Why crushing Hong Kong opposition may have cost China a whole generation in Taiwan

But his story might have been very different if he had lived in Hong Kong, where student activists once crippled the financial center as they took to the streets to demand democracy and freedoms.

“If I was in Hong Kong, I think I would probably be in jail,” said Lin, 33, deputy general secretary of the ruling Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) in Taiwan.

Recent events in Hong Kong have given Lin greater determination to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, he said – and he’s not the only one.

As Hong Kong authorities arrested supporters of democracy, including opposition politicians and newspaper editors, a growing number of people in Taiwan reflected on the island’s future relations with mainland China.
Since the protests in Hong Kong began in 2019, more than 32% of those polled in Taiwan have preferred a move towards formal “independence” – twice as many as in 2018 – according to a survey by National Chengchi University of Taiwan in June.

Less than 8% of those polled were in favor of “unification” with mainland China, while most wanted to maintain the status quo – an arrangement whereby Taiwan remains autonomous, without a formal declaration of independence.

Samuel Li, a student from Kaohsiung city in southern Taiwan, said Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong had heightened his distrust of the Communist regime.

“It reinforced my thoughts on the Chinese government in that it doesn’t really do what it says. It always breaks its promises,” he said. “I really wish Taiwan could stay as it is today.”

Escalation of tensions

Mainland China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since the end of the Chinese Civil War more than 70 years ago, when defeated nationalists retreated to the island.

Taiwan is now a thriving multi-party democracy, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party on the mainland continues to view the island as an inseparable part of its territory, although it has never controlled it.

Today, relations between Taipei and Beijing are at their lowest in decades. In October, the Chinese military sent a record number of warplanes into the air around Taiwan, while Chinese diplomats and state media warned of a possible invasion unless the island follows the Beijing line.

But it was not always so. In fact, for much of the past 30 years, the possibility of conflict had seemed remote. From the early 1990s, many Taiwanese companies moved their manufacturing activities to the mainland, where labor was cheaper, and the authorities were eager for outside investments to fuel economic growth.

Ties flourished again after the turn of the century. Taiwanese pop music and television have become very popular on the mainland, and Chinese tourists have flocked to visit Taiwan, touted by state media as China’s “treasure island”.

In 2015, then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou held a historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore, but only as leaders of their respective political parties, the Nationalists and the Communists. They vowed to reduce hostility, and Ma’s party agreed that Taiwan and mainland China belong to the same country and promote closer economic cooperation.
However, relations quickly deteriorated after 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen of the traditionally pro-independence PDP won a landslide presidential election in Taiwan. Tsai has repeatedly stressed and defended Taiwan’s sovereignty, calling on Beijing to respect the wishes of the Taiwanese people.

In an interview with CNN last month, Tsai said the threat from Beijing was increasing “every day”.

Taiwanese President Says China Threat Grows

“China’s plan towards the region is very different from before,” she said. “It’s more ambitious, more expansionary, and so things that were acceptable to them then may not be acceptable to them now.”

In 2019, Beijing proposed a “One Country, Two Systems” formula for Taiwan, similar to that used to rule Hong Kong since its transfer from Britain to China in 1997.
Under the agreement, Hong Kong was guaranteed to maintain a high degree of autonomy from the mainland government after its return to Chinese rule.
But since then, the pro-democracy Hong Kong camp and human rights activists have accused Beijing of betraying its promise and of eroding democracy and civil liberties in the city, especially in the wake of the 2019 protests and the imposition of the security law.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen greets Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng during a ceremony at the Chiayi Air Force in southern Taiwan on November 18, 2021.

Speaking to CNN in October, Tsai said his citizens rejected the model. “The Taiwanese people have made it clear that they do not accept ‘One country, two systems’ as a formula for solving cross-strait issues,” she said.

In January 2020 – more than six months after the protests began in Hong Kong – Tsai was re-elected by a significant margin over her nationalist opponent Han Kuo-yu, who favored closer economic ties with Beijing. Political observers attributed his victory in part to his support for the Hong Kong protests.

Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas who specializes in Taiwanese politics, said Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has played an important role in how Taiwan’s younger generation views China.

“In the past, many Taiwanese agreed with ‘One country, two systems’ because China promised that people’s daily lives would remain the same. But the situation in Hong Kong suggests otherwise,” he said. -he declares.

“I think the problem is trust. When Taiwanese view China as untrustworthy, any promises or inducements made by China are ignored.”

Economic interdependence

But despite rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait in recent years, Beijing and Taipei cannot afford to sever ties entirely.

Last year, mainland China was Taiwan’s largest trading partner and accounted for 26% of the island’s total trade volume, according to the Taiwan Bureau of Foreign Trade.

Meanwhile, mainland companies depend on Taiwan – especially the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) – for its super advanced semiconductor chips as China competes with the United States in a technology race.

While the world’s attention has often focused on Beijing’s growing military threat to Taipei, Wang said many Taiwanese also recognize that the island’s economy depends on its relationship with the mainland.

Asia's silent militarization threatens to turn the region into a powder keg

“The Taiwanese people indeed realize the importance of cross-strait economic cooperation, and Taiwan’s economy is heavily dependent on China,” he said.

“Nonetheless, the Taiwanese are also cautious about China’s ability to exploit this dependence for political gain.”

In 2013, then Taiwanese President Ma proposed the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, which would have opened up major Taiwanese industries, including banking, healthcare and communications, to investment. from mainland China. The trade deal has raised fears that closer economic integration with Beijing could undermine Taipei’s autonomy.

“Regional economic integration is an unstoppable global trend. If we do not face this and join the process, it will only be a matter of time before we are eliminated from the competition,” said My.

Lin, then a graduate student at National Taiwan University, later led the Sunflower Movement in 2014, which succeeded in forcing Ma’s government to quash the trade deal. The three-week protest saw student activists occupy Taiwan’s legislative building during the island’s biggest protests in decades.

Today, Lin regularly advises Chairman Tsai on key policies. He said Taiwan should reduce its economic dependence on China by establishing more partnerships with the United States, Japan and the rest of the world.

“We must be aware that China is a country which often uses economic means to interfere in the politics of other nations,” he said. “We will continue to interact economically with China in the future, but we must also keep our distance to minimize the impact of supply chain restructuring or internal instability from China to Taiwan.”

CNN’s Will Ripley and Gladys Tsai contributed reporting from Taipei.

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