TAIPEI, Taiwan — The streets of Taipei were packed on Sunday with tens of thousands of protesters braving the rains of approaching Typhoon Mitag to participate in the worldwide 9/29 Global Anti-Totalitarianism March. The Taipei event was labeled as a show of Taiwanese solidarity with Hong Kong protesters to bring greater awareness to the threat totalitarianism poses to Hong Kong’s rule of law system, and, by extension, Taiwan.
Hong Kong has been engulfed in an ongoing struggle between protesters and the Beijing-backed government since earlier this year. Original protests began in March and April against an unpopular extradition law being pushed through the government, which opponents believed would give Beijing too much power over the judicial processes in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s leadership misread the mood in the city and cracked down on demonstrators, escalating the situation in June, resulting in excessive police violence and what protesters are calling a breakdown in the rule of law.
Protesters have issued five demands to the government, including withdrawal of the unpopular bill, investigating police violence, retracting the “rioter” label slapped on the protesters, amnesty for the protesters, and universal suffrage for choosing the city’s executive and legislature. Having gained one concession in early September, withdrawal of the bill, protesters have made “five demands, not one less” a rallying cry.
But why does this impact Taiwan?
Pro-democracy activists worry the Hong Kong model is how Beijing intends to take Taiwan, and since 2014 Hong Kong and Taiwan democracy activists have realized they have more in common than they thought. Two weeks ago a flash mob of Hong Kongers in Taipei issued a dire warning: “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan.”
Beijing has long proposed the Hong Kong “one country, two systems” model as a way to unite Taiwan with the PRC. However, since the city’s handover to Beijing in 1997, there have been growing complaints of Chinese interference in local affairs, something which Beijing pledged to avoid until at least 2047. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1985, which was registered with the United Nations, Hong Kong would have special administrative status, with semi-autonomy, a “mini-constitution” known as the Basic Law, and non-interference in the system for at least 50 years.
The first signs of cracks in “one country, two systems” was in 2014 when Beijing asserted the right to pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, spurring the months-long Umbrella Movement occupation.
Taiwan’s pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) has been criticized by Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and independence activists for policies seen as leaning too heavily in to China’s “one country, two systems” model. In 2010 former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016) signed the ECFA FTA with China, linking the two economies together under an unpopular “economic integration” plan. His attempts to widen ECFA in 2014 met with resistance and the months-long occupation of the Legislative Yuan by the Sunflower Movement.
Taiwan emerged from a despotic totalitarian system in the 1980s and 90s. Suffering under the longest period of Martial Law in history, 1949-1987, many Taiwanese remember the excesses of unnecessary state violence against the people. The youth are aware that they have been gifted a robust democracy with its own standing military and independent institutions. None want to see a backslide.
Sunday’s event was organized by the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy (TYAD) on Facebook with the support of 20 other host groups, plus nearly 150 groups and associations in solidarity. The event coincided with simultaneous protests against totalitarianism scheduled around the globe for September 29. The focus of the march and rally were the shared values of Hong Kong and Taiwan in the face of Chinese influence in local policymaking — whether real, perceived, or feared — and Beijing’s insistence on its “one China” policy.
Organizers claim up to 100,000 were in attendance in Taipei, with hundreds and thousands more at simultaneous rallies organized in Taiwan’s other major cities, though more conservative estimates place the size of the crowd at a still impressive 50,000. The majority of attendees were between 18 and 50 years old, which is typical for such events, though many younger high school students and senior citizens were present.
Crowds stood in the intermittent rain showers from the approaching typhoon to listen to rally speeches urging action on four key issues impacting both Hong Kong and Taiwan: That Hong Kong’s government realize the five demands of the Hong Kong protesters; a rejection of the “one China peace agreement” proposed by the KMT, which DPP politicians call “surrender” and which organizers worry will lock Taiwan into China’s orbit; urging that the Hong Kong government release arrested persons, enabling them to complete their educations, and allow Hong Kong students to travel to Taiwan to study; and arguing that the Taiwan government should establish formal legal mechanisms to shelter political dissidents from Hong Kong and Macau.
In Taipei, shouts of “Hong Kong jia you! Taiwan jia you!” and “five demands and not one less” were heard from demonstrators for hours. “Jia you” is a cheer of encouragement in Taiwan, literally translated as “add oil” but meaning something more akin to “fight on.” Demonstrators also sang and broadcast the anthem-like “Glory to Hong Kong” during the rally.
The Diplomat spoke with some of the protest attendees.
A Hong Konger surnamed Wong, who has been studying in Taiwan, explained what brought him to the protest with his friends.
“It’s different for all people. I’m Hong Kongese, so I feel this is my place” he said.
Wong has not had a chance to return to Hong Kong for protests. “It’s very hard to figure out when to go back and not be accosted at the airport,” he explained.
“I hope Taiwanese people develop a better awareness of what’s happening. Along with what’s happening with the elections here, what China’s doing to interfere. I feel like Taiwanese people need to be more aware of what’s going on. Why this is all connected.”
Hong Kong may seem distant to the Taiwanese, he explains, but China’s attempts at coercion in Hong Kong will always be used regardless of location.
“I think being aware of what’s happening helps them make better decision in terms of what to do—in terms of their voting here or how they see China in general.”
Nearby stood a Taiwanese girl studying at university. She came to see what was happening with her friends, and said she hopes for peace in the future.
“I want to see how Hong Kong’s going. And maybe I can join them” she said.
Is she worried for Taiwan’s future? “Maybe a little bit” she said. “Maybe we will become [like] Hong Kong.” She referenced China’s growing influence in the city and the increasing unrest. “But maybe not,” she continued, “because we don’t know how it’s going.”
Is Taiwan China?
“I don’t think so” she said. “We [have] different names. Different country.”
A Czech student studying in Taiwan for his Master’s degree explained why he was part of the crowd.
“I believe that democracy doesn’t have any borders in a sense. So if there’s a rally in support of democracy anywhere in the world and I am able to attend it, I should. […] I come from a country that was ruled by Soviets for 40 years, even though I never lived through it — I was born after — but somehow there’s a national identity of mine, and I’m quite experienced from the rallies we have going on at home right now in support of democracy too. So I want to show support.”
Several additional Hong Kong students were shouting slogans with hoarse voices. Two weeks earlier one of the students had flown home to join the Hong Kong protests on September 15 and had got caught in the tear gas.
“It’s like wasabi,” he described. “It burns in your throat and sinuses the same as wasabi. But I was far from it, so I could cover my mouth.”
Another Hong Konger said he’s scared to return home to protest. The police have made the city too frightening.
Despite this, they believe Hong Kong’s protesters are having a huge impact, not just in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but for protesters against oppressive government policies elsewhere, which is why they turned out in Taipei for the anti-totalitarianism protests.
“Look at Indonesia. The protesters learned how to put out tear gas with water and traffic cones,” one said, referring to anti-legislation protests rocking the country. “They learned that from Hong Kong protesters.”
While the dramatic scenes continue to play out in the streets of Hong Kong, the world is watching. If Sunday’s march is any indicator, the Taiwanese understand.