China’s move to impose a national security law in Hong Kong has led to backlash across the Western world, but in Taiwan, it’s simply further confirmation that reuniting with the mainland would constitute its democracy’s demise.
“I think it’s safe to say ‘one country, two systems’ is dead,” said Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan and greater China at Davidson College, referring to the arrangement by which Hong Kong has retained its freedoms since its return to Communist-ruled China by the United Kingdom in 1997.
But it was “already dead” in Taiwan, its original intended audience, after more than five years of increasingly connected protest movements in both locales, she said.
“It didn’t take the total failure, or the admission or failure from Beijing of one country two systems, to persuade people in Taiwan that it wasn’t going to work for them,” Dr. Rigger said during a talk held on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing.
In a talk with the Atlanta Council on International Relations about Beijing’s “tightening squeeze” on the two territories, Dr. Rigger laid out how the Taiwanese people for a long time saw Hong Kong as an issue unrelated to their eventual destiny.
Hong Kong was under Beijing’s rule, they reasoned, only with the supposed guarantee that the autonomy enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration would last at least until 2047. Taiwan, meanwhile, had governed itself since Chinese nationalists fled there in 1949 and after fits and starts had become a thriving democracy.
That mindset shifted in 2014, Dr. Rigger argued, as Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement took shape to protest Beijing’s appointment of candidates for local elections, in apparent contradiction to its commitment to move toward direct elections.
Meanwhile in Taipei that same year, protesters under what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, demanded that the Kuomintang-led government drop a trade deal that would have tied Taiwan’s economy even more closely together with China’s. Under KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s people had seen more mainland Chinese students, investment and tourists flooding in and had become wary of further integration.
These movements had much in common. They were both led by younger activists, including students, embracing street politics for the first time and focusing their ire on Beijing rather than on internal political adversaries, Dr. Rigger said.
Growing in their collaboration since, the movements found in recent Hong Kong protests over a proposed extradition laws nd now the national-security law, validation of their fears of Beijing’s encroachment and more aggressive foreign policy.
Taiwan is now also led by Tsai Ing-wen, the recently re-elected president for the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, who has been more bold about standing up to Beijing in the global arena, despite being careful not to provoke Taiwan’s much larger neighbor. China claims it as a province and has vowed to reunite the two, by force if necessary.
China’s recent move in Hong Kong reflects a concession by its leaders that the city would not “melt into” the mainland in the way they originally expected, Dr. Rigger said.
“What no one in Beijijng expected was that we would get to 2020 and Hong Kong people would be resisting more strongly than ever their integration into the way of life of the rest of the (People’s Republic of China),” Dr. Rigger said. “The Chinese government is unable to tolerate their open rejection of PRC norms.”
China appears ready to pay the cost of the international backlash over Hong Kong. The U.S. has moved to remove Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment and has threatened to sanction Chinese officials, while the U.K. has gone so far as to offer an eventual path to citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kongers with special passports. Taiwan is also preparing for a further influx of Hong Kong refugees.
Dr. Rigger doesn’t see this deterring China, which she says doesn’t need Hong Kong’s people to fulfill the PRC’s vision for the city.
Still, Hong Kong and Taiwan are the “biggest immediate challenges to China’s self image and also China’s global image as a rising power,” and in the post-pandemic world, many are now questioning China’s intentions in new ways.
One of China’s loudest critics has been U.S. President Donald Trump, whom Dr. Rigger argued has enabled China to take greater global leadership by retreating from international institutions.
Scenes of unrest in the U.S. over racially charged protests against police brutality have strengthened China further, she said.
“Any moral leadership that the U.S. might have claimed, at least in China, over events like the Tiananmen crisis, is lost given the situation in the U.S. today,” she said.
China’s more aggressive policy under Xi Jinping does have its risks, though, exemplified by debt diplomacy in places like Africa and its grand Belt and Road infrastructure project, both of which could hit a wall as beneficiary nations face the prospect of COVID-19-triggered fiscal crises, Dr. Rigger said.
China is now in a “very tricky and delicate” position as it debates what tools can be used to enforce sovereign loan repayments and how much it should invest in military infrastructure to support its global ambitions.
“When you put your assets at a distance, you put them at risk,” she said, and now China is being “pulled into commitments that it actually would prefer not to have.”
Learn more here about Dr. Rigger, the author of Why Taiwan Matters, who is working on a study of Taiwanese commercial influence on mainland China’s economic rise. She was recently repatriated to North Carolina from Taipei when the State Department called all Fulbright scholars home.
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