Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 13 January 2020

Hong Kong citizens head to Taiwan to celebrate a momentous vote Democracy in action thrills supporters of greater independence from China 


 Among the green and pink sea of flags at Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election campaign rallies, the dozen black ones stood out. “Free Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”, read the flags, waved by Hong Kongers who flew in for the weekend as part of a “democracy pilgrimage”. After months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, erupting into violent confrontations with police, thousands of people from the semi-autonomous territory rushed to witness the presidential election take place in Taiwan — the only example of real democracy in the Chinese-speaking world. Beijing intended Hong Kong to be a demonstration of the “one country, two systems” formula that would eventually be extended to Taiwan. But this has been firmly rejected by the Taiwanese. Instead, Taiwan’s democracy and the presidential election have become a learning ground for many Hong Kongers: the president won re-election with the biggest mandate ever seen in the country’s presidential elections. “From Hong Kong to Taiwan: one ticket; from Taiwan to Hong Kong: one ballot” — the line was projected on the three-storey-high screens of Ms Tsai’s final rally on the eve of the vote. “We were fooled for 22 years,” said one Hong Konger in the crowd, referring to the time since the British handed over control of the territory to China in 1997. “We have had no chance to elect our own chief executive for 22 years. I am here to experience the feeling of having a real chance to elect our own leader.” He said he supported Ms Tsai and believes her government will take care of the arrested Hong Kong protesters who have been forced to flee to Taiwan.

More than 6,000 people have been arrested since June — many of them facing up to 10 years of imprisonment for rioting offences. Over two days in Taipei, I bumped into dozens of Hong Kongers: newly elected young district councillors and activists visiting election headquarters and campaigning teams to learn how big data and social media were used in campaigns; university student groups on politics study tours; and ordinary Hong Kongers there to pick up souvenirs like stuffed dolls of a cartoon version of Ms Tsai. Small marches supporting the territory were held around campaign events. Even in Taiwan, many participants covered their faces for fear that they might not be able to return home. The dark joke I heard repeated was: if Beijing sent a missile to Ms Tsai’s victory rally, both the Hong Kong and Taiwan problems would be resolved in one go. A tour group, led by an academic charging HK$7,850 ($100) per head, quickly signed up 30 participants, including lawyers, bankers and businessmen. Rubio Chan, founder of GLO Travel, said that Hong Kongers look to Taiwan for things such as lower property prices, cafés and cultural spaces. Now “their democratic vision [is] projected into Taiwan as well.”

 Ms Tsai consciously ramped up the imagery in her campaign videos with tear gas and rubber bullets from the Hong Kong protests. “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan,” has been a motivation for Ms Tsai’s 8.2m votes. She even gave a nod to the city in her victory speech, saying: “Many democratic countries, as well as friends in Hong Kong, will be glad.” On hearing Cantonese spoken, young Taiwanese exchanged spontaneous hugs. Local student Stevie Chen had turned, from supporting the China-friendly party, Kuomintang, to Ms Tsai because of Hong Kong. “We followed the events from the very beginning,” he told me. As the results were revealed, supporters standing by food trucks selling Taiwanese sausages and bubble tea screamed, popped champagne and launched small fireworks to celebrate Ms Tsai’s crushing victory.

 I stood with a group of Hong Kongers who were both excited and bitter. “The Taiwan people have cast a vote for us Hong Kongers to say No to the gripping of rule of the China Communist party. They realise what will happen and grant legitimacy to Tsai to stop it,” 27-year-old Dennis said. Others acknowledged the victory did not belong to Hong Kong. “China rules Hong Kong after all,” said Kenneth, who was visiting with his father. “At least Taiwanese have their own government and military force and is de facto a country.”

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