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Hong Kong Protests Shaping Taiwan Election Campaign

  • Ralph Jennings

Mass protests against Chinese rule in Hong Kong are shaping election campaigns in Taiwan. Taiwan is self-ruled, but many citizens fear China will govern it someday as it pushes for unification. That has pressured Taiwan’s ruling party and the more anti-China opposition party to make strong statements in favor of Hong Kong’s protesters.

As far as relations with China (PRC) are concerned, Taiwan's local elections in November are pivotal. Wins for the ruling Nationalist Party would help it keep the presidency in 2016 and would signal four more years of engagement with China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island and wants to take it back eventually.

Conversely, victories next month and in 2016 for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party could chill ties with China.

It is within this context that the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong figure to have an impact on politics in Taiwan and its relations with the mainland.

Some Taiwanese are afraid of falling under Beijing’s rule if their government engages China too aggressively. Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan, said for that reason the president is under pressure to make a strong anti-China statement as the Hong Kong protests enter a second week.

"People nowadays are generally in fear of PRC's taking over Taiwan either by political means or economic means. So if the president is too weak now, I think the PRC will be even more adamant on the issue of Taiwan,” said Lee.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said in an interview with Al Jazeera television in late September that universal suffrage would benefit Hong Kong's people and the Chinese government's international image. His government's Mainland Affairs Council urged China to listen to the demands of the people of Hong Kong and seek a consensus.

Taiwan's opposition party last week asked China to honor what it described as a promise to allow democratic elections in Hong Kong.

Tens of thousands have protested in Hong Kong since October 27 for universal suffrage to elect the territory's chief executive in 2017 and legislators in 2020. China, which took back the world financial center from the United Kingdom in 1997, wants a committee of 1,200 people, including many loyal to Beijing, to pre-select candidates.

China has claimed Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and insists the two sides eventually reunite. After Ma took office in 2008, his government ended decades of icy relations with PRC by sitting down to reach landmark economic agreements. The opposition party advocates more cautious engagement. When in power from 2000 to 2008, the party angered Beijing by pressing for Taiwan's legal independence from China.

Tens of thousands protested in Taiwan in March and April this year as parliament was about to ratify a service trade pact with China. Demonstrators said the deal would bring the two sides dangerously close despite possible economic benefits. That show of hostility has delayed ratification indefinitely and cast a shadow over President Ma's engagement with China.

Chen I-hsin, a professor of international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said both parties feel pressure to take a tough stand now on China.

He said that as elections approach, both the Nationalists and Democratic Progressive Party will speak in a louder tone.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said last month he envisioned unifying with Taiwan under the same system that Beijing applies to Hong Kong. Taiwan rejected the suggestion, but is studying whether the time is right for a first-ever meeting between the two presidents in Beijing next month.