In January 2020, there will be a presidential election in Taiwan that pits Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT). After nearly four years of the pro-independence DPP at the helm, China would be more than welcome for a return of the pro-unification KMT. Such a desire is understandable given how much the previous KMT administration of Ma Ying-jeou tried to engage with China and improved cross-strait relations. In fact, during the KMT’s administration from 2008 to 2016, Taiwan and China dramatically reduced cross-strait barriers. More than that, the leaders of both sides also met for the first time since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Han Kuo-yu, in Beijing’s opinion, will put Taiwan in Beijing’s embrace once more. Han has also shown that closer ties with Beijing are on his agenda given that he visited the mainland in March 2019 and explicitly endorsed more engagement with China. At first, all seemed to go right for Beijing as Han trounced President Tsai in opinion polls by a significant margin as Taiwan was experiencing less than positive economic conditions. However, a series of protests in Hong Kong proved to be pivotal in shifting the trajectory of not just Taiwan’s 2020 election, but also the future posture of Taiwan toward reunification.
The people of Taiwan have been especially attentive toward the protests in Hong Kong. The reason for such attention stems from Taiwan’s concern about the “One Country, Two Systems” model that eased Hong Kong’s incorporation into China in the first place. As China has offered the same model for Taiwan to facilitate reunification, the events in Hong Kong could reveal more about the model. Unfortunately for Beijing, what is transpiring in Hong Kong has given ample evidence for the perils of “One Country, Two Systems.”
Since the handover in 1997, Beijing has guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy in its internal affairs. Nevertheless, as the years went on, Beijing increasingly tightened its hold on Hong Kong’s politics. First of all, Beijing has disqualified Hong Kong legislators who were deemed as pro-democracy. Furthermore, Beijing has meddled in Hong Kong’s affairs by placing pro-Beijing legislators in unelected seats in the Legislative Council of the region. The result of these actions is a legislative body that leans heavily towards Beijing. In the judicial sphere, Beijing has also expressed its wish to sideline judges who are politically unreliable. This measure will place the judicial branch of Hong Kong squarely under Beijing’s influence, thus sapping Hong Kong’s judicial independence. In the executive branch, Beijing also has a say in the selection of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, allowing pro-Beijing candidates to occupy this post.
Nevertheless, as the years went on, Beijing increasingly tightened its hold on Hong Kong’s politics.
The controversial Extradition Bill that would have enabled the transfer of fugitives to Mainland China proved to be the last straw for many Hong Kongese. The result being massive protests and a brutal crackdown, with an explicit endorsement from Beijing, have laid bare the true nature of “One Country, Two Systems.” As a result, many Taiwanese have realized what is happening to Hong Kong could happen to Taiwan one day, with Beijing chipping away at Taiwan’s autonomy despite prior guarantees. The events in Hong Kong also build upon Taiwanese’s wariness toward China. In fact, Taiwan already witnessed the 2014 Sunflower Movement opposing the KMT government’s service trade agreement with Beijing that would open the service sector to Chinese infiltration.
With a majority of Taiwanese now supporting the Hong Kong protests, the events have engendered profound changes in Taiwan’s short-term electoral politics, especially the 2020 election. Although Han started out the race with a 20-point lead over Tsai Ing-wen in February 2019, his lead began to evaporate after the start of Hong Kong protests, and now Han is trailing Tsai by 13 points. So profound is Hong Kong as a factor in the election that Han has started to shift his tone and rebuke the “One Country, Two Systems” model. Hong Kong events have pushed the pro-independence party’s candidate from the brink toward a likely victory while making the pro-Beijing candidate reverse course. As a result, Beijing will almost certainly end up with a more defiant Taiwan no matter who emerges the victor after 2020.
In the long term, the Hong Kong protests will jeopardize the prospect of more extensive cross-strait engagement and noncoercive reunification with Taiwan. As observed in a poll by the National Chengchi University of Taiwan, the start of protests in Hong Kong has brought about significant shifts in public opinion concerning the question of Taiwan’s political status. According to the poll, the low number of people who support immediate or eventual reunification decreased markedly. On the other hand, the number of people who either support immediate and gradual independence or indefinite status quo rose greatly. These figures illustrate increased suspicion of the Taiwanese regarding reunification now that Hong Kong has exposed what “One Country, Two Systems” really means. Any future Taiwanese administrations, as a consequence, would have to tread more carefully in cross-strait engagement or pay a steep political price, in the form of huge electoral defeats, like the KMT after the Sunflower Movement.
Though Beijing could use military force to ride roughshod over any opposition to reunification, this option is replete with risks. Given the island geography of Taiwan, an invasion from China would be primarily amphibious, which requires more resources from the attackers and the outcome favors the defenders. If the invasion succeeds, however, the subsequent occupation will be very challenging as Beijing will have to pacify many angry Taiwanese deprived of their freedom and democracy. Taiwan, in such a case, would be a poisoned chalice for China, bleeding the country of its resources. Consequently, Beijing must double down on peaceful reunification. In order to do so, Beijing must first regain the confidence of the Taiwanese in the “One Country, Two Systems” model. The first step would be to give greater power Hong Kong’s district councils, given the recent victory of the pro-democratic camp, as a means to express Beijing’s sincerity in its commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing should then desist from further interference in Hong Kong’s internal politics and give Hong Kong citizens the freedom to choose their legislators and leaders. This measure would serve to defuse tension in Hong Kong and show Taiwan that the “One Country, Two Systems” model is more than just empty promises. In turn, this would facilitate the ascent of a pro-Beijing candidate in Taiwan, bringing Taiwan closer to China.
Tri Vo is an M.A. Candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in Asian Affairs. He has a deep interest in East Asian international relations, history, and politics.