HK-Taiwan bond grows on common fear

HK-Taiwan bond grows on common fear
Occupy Central movement leaders (from left) Benny Tai, law professor at the University of Hong Kong, Chan Kin-man, professor of sociology at Chinese University, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming walking to Central police station yesterday.

Two islands, one common fear.

On Sept 28, Hong Kong erupted into protests opposing Beijing's diktat of how the city's leader should be chosen, and by extension, its perceived increasing interference in local affairs.

Two months later, almost to the day, Taiwan held local elections which saw the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) unceremoniously clobbered.

The KMT, under President Ma Ying-jeou over the past nine years, made closer ties with China a signature policy.

Pure coincidence?

To a large extent, the Nov 29 Taiwan election was a local one, determined by local issues.

Gnawing anxieties about their future and growing anger over issues such as corruption and food scandals propelled voters to turn out in force to give the incumbent a kick in the butt.

In particular, the anaemic economy has been less than inspiring, growing an average of 3.3 per cent in the past five years compared with nearly 5 per cent growth before. Wages stagnated - average monthly income last year was NT$37,527 (S$1,580), up just 3 per cent from 2008 - while home prices surged 82 per cent.

At the heart of the issue are duelling philosophies about how Taiwan's economy can grow.

And this is where China enters the picture.

Mr Ma's government believes closer ties, including trade and travel links, with the giant neighbour across the Taiwan Strait will galvanise the economy.

And because of Taiwan's unique geopolitical situation, it must ink pacts with the mainland before it can do so with other trade partners.

This is refuted by Mr Ma's critics. The closer links, they argue, benefit only big businesses like Foxconn - a Taiwanese company which makes iPhones for Apple in China - and the gains hardly trickle down to Taiwan's small companies and workers.

More insidious is the fear that Taiwan's de facto independence is threatened by its increasing dependence on China.

The fact is, the Chinese behemoth casts a large sphere of influence in the region. But for Taiwan - which China regards as a renegade province to be seized back, by force if necessary - it is one perceived by some to have malignant intent.

"If you don't have economic independence, if you overdepend on China, eventually sovereignty will wither away," argues economics professor Kenneth Lin of National Taiwan University.

Polls commissioned by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council found that the number of those feeling that Beijing is "unfriendly" to the Taiwanese people increased this year to 50.3 per cent in July.

This apprehension has been entrenched by Hong Kong's political strife and the issues highlighted.

Widely covered in the Taiwan media, the Occupy movement has become a cautionary tale for the Taiwanese and made voters even more aware of what life under a "one country, two systems" model could be like.

Such concerns seem to have played out on two fronts in this election.

First, the Occupy movement appeared to have helped contribute to independent candidate Ko Wen-je's victory in the important Taipei mayoral race, by inspiring students to support him, said his campaign director Wu Yen-hong, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

Mr Wu said that there was a surge in interest from volunteers within three days after the protest began. "We feel there were mutual influences between Taipei and Hong Kong students," he said.

Second, younger voters - who identify themselves more as "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese" or "Taiwanese/Chinese" - turned out in far higher numbers this time round.

Previously, about 60 per cent voted. This time, it was 74 per cent for the 20-somethings and 78 per cent for those in their 30s, according to Taiwan Thinktank. They would have accounted for the jump in support for the pan- green pro-independence camp.

The irony, of course, is that Hong Kong's student-led Umbrella movement was itself influenced by Taiwan's earlier Sunflower protest movement in March, when student activists led an occupation of the legislature. The latter had advised the former on organising rallies and mobilising people.

China, which considers both islands to be part of its territory, had wanted Hong Kong to be a "model" for Taiwan.

To some extent, it has become one, though not in the way Beijing envisioned it.

xueying@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 4, 2014.
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