COM 06/2019

Taiwan’s upcoming presidential elections and the Hong Kong Protests – Xi’s loss, Tsai’s gain?


Commentary by Jan Kliem, Senior Program Officer and Researcher, CPG 

November 1 2019


Both Taiwan and Hong Kong are experiencing unusual times. Taiwan, on the one hand, long (maybe too) accustomed to the threat it is facing by its aggressive neighbouring state across the Strait that refuses to accept any form of Taiwanese statehood, is in the lead-up to Presidential elections. Hong Kong, on the other, is going through a remarkable stretch of protests that may well fundamentally alter its relationship with the mainland.

The two events are closely related, not least since what sparked the Hong Kong protests was in fact a case that involved the extradition of a murder suspect from Hong Kong to Taiwan after he had murdered his girlfriend whilst on holiday there and then returned to Hong Kong. But as much as the protests have moved on from this issue, so too has the Hong Kong – Taiwan angle on the protests. Today, Hong Kong serves as an example of what could become of Taiwan if leaders set a course too close to Beijing and that has hugely helped incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen.


One country two systems

The idea of one country, two systems, although initially intended to capture the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan, has long been the modus-operandi for China’s Special Administrative Region Hong Kong. After the handover, Hong Kong was allowed to retain its own legal system and police force, for instance, but it was not able to freely choose their own leadership. From a Taiwanese view, one country, two systems has never been an attractive position and electing their own President as well as a much more significant degree of self-determination has always rightly felt to most Taiwanese as much more than what one country, two systems insinuated.


Tsai Ing-wen popularity rollercoaster

Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and incumbent President of Taiwan has long represented a side of Taiwanese politics that is much more suspicious towards Beijing and its long-term intentions. She has refused to embrace the 1992 consensus – the “agreement” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait that there is only one China but each will call it differently, as it is way too close to the one country, two systems model that even the Kuomintang (KMT) refuses. Her calculated political distance to the mainland played no small part in her election win in 2016, but more recently, her popularity and that of her party has decreased to an extent where it was hard to imagine her re-election in 2020. This downfall manifested for example in the local elections in late 2018 in which the DPP lost heavily to its main rival, the more Beijing-friendly KMT, which in turn looked to be on a successful trajectory for the presidential race in 2020.

Tsai’s popularity started to resurge however, after Chinese President Xi once again stepped-up the mainland’s hostile rhetoric against Taiwan, notably in January this year, when he laid out his rather less compromising vision on the PRC’s Taiwan policy. The Hong Kong protests, about six months later, hugely amplified this trend.


Support for the protests

After the beginning of the protests in June, Tsai did not wait long to come out in support. In a characteristically smart move, she quickly connected the situation in Hong Kong with Taiwan’s struggle to upkeep its own democracy in the face of PRC pressures and cleverly supported moving along the early narrow narrative of the protests (the extradition issue) to a much broader issue. It was even decided Taiwan would ban the murder suspect from entering Taiwan in any case and the Taiwanese Ministry of Justice repeatedly encouraged Hong Kong authorities to take judicial responsibility for the case, taking more pressure off the discussion focused around extradition and laying bare the fact that on both sides of the protests, much more was at stake than delivering justice in one single case.


Tsai Ing-wen after 2020?


While impossible to predict the outcome of the presidential election in January next year, the Hong Kong protests and Xi’s increasing assertiveness with regards to Taiwan have without a doubt changed the odds in favour of a re-election of President Tsai. She has been very effective in capitalising on the issue and made huge gains in polls not least due to her consistent messaging and clear stance on the issue. While the KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu has of course also picked up on the trend of the bad example that Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” is for most Taiwanese, he simply cannot sell his opposition and resistance to Beijing as well and as genuine as DPP candidate Tsai can. It is however impossible to predict where the Hong Kong protests will stand in January, so despite the surge in popularity of late for the current president, it will be her job to keep the issue in the mind of the voters.


For the KMT, it will be crucial to shift the focus back from the political to more economic issues in the run-up to the elections. A close economic relationship with the mainland that makes Taiwan’s economy flourish is a relatively easy sell to many on the island, at least if it does not come with the immediate prospect of being overrun or ruled under a Hong Kong style set-up. Lastly, a close eye should be kept on the coinciding Legislative Yuan elections which could well lead to difficulties for any candidate if their respective party does not have a majority or can form a reasonable coalition.