In just five years, Lin Fei-fan has gone from breaking into and occupying Taiwan’s legislature building with hundreds of students to a senior position in the island’s ruling party.
His story, however, could be different if he lived in Hong Kong, where student activists once paralyzed the financial center by taking to the streets to demand democracy and freedom.
The result, however, was different. Nearly all of the region’s pro-democracy figures have been arrested or fled abroad since China imposed a controversial national security law in response to mass protests in the city.
“If I were in Hong Kong, I think I would probably be in prison,” said Lin, 33-year-old deputy secretary general of Taiwan’s Progressive Democratic Party (DPP).
Recent events in Hong Kong have given Lin greater determination to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, he said.
As authorities in Hong Kong arrested pro-democracy supporters, including opposition politicians and newspaper editors, a growing number of people in Taiwan reflected on the island’s future relationship with mainland China.
Since the Hong Kong protests broke out in 2019, more than 32 percent of respondents in Taiwan preferred a move toward formal “independence,” according to a survey by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in June. The number is twice what was reported in 2018.
Fewer than 8% of respondents favor “unification” with China, while the majority want to maintain the status quo — an agreement by which Taiwan remains self-governing, without an official declaration of independence.
Samuel Li, a student from the city of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, said Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong had increased his distrust of the Communist regime.
“It reinforced my thoughts about the Chinese government that (that) they don’t really do what they say. They always break their promises,” he said. “I really wish Taiwan could remain as it is today,” he added.
Mainland China and Taiwan have been governed separately since the end of the Chinese civil war more than 70 years ago, when the defeated nationalists withdrew from the island.
Taiwan has been a multi-party democracy ever since, but the Chinese Communist Party continues to see the island as an inseparable part of its territory — despite never having controlled it.
Relations between Taipei and Beijing are currently at their lowest point in decades. In October, Chinese military personnel sent record numbers of warplanes around Taiwan, while local diplomats and state media warned of a possible invasion unless the island followed Beijing’s line.
But it was not always so. In fact, for much of the past 30 years, the possibility of conflict seemed remote. In the early 1990s, many Taiwanese companies moved their manufacturing operations to China, where labor was cheaper and authorities were hungry for foreign investment to drive economic growth.
The bonds blossomed further after the turn of the century. Taiwanese pop music and television became extremely popular on the mainland, and Chinese tourists flocked to visit Taiwan, which was promoted by state media as China’s “treasure island”.
In 2015, then-Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou had a historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore — but only as leaders of their respective political parties, the nationalists and communists.
They promised to reduce hostilities, and Ma’s party agreed that Taiwan and China “belong to the same country” and favor closer economic cooperation.
However, relations quickly deteriorated after 2016, when Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the traditionally pro-independence party DPP, won the presidential election overwhelmingly in Taiwan.
The new president has repeatedly highlighted and defended the island’s sovereignty, urging Beijing to respect the wishes of the Taiwanese people. In entrevista at CNN last month, Tsai said the threat from Beijing is increasing “by the day”.
“China’s plan for the region is very different from before,” she said. “It’s more ambitious, more expansionist, and therefore things that were acceptable to them before may not be acceptable now.”
In 2019, Beijing proposed a “One Country, Two Systems” formula for Taiwan, similar to the one used to govern Hong Kong since Britain’s transfer to China in 1997.
Under the agreement, Hong Kong was guaranteed to maintain a high degree of autonomy. However, human rights activists accuse Beijing of betraying its promise and eroding democracy and civil liberties in the city, especially in the wake of the 2019 protests and security law enforcement.
Speaking to CNN in October, Tsai said his citizens had rejected the model. “The Taiwanese people have clearly said that they do not accept ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as the formula that can solve problems,” he said.
In January 2020, the president was re-elected by a significant margin over her nationalist opponent Han Kuo-yu, who advocated closer economic ties with Beijing. Political observers attributed his victory in part to support for protests in Hong Kong.
Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who specializes in Taiwanese politics, said Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong played a big role in how Taiwan’s younger generation views China.
“In the past, many Taiwanese agreed with ‘One Country, Two Systems’ because China promised that people’s daily lives would remain the same. But the situation in Hong Kong suggests otherwise,” said the professor.
“I think the issue is trust. When Taiwanese consider China unreliable, all promises or incentives made by the Chinese are disregarded,” he said.
Despite rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits in recent years, Beijing and Taipei cannot afford to completely sever ties.
Last year, China was Taiwan’s biggest trading partner and accounted for 26% of the island’s total trade volume, according to the Taiwan Foreign Trade Bureau.
Meanwhile, mainland companies also depend on Taiwan — particularly the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) — for their super-advanced semiconductor chips, while China competes with the US in a technology race.
While the world’s attention is often focused on Beijing’s growing military threat to Taipei, Wang said many Taiwanese also recognize that the island’s economy depends on its relationship with the mainland.
“Taiwanese people really understand the importance of cross-strait economic cooperation, and Taiwan’s economy is highly dependent on China,” the professor pointed out.
“However, Taiwanese are also cautious about how much China can exploit this dependence for political gain,” he said.
In 2013, then-Taiwan President Ma proposed the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, which would open up Taiwan’s key industries — including banking, healthcare and communications — to investment from mainland China. The trade pact has raised concerns that closer economic integration with Beijing could undermine Taipei’s autonomy.
“Regional economic integration is an unstoppable global trend. If we don’t face that and join the process, it will only be a matter of time before we are eliminated from the competition,” said Ma.
This brings us back to Lin, then a graduate student at National Taiwan University who later led the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which forced Ma’s government to cancel the trade deal.
The three-week protest organized by the student saw student activists occupy Taiwan’s legislative building in the biggest demonstrations on the island in decades.
Today, Lin regularly advises President Tsai on key policies. He said Taiwan should reduce its economic dependence on China, building more partnerships with the United States, Japan and the rest of the world.
“We must be aware that China is a country that tends to use economic means to interfere in the politics of other nations,” he said. “We will continue to interact economically with them in the future, but we must also keep our distance to minimize the impact of supply chain restructuring or internal instability in Taiwan,” he concluded.
Will Ripley and Gladys Tsai, from CNN, contributed to the report
(Translated text. Read the original here)
Reference: CNN Brasil