Discussions surrounding the protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong have led some people to argue “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.” This sentiment is noticed especially amongst some pro-independence Taiwanese or foreign supporters hostile to mainland China.
This argument suggests that Beijing’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong will be applied to Taiwan if it makes more concessions to the mainland. Yet comparing Taiwan and Hong Kong’s democracy is like comparing apples and oranges.
In other words, significant differences make the comparison almost impossible and meaningless.
In 1997, the former British crown colony of Hong Kong became a Chinese special administrative zone (SAZ) guarded by the People’s Liberation Army. A 1,200 member election committee chooses its chief executive, while the power to interpret the Basic Law of Hong Kong is in the hands of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
By contrast, the Republic of China (Taiwan) has never been governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwanese people elect their president and national legislature, serve in their military forces, and have the full power of interpretation over their Constitution.
Hong Kong had no choice but to give in to the “one country, two systems” scheme promised by Beijing leaders in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Taiwan has never accepted such a status, as President Chiang Ching-kuo rejected it out of hand in 1982 when it was first proposed by Deng Xiaoping.
Ever since then, Chiang’s stance has been firmly upheld by his Kuomintang (KMT) successors. The main reason is that the core values of the KMT – the Three Principles of the People, written by the party founder Sun Yat-sen and aimed at building a state of the people, by the people and for the people – are simply not compatible with the doctrines of communism. This too explains why President Ma Ying-jeou gave a quick but negative response to his mainland counterpart last month when President Xi Jinping proposed “one country, two systems” to Taiwan for the first time since the latter’s inauguration in March 2013.
Meanwhile, another discouraging reality for Xi is that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people also reject the idea. Over the past two decades dozens of polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Taiwanese people support maintaining the status quo rather than accepting reunification with the mainland under the “one country, two systems” scheme.
But the biggest difference between Hong Kong and Taiwan is their approach toward democracy.
Through a series of internal reforms started from the 1990s, Taiwan gradually replaced its authoritarian past with a democratic future by holding presidential and parliamentary elections. After two changes of the party in power, in 2000 and 2008, Taiwan has proven that it is now a new but full-fledged democracy.
Unlike the internal approach toward democratization of Taiwan, Hong Kong’s democracy is subject to the ultimate power in Beijing. This external approach causes more confrontation with Beijing and more instability in Hong Kong. It also makes the democratization process in Hong Kong much more worrying than Taiwan’s path.
In short, several reasons make us believe that “today’s Hong Kong isn’t tomorrow’s Taiwan.” Rather, we should be hoping that, in terms of democracy, “today’s Taiwan is tomorrow’s Hong Kong.”
Dr. Charles I-hsin Chen is the Spokesperson and Director of the Kuomintang Party’s International Department, Republic of China (Taiwan).