TAIPEI – An electoral pummeling for Taiwan’s pro-Beijing ruling party and a new spike in prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong have delivered a reality check to Chinese President Xi Jinping just when he was riding a wave of high-profile diplomacy.
Xi’s message of a better economic future by joining forces with Beijing rather than aligning against it doesn’t seem to be working with the electorate in Taiwan, where voters turned out in droves over the weekend to support the chief opposition Democratic Progressive Party in local elections.
The DPP advocates more distance between Taiwan and China and taps into concerns many Taiwanese have over any eventual unification with authoritarian Beijing.
Xi’s message has also failed to resonate with protesters in Hong Kong, who clashed with police early Monday as they attempted to surround government headquarters in the face of Beijing’s intransigence on democratic reforms.
The Hong Kong protests reminded Taiwanese voters of what Taiwan could become in the event of unification with China, said Kweibo Huang, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“Hong Kong consolidated Taiwan voter worries about relations with mainland China,” Huang said.
The DPP won seven of nine races for mayors and county chiefs, delivering a major setback to the ruling Nationalist Party, which advocates greater economic integration across the Taiwan Strait.
That poses a complex challenge for Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to take control of the island by force if necessary. The poll results build on months of opposition among the young and middle class to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to pare back economic barriers between the sides and propel them toward talks on political unification.
Concerns in Hong Kong that the economic rise of mainland China marginalizes the former British colony also are high among the pro-democracy protesters there. Likewise in Taiwan, many residents fear the island’s economy could be swallowed up by China, flooding its labor market to keep wages low as living costs rise.
“Ma Ying-jeou’s policies don’t seem to be producing a trickle-down effect. Voters had the feeling that, today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan,” said Joseph Cheng, an expert on Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong.
Beijing has limited room to adjust to changes in Taiwan and Hong Kong, given its fears of stoking pro-democracy sentiment at home and its long-established positions on the two territories.
It has long pushed for Taiwan to accept the “one country, two systems” policy it negotiated for Hong Kong when it was returned by Britain in 1997, which allows the city some autonomy and a separate economic and judicial system, but places it firmly under Beijing’s ultimate authority.
Xi has continued to push the “one country, two systems” approach with Taiwan despite broad opposition among the island’s 23 million people.
He also has made it clear that he won’t be backing down from his insistence that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 inaugural elections first be vetted and approved by a Beijing-appointed panel.
Xi’s unwavering line stands in contrast to his soft power push in foreign policy that seeks to portray the world’s second-largest economy as strong and confident, while assuaging fears over how China plans to use that newfound strength.
In recent weeks, Xi has hosted the annual summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing, attended the G-20 meeting in Australia and visited Fiji to boost China’s contacts with the Pacific islands. He’s put forward proposals for a regional free trade area and an Asian lending institution that could rival the World Bank — casting Beijing in the global leadership role it has craved but long shied away from.
Appearing relaxed and in control, the president followed up with a major foreign policy address on Saturday, speaking both of China’s growing integration with the international community and its firm resolve to not compromise on its territorial claims.
“China must have its own style of large-country foreign relations,” Xi said. “Travel the road of peaceful development, but at the same time, never abandon our legitimate rights, and definitely do not sacrifice our national core interests.”
While received with maximum fanfare abroad, Xi may have a harder time convincing public opinion in Taiwan and Hong Kong, both of which lie far closer and feel greatly more threatened by China’s rise.
A former Japanese colony, Taiwan split from the Chinese mainland amid civil war in 1949, and its government is regarded by Beijing as the illegitimate administration of a renegade province.
Since 2008, Taiwan and China have signed 21 trade, transit and investment agreements, but protesters in March occupied parliament in Taipei to stop ratification of a China trade liberalization deal. The demonstrators’ ranks grew into the tens of thousands.
When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, Beijing said it would allow universal suffrage in the 2017 election for chief executive. However, Beijing’s demand that candidates be endorsed by a pro-Beijing panel have dented expectations of full democracy as promised.
Repeating scenes that have become familiar since their movement began in late September, Hong Kong protesters carrying umbrellas battled police armed with pepper spray, batons and riot shields early Monday. The protesters, many wearing surgical masks, hard hats and safety goggles, chanted “I want true democracy.”
Although the Hong Kong protests were not a leading campaign issue in Taiwan, analysts said voters considered their own government’s growing ties with China when ousting the Nationalists from nine mayoral and county magistrate jobs, a steeper-than-expected loss for the ruling party. Two of those positions were won by independents.
Following Saturday’s defeat, Premier Jiang Yi-huah and his Cabinet members tendered their formal resignations but remained on as a caretaker government. The electoral battering puts the Nationalist Party on the defensive ahead of a 2016 presidential election that Ma is barred from contesting due to term limits.
In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, the business and political elite generally back closer ties with China, while young people see their future prospects threatened by mainland competition. There are also wide fears that civil rights, such as a free press and independent political organizations, will be eroded by politicians and businessmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with Beijing.
Given those feelings, China needs more than just strong business ties to win over a democratic electorate, said Hsu Yung-ming, a political scientist with Soochow University in Taipei.
“Whether getting too close to China will be dangerous, that was a big issue,” Hsu said.