Taiwan protests resonate with HK residents

Taiwan protests resonate with HK residents
A protester sleeps inside Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament, during protest to oppose the controversial trade pact with mainland China, in Taipei April 5, 2014.

On the streets of Taipei, a young Hong Kong woman started weeping.

As people swirled around her, 22-year-old Ng Wing Yin's face crumpled. "I love Taiwan. They have ren qing wei (the human touch), they treat me like their own."

The student is among those camping outside the Legislative Yuan this past week to protest against a service trade pact between Taiwan and China.

She does not want "Taiwan to become like Hong Kong" - a place with widening inequality "due to mainland speculators" and where the local culture is being "whittled away".

Ms Ng is not the only Hong Konger among the Taiwanese protesters. Other students and activists from Hong Kong have joined her in a show of solidarity with the Taiwanese.

"Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow," is one saying among the protesters. Last week, a pro-independence newspaper here ran an advertisement, placed by Hong Kongers, calling on Taiwan to "learn from Hong Kong and say no to sinification".

Such doomsday warnings are gaining traction in Taiwan as Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland has grown increasingly testy in recent years.

But the current occupation is the first social movement in Taiwan that Hong Kongers are prominently getting involved in, observed Taiwan sociologist

Peng Huai-chen. The issue strikes a chord with them, said Hong Kong international relations academic Simon Shen, because many are increasingly looking upon Taiwan as "their utopia if Hong Kong is completely 'mainlandised' one day".

Indeed, ANZ Banking Group said in a research note that the ongoing protest "may heighten the anti-China sentiment that is seen in Hong Kong".

This is certainly not the "Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow" blueprint that China intended when designing the One Country Two Systems framework.

In 1984, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said there would be only one China but Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan could have their own capitalist and political systems. Hong Kong, the first to revert to the "motherland", in 1997, was to become a role model for the other two.

As a British colony, it was also a middleman between Taiwan and China, facilitating indirect flows of passengers, cargo and capital. Beijing and Taipei also communicated secretly via Hong Kong.

But the interplay of dynamics changed in 1997. After Hong Kong returned to the Chinese fold, Beijing largely dictated the handling of its affairs with Taiwan. Also, Taiwan's election of China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008 meant a reduction of Hong Kong's go-between role.

Yet, people-to-people links increased, as both sides tried to navigate their way through China's rise. Said Dr Peng: "In the past, the Taiwanese did not take notice of what was happening in Hong Kong, but this changed. When the big gets bigger, the smaller ones band together."

Those who want to buttress their stand on Taiwan's need to keep China at arm's length cherry- pick from the Hong Kong experience, citing issues ranging from fears of curbed media freedoms to the pressures from catering to mainland tourists.

The opposition to the service trade pact is also informed by the Hong Kong experience after it signed a free trade pact with China, claimed Mr Chang Jiho, a leader of the student protesters. While the pact is aimed at giving access to Hong Kong investors, small firms complain that they do not benefit.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, is looking at Taiwan's more mature political scene for pointers - sometimes to Beijing's unease. This is especially as the city's political scene hots up amid a controversial electoral reform process.

The Friends of Hong Kong and Macau Association in Taiwan helps arrange trips by Hong Kong's political parties, schools and other groups to Taiwan.

In 2008, about 10 groups came. Such trips have jumped to 40 to 50 a year now, said its deputy secretary-general Hsiao Tu-huan.

Of these, 40 per cent are by political parties wanting to learn from Taiwan's parties in areas such as public polling and policymaking.

There are other, more controversial, visits such as when an organiser of Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement met a Taiwanese independence advocate last year, provoking criticism from Chinese media about the "Taiwanisation" of Hong Kong politics.

Such a relationship was not part of Deng's plans. But clearly, many people in both places - anxious to retain their ways of life - do share a certain sense of threat.

Mr Hsiao put it thus: "For both Taiwan and Hong Kong, China is too big, too dangerous."

This article was published on April 5 in The Straits Times.

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