With the world’s eyes glued on Hong Kong, many have begun to speculate what role this summer’s civil unrest will play in neighboring Taiwan’s presidential elections. Considering that Taiwan and Hong Kong share the same underlying political issue – relations with China – it makes sense for politics observers to draw this natural comparison.
While it may seem tempting to speculate that Hong Kong’s protests help make next year’s presidential election a sure thing for pro-Taiwan candidate Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and hurt pro-China candidate Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist Party (KMT), it is worth reflecting on what issues really matter during presidential elections and analyzing how politicians in Taiwan have already begun to shift the Hong Kong narrative to their party’s favor.
It is questionable whether Hong Kong will remain the most salient issue that frames cross-strait relations for Taiwanese up until January 2020, when elections will take place. It certainly will not be the only issue that does so.
Cross-Strait Affairs Matter Every Presidential Election
First, Hong Kong and the discussion of whether “one country two systems” is a viable option for Taiwan’s future may seem like a new issue in Taiwanese politics to some, but the independence-vs-unification issue is the strongest and most salient topic in almost every election. In one of the most recent comprehensive studies of long-term panel data on Taiwanese public opinion, political scientists Shing-yuan Sheng and Hsiao-chun (Mandy) Liao show that “[t]he independence/unification issue has been the most important position issue across years both in the presidential and legislative elections […] the issue is of more importance in the presidential elections than in the legislative elections.” Moreover, “partisan elites frame and manipulate these issues to attain their political goals and how Taiwan voters respond.”
This is not to say that other issues such as economic growth or social reform do not matter during presidential elections. The data show, however, that they do not matter as much as cross-strait relations.
Even without Hong Kong’s eventful summer, the presidential election was always going to be focused on cross-strait relations. Early signs from last year’s November midterm election, such the rise of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the KMT and his blatant pro-China attitudes, signaled that 2020’s presidential election, like those of the past, would again be about Taiwan’s relations with China.
Hong Kong, however, may help frame how cross-strait relations are discussed. For example, members of the DPP, including Tsai, have been eager to point to Hong Kong as a failing of “one country, two systems.” Tsai notably saw an uptick in her approval ratings after January 2019, when Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that force was still on the table if Taiwan continued to resist efforts at unification and emphasized that “one country, two systems” was still the formula under which he hoped to achieve unification with Taiwan.
While Hong Kong may inform the Taiwanese public on how to evaluate the independence – unification issue this year, the protests themselves do not necessarily add a new political dimension, or give Tsai the smoking gun she needs for surefire success. Rather, Hong Kong may give the DPP a different frame through which to advocate maintaining Taiwan’s autonomy rather than increasing ties with China. This is not a new issue, but rather the same salient issue articulated in a different way.
The KMT’s Response
The KMT, interestingly, has tried to use Hong Kong as a frame to try and accuse Tsai of authoritarian actions similar to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The KMT has also tried to backpedal on the issue of one country, two systems, with KMT presidential candidate Han stating that one country, two systems would only be implemented in Taiwan “over his dead body.”
In light of events in Hong Kong., the KMT has attempted to depict itself as never having been in favor of immediate unification with China. According to Han and other KMT politicians, such as former President Ma Ying-jeou, it is in fact the DPP’s excessive provocation of China through advocacy for Taiwanese independence that would lead to the forcible institution of one country, two systems in Taiwan.
Nevertheless, current events in Hong Kong have not scared the KMT off from pursuing closer relations with China. It should be clear that given enough time, the KMT will return to advocating for closer economic and political relations with China, while making the claim that closer relations will not necessarily infringe upon Taiwan’s sovereignty.
For example, following Xi Jinping’s January speech, members of the KMT temporarily distanced themselves from advocating for closer ties with China. But once enough time had passed, Han and other KMT politicians returned to calling for the opening of new maritime trade routes with China and the establishment of free economic zones in Taiwan that would likely be aimed at attracting Chinese investment.
Han in particular visited Hong Kong and a number of Chinese cities in April, meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to sign a number of trade agreements that would bring commerce to Kaohsiung. In giving Han these trade agreements, China was likely hoping to engender the image that Han would be able to bring economic prosperity for Taiwan by forming closer political ties with China. The Lam meeting was also likely intended to signal support for one country, two systems as the political framework for unification between Taiwan and China.
Tsai’s Local Challenges
The Hong Kong issue, however, cannot protect Tsai from the plethora of institutional challenges facing her in the next election. First, recent reports have further revealed the pro-China slant present in a great deal of Taiwanese media carries. In one report, it was revealed that Han Kuo-yu took up 70 percent of air time in May.
A report in the Financial Times found that the Want Want media conglomerate, which owns CtiTV, CTV, and the China Times, has been taking orders from Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). According to FT, the TAO calls the China Times offices daily and has a say in the angle of stories related to cross-strait issues and whether they made the front page. Want Want has since threatened to sue not only the Financial Times, but also Kathrin Hille, the journalist that broke the story, as well as any media outlets that cite the report.
Furthermore, investigations show that Chinese interference online through Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms is likely to heavily influence voter behavior in the upcoming election. This is expected to take place through disinformation campaigns or the use of botnets. Pro-China institutions are using as many means as possible to support Han and hurt Tsai.
Plus, Tsai’s own party has also been fighting against her. Former Premier William Lai challenged Tsai for the party’s presidential nomination, a first in the DPP’s history. Although Tsai won, some members of the “deep green” wing of the DPP remain vocally against her re-election. Most recently, a group of pro-independence politicians known as the Formosa Alliance, who are mostly elderly party veterans of the DPP, have formed a splinter party with the possible intention of running their own presidential candidate.
Another unknown is whether Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je or Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, who tried and failed to secure the KMT’s presidential nomination, will also seek to enter the race as independent candidates. If Ko and the Formosa Alliance enter an already heated presidential race, the green vote will almost certainly be split, leading to Tsai’s defeat.
If Hong Kong does become a salient topic of discussion during the upcoming election, it alone will likely not be enough to guarantee Tsai’s re-election. Too many domestic forces are working against her. It is worth keeping in mind that the effect of Hong Kong on Taiwan could be limited; though Hong Kong has caught the world’s attention and made headlines in international media, in many cases, it is only marginally covered in Taiwanese news. This is to be expected, given the pro-China stance many news stations in Taiwan carry.
Hong Kong is just one of many variables that will impact Taiwan’s presidential election. Hong Kong may help Tsai’s re-election chances, but it is only one potential piece of the puzzle.
Lev Nachman is a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California Irvine.
Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan founded in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. He has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018.