Hong Kong protests give Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen a boost as elections approach

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This picture taken on June 14, 2019 shows a student tying a white ribbon during a rally to support the current protests in Hong Kong against a controversial extradition law proposal at the National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images

The sentiment that has overwhelmed Hong Kong over the China extradition bill in the past weeks has spilled over to neighboring Taiwan, pushing relations with China to the forefront of upcoming general elections.

“Beijing holds out Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems arrangement as the model for eventual unification with Taiwan, which it claims as its own,” Ben Bland, a researcher at Australian think tank Lowy Institute, wrote in a recent note published online.  “But (Taiwanese) President Tsai Ing-wen was using the extradition bill, and the massive protests in Hong Kong, to highlight once again why her country must keep its distance from China if it is to remain a vibrant democracy.”

Beijing views self-governed Taiwan as a province that has gone astray, and has been using increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward the island to push for a reunification after a civil war 70 years ago split the two territories.

Now, issues of independence has been thrust under the spotlight in Taiwan after massive protests took place in the streets of Hong Kong over a contentious bill that would allow accused criminals to be extradited to China. Citizens fear that the plan would threaten Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The former British colony was guaranteed a high level of control over its own affairs for at least 50 years under a “one country, two systems” arrangement when Britain ceded sovereignty to China in 1997. This model operates on the principle that the territories are part of China, but can run their government, legal, economic and trade relations independently.

Beijing has been trying to sell the same model to Taiwan for years.

But with presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan set to take place in January 2020, candidates — even from opposition parties seen to be more pro-China — have been speaking out against Beijing and showing support for the Hong Kong protesters.

Support for Taiwanese President Tsai boosted

The events in Hong Kong have helped boost support for incumbent Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, analysts say, as she fought to win her party’s — the Democratic Progressive Party — presidential nomination to run for a second four-year term.

In the run-up to the final presidential primary last week, Tsai has sharply ratcheted up her criticism against Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy.

“As long as I’m President, ‘one country, two systems’ will never be an option,” Tsai proclaimed on Twitter on June 9, in support of the Hong Kong protests.

Tsai’s foreign minister Joseph Wu also blasted the Hong Kong administration on Twitter, saying the “paths & destinies” of both territories are linked as “we both live under the shadow of the #CCP regime,” he posted, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

In fact, “even presidential candidates from the more China-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, felt compelled to speak out against the Chinese government because of the events in Hong Kong,” Bland said.

That rhetoric has proven to be advantageous for Tsai, who overturned previously unfavorable polls to win the nomination. She gained a 8.2 percentage point advantage over her sole competitor and former party premier, William Lai, who had mounted an internal party challenge against Tsai.

Lai had a previously a lead over Tsai. He branded himself an “independence fighter” and had called for a controversial anti-annexation bill, noted Kelsey Broderick, China analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group. That law, if passed, would make it illegal for a future government to agree to be seized by China.

Tsai had been under pressure from the pro-independence leaning faction within her own party for not taking a firmer stance against Beijing’s aggression.

But she has of late been adopting a more outspoken approach, such as taking a dig at China’s lack of democracy earlier this year.

Who’s running

Tsai will face competition from key opposition party KMT as presidential candidates head into the primary in July.

The KMT has announced five candidates for the presidential primary.

Front runners are Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu — who staged an upset against the DPP in local elections last year — and Foxconn founder and CEO, Terry Gou.

Other contenders include former New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, Taipei County magistrate Chou Hsi-wei and university professor Chang Ya-Chung.

Already, Han and Gou have distanced themselves from their Beijing-friendly stance, openly shunning the “one country, two systems” policy in the wake of the Hong Kong protests.

During the debate for the primary last week, Tsai promised to take measures to boost the slowing economy in her second term, including attracting Taiwan companies back from the mainland.

However, her opponents are also in a strong position — KMT contender Han has worked out a deal to sell Kaohsiung agricultural products to China, while Gou has already made his name as a key Apple supplier with factories in China.

China’s hopes for a Kuomintang victory

China’s attention is squarely on Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election, said Eurasia’s Broderick, with China’s foreign ministry indicating that Taiwan is the most significant and sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations.

Relations across the Taiwan Strait ebb and flow depending on who holds power in Taipei — and tensions with Beijing have risen since the independence-leaning DPP swept to power three years ago.

Beijing has dangled carrots to aid the beleaguered Taiwanese economy, and reached out to pro-China KMT candidates to promise an improvement in economic and political relations under a new administration, Broderick noted.

China prefers the KMT, which avoids talk of going it alone and instead, stresses economic ties with the mainland.

“Beijing is unlikely to take harsh action against Taiwan’s economy ahead of the January presidential election, where it hopes for a victory by the more China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party,” wrote Eurasia’s Broderick.

Taiwan-China relations flourished when the KMT ruled the territory from 2008 to 2016. Leaders from both sides — Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then-president Ma Ying-jeou — met in Singapore for a historic summit in 2015.

The DPP has, however, gained ground in opinion polls recently, on the back of those events in Hong Kong which have rattled voters.

“Chinese officials are focusing on carrots rather than sticks because threats against Taiwan are not well-received by its voters — Tsai’s domestic approval rating jumped after she responded forcefully to Xi’s New Year Speech on Taiwan,” he added.

In the speech, Xi emphasized his position that the island is part of China and that foreigners should not interfere in the matter of Taiwanese independence.

— CNBC’s Kelly Olsen and Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.

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