Asia Pacific / Politics

China's hard line in Hong Kong boosts Beijing critics in Taiwan

Bloomberg

China’s heavy-handed tactics in Hong Kong could be also hurting its cause in Taiwan.

In recent weeks, Taiwan’s China-skeptic president, Tsai Ing-wen, has come out strongly against Hong Kong’s proposal to allow extraditions with the mainland. The criticism has not only won Tsai praise from democracy advocates in Hong Kong, it also has helped her recover from a local election defeat last year that threatened to scuttle her bid for a second term.

On Thursday, Tsai secured the nomination of the Democratic Progressive Party, clearing her to run again under the pro-independence party’s banner in January. She overcame one of the party’s most vocal China critics in part by taking a firm line against Beijing.

Rather than take a victory lap, Tsai escalated her attacks on the extradition legislation, refusing to cooperate with Hong Kong on criminal suspect transfers should it be passed. “We don’t want to be an accomplice to an evil bill,” Tsai said at a briefing.

That undercuts Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, who has cited the city’s inability to extradite a local murder suspect to Taiwan as the reason why she needs to pass the legislation. On Wednesday, Tsai expressed solidarity with demonstrators gathered to oppose the proposal, saying on Twitter she was “utterly saddened to see the images of #HongKong police firing rubber bullets at protesters.”

The remarks illustrate how Tsai has used concern about Beijing’s tactics to turn the tables on Chinese efforts to isolate her government. The Communist Party — angered over Tsai’s refusal to agree that both sides are part of “one China” — has pressed foreign entities to curb relations with Taiwan while promising benefits to Tsai’s political rivals who favor closer ties.

While Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since a civil war seven decades years ago and remain military foes, the two have built deep economic bonds. Chinese President Xi Jinping this year cited the framework that facilitated Hong Kong’s return from British rule — “one country, two systems” — as his preferred model for eventual unification with the democratically run island.

“This incident has made more Taiwanese people feel that one country, two systems isn’t feasible,” Tsai said Thursday. “One country, two systems won’t be accepted by a democratic Taiwan.”

But it is not just China critics like Tsai who are expressing doubts about Beijing’s efforts to tighten control over Hong Kong. Even the more China-friendly Kuomintang, which favors eventual unification, has dismissed the two-systems model as unworkable.

Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou, who is seeking the Kuomintang’s nomination to challenge Tsai, took to Facebook to support Hong Kong protesters Wednesday.

“The one country, two systems practiced in Hong Kong is a failure,” said Gou, who became China’s largest private-sector employer manufacturing gadgets such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone. The “people’s hearts and voices need to be respected and heard,” he said.

Tsai’s victory in Thursday’s DPP primary bolsters arguments for continuing to challenge China in the general election. She defeated her former premier, Lai Ching-te, to secure the party’s nod by garnering support of more than 35 percent in a survey of 15,000 adults, compared 27.5 percent for Lai in hypothetical races against opposition candidates.

Austin Wang, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in political psychology and voter behavior in East Asia, said Tsai’s embrace of issues popular with the DPP’s activist base, such as concern over China and legalizing gay marriage, helped Tsai and Premier Su Tseng-chang rebuild support.

“The moves in polling suggest that economic issues might have grabbed attention of voters in local elections in November, but political issues could weigh more in presidential elections,” Wang said. “Tsai and Premier Su’s new strategies successfully regained the energy of its core supporters, and made them willing to spread their campaign and policy outcomes to their network, which is crucial for Tsai’s winning.”