the party. Now she and the DPP have rallied around the issue of Taiwanese independence, attracting mass support.

The Hong Kong protests have been damaging to the KMT’s Han. Before the protests, Han presented himself as the pro-Beijing candidate, contrasting Tsai’s pro-independence attitude. He was able to ride on a wave of populist support as he promised economic benefits for Taiwan by fostering closer ties with China. This stance, which at first made him quite popular, is now proving toxic. On the onset of the protests, Han tried to distance himself from China and declared that “the Hong Kong government must pull back before it’s too late”. He has also altered his previous stance towards mainland China’s policy of ‘One China two systems’. Previously using the ambiguous notion of ‘one China, respective interpretations’, Han was forced to make a more definitive stance following the June mass marches in Hong Kong, saying that he would only accept ‘One China, two systems’ “over my dead body”. However, he continues to oppose pursuing independence. Unfortunately for Han, the nuanced pivots have not stopped a steep slide in his poll numbers, with recent polls by ETtoday putting his support at only 27.1%.

THE SURPRISE OUTSIDER

Former vice-president Annette Lu, who only declared her candidacy for president on September 17, was a shock addition to the race, especially after independent candidates Terry Gou and Ko wen-je pulled out on the same day. As the candidate for the pro-independence Formosa Alliance party, Annette Lu presents herself as a “third choice” to Tsai and Han. Lu made similar remarks in January when she suggested that Taiwan had only three paths regarding China: accepting ‘One China, two systems’, pursuing independence, or to seek permanent neutrality.

According to Lu, she was partly inspired by the Hong Kong protests. She stated, “I often find myself weeping unstoppable tears when I see people in Hong Kong, young and old alike, who keep on fighting for their own future.” It appears the protests helped Lu decide that the third choice of neutrality is Taiwan’s best option. However, Lu’s chances of winning are currently extremely low as, according to Taiwanese professor of political science Fan Shiping, Lu’s political sway is very limited compared to the other two candidates. Things may change as the election gets nearer, but for the time being, she is a novelty in the race.

WINNING THE BATTLE, LOSING THE WAR

Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr

As of now, Tsai is the most likely to win the election. The Hong Kong protests have reignited Taiwanese fears of a mainland invasion and Tsai and the DPP have been the strongest proponents for Taiwanese independence and the rejection of ‘One China, two systems’. With the election still five months away, things may change, but the protests have allowed Tsai to carve out a strong foothold in the polls. However, if Han is able to achieve victory, domestic opposition to reunification with China would make his pro-Beijing policies difficult to implement.

Responding to Tsai’s condemnations of the Hong Kong government’s handling of the protests, Beijing has labelled the Taiwanese government as one of the ‘black hands’ they claim are influencing the protests. The Chinse Communist Party is concerned about Tsai, whose resolute determination to protect Taiwan independence threatens its goal of unification. If she were to win, China could move to isolate Taiwan further from the international community. Its ongoing effort to cut off Taiwan’s diplomatic allies made fresh headlines when the Solomon Islands recently announced it would switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare — formally a staunch ally of Taiwan — stating that “Taiwan is completely useless to us.” He pointed to how it would be far more favourable for his country diplomatically if they allied with China. Beijing’s burgeoning economy gives it an upper hand in the competition for recognition; economic and political opportunities provided via the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are tempting lures for the remaining states that recognise Taiwan.

Although Tsai is likely to win the election, her party might not be so successful in the Legislative Yuan. Currently, domestic polls show the KMT in the lead with support at 27%. While Tsai has a good chance of winning, the DPP may lose their majority in the Legislative Yuan, crippling her politically. This will make it difficult for Tsai to implement measures to secure Taiwanese independence, such as increasing defence spending or approving support from the US.

The Hong Kong protests have revitalised Taiwanese concerns about the fragility of their independence is. However, that realisation may not be enough to protect it.