Taiwan is keeping a close watch on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. But while many sympathize with the demonstrators, what really interests the majority of Taiwanese are good relations with China.
When the Hong Kong police used pepper spray on demonstrators, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou threw his support behind the pro-democracy movement. "We fully understand and support the Hong Kong residents' demand for universal suffrage," adding that the government in Beijing should listen to their calls.
Ma also warned China's central government that a hard-line approach towards the protesters could alienate Taiwan from the mainland and harm the relationship between both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At the same time, the Taiwanese leader appealed to the protesters, urging them to keep the demonstrations peaceful so as to not undermine the city's reputation as a financial center.
Pledges of support and solidarity also came from Taiwan's "Sunflower" student movement which became known for occupying the Taiwanese parliament. "There are many people in favor of the protests," said Tang Shao-Cheng, political scientist at the National Chengchi University of Taipei. Nevertheless, most of them are quiet. "But what is happening in Hong Kong could also have a great impact on Taiwan."
Taiwanese reject 'one country, two systems'
The government in Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province but the island sees itself as an independent country. Just last week Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated that Taiwan's declaration of independence was unacceptable. Instead, the central government wants to apply the "one country, two systems" model to Taiwan. Beijing has applied this strategy to Hong Kong ever since the British handed the territory back to China in 1997. While it remains a part of the People's Republic, Hong Kong maintains a great deal of autonomy and has it own economic and legal system.
But given the experiences made by Hong Kong under the model, the Taiwanese reject it. The same is true for the idea of reuniting with a repressive China. Since the end of the 1980s, Taiwan has developed into a lively democracy, enjoying freedom of the press, expression and assembly; all rights the Taiwanese have fought for. So Premier Jiang Yi-huah was quick to deliver Taiwan's response to Xi's proposal: Taiwan has "never accepted the ' one country, two systems' offer," he said.
"Xi Jinping's remarks regarding the future of Taiwan confirm his nationalist strategy to consolidate power, but they change very little in the balance of power between Taipei and Beijing," said Gunter Schubert, Professor of Greater China Studies at the University of Tubingen in Germany. However, he added, the demonstrations in Hong Kong probably brought further discredit on the regime's talk of "one country, two systems" regarding Taiwan.
Convergence and opposition
Despite the ongoing conflicts between mainland China and Taiwan, both countries have sought, for several years, to ease tensions. As such, the two sides now have direct flights, shipping lanes and postal links. With a framework agreement on trade and bilateral investments, President Ma paved the way to develop a new economic relationship.
But this approach is not without controversy. Last year, President Ma's approval ratings hit a record low of nine percent. The opposition against the economic opening push towards Beijing, seen as too far-reaching, escalated in March this year when students stormed Taiwan's Parliament building. Sunflowers were the symbol of the protests. The peaceful protests only came to an end after three weeks when the Parliament's president assured the students that the deal would be re-examined.
"The 'Sunflower' student protests were very important for the Taiwanese democracy, as they showed the Ma administration that its China policies cannot be successful without more transparency and communication with the population," said Schubert. They also showed Beijing that if they only see the relationship between the two countries as an 'elite consensus,' they will be met with resistance from the population. However, the analyst adds, "the students' opposition to the upcoming deal with China is no longer shared by the majority of people in Taiwan."
Whether the protests in Hong Kong will change that, it's doubtful. The Taiwanese think in pragmatic terms, says Schubert. Most of them want to come to terms with China because they see no alternative.