The wave of protests that broke out in China in late November did not go unnoticed in Taiwan. The protests that took place in China – directed at the Chinese government’s adherence to zero COVID policies but encapsulating a number of demands – more or less occurred concurrently with the late stages of the Taiwanese election cycle. The last week of November, then, saw a wave of solidarity rallies held in Taipei.
The first rally on Sunday, November 27, took the form of a spontaneously organized vigil for the victims of the Urumqi fire that prompted the protests. The vigil was held in Liberty Plaza, drawing around 100, a mere day after Taiwan’s local elections. The vigil was primarily organized by Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese students in Taipei. Speakers included Tiananmen Square student leaders currently in Taiwan, including Wang Dan and Zhou Fengsuo. An open mic period was held for those that wished to speak, while attendees were encouraged to leave messages on pieces of white cloth that were placed in front of a makeshift memorial.
The initial Liberty Plaza vigil was followed a few days later by another, smaller vigil at the same location on November 29 that drew several dozen. On November 30, a third vigil was held on the campus of National Taiwan University (NTU), Taiwan’s top educational institution, in spite of rain. Some of the speakers were Chinese students at NTU, who asked to remain anonymous but spoke about the views of Chinese young people on democracy and regarding Taiwan.
A final rally was held again at Liberty Plaza, historically a common site for protests in Taiwan, on Sunday, December 4. Among the organizers were groups involved in Ukraine aid efforts like Taiwan Stands with Ukraine, groups memorializing Taiwan’s White Terror like the Dr. Chen Wen-cheng Memorial Foundation, and pro-independence groups such as the Taiwan Forever Association. One of the speakers was Lii Wen, the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate for Lienchiang county magistrate, who spoke representing the ruling party. Another speaker was Lee Ming-che, the Taiwanese human rights NGO worker who was detained by the Chinese government for over five years, and was only freed in April 2022.
The solidarity rallies have mostly been small, with the NTU vigil drawing around 200 as the largest event to date. That being said, the only other times that Taiwan saw solidarity rallies occur with such frequency in recent memory was after the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, and in 2019 with the outbreak of protests in Hong Kong.
This probably returns to the fact that the invasion of Ukraine and demonstrations in Hong Kong were events onto which Taiwanese could project their own longstanding concerns regarding China’s territorial claims. Taiwan sought to offer material aid to both Hong Kong and Ukraine, with the donation of protest supplies such as gas masks and safety helmets to the former, and everything from medical supplies to drones to the latter.
An undercurrent of the solidarity rallies has been the question of Taiwan’s relationship to China. Many speakers, particularly Taiwanese students, have emphasized that they are supportive of Taiwanese independence and are not offering support for China because they see Taiwan as part of China. In his comments, Lee Ming-che, who is thought to have been arrested in China for communications with Chinese activists, explicitly rejected the notion of Taiwanese being “ethnic Chinese” or “overseas Chinese.” Knowing that their Taiwanese peers are concerned about how Chinese involved in the protests may view Taiwan, Chinese students that spoke at the rallies have likewise touched on the issue.
The Taiwanese elections resulted in a decisive win for the Kuomintang (KMT), with the DPP winning only five of 22 municipalities in a historic low. Yet though some international commentators have been tempted to interpret the election results as reflecting views of China in Taiwan, hence the win by the historically pro-China KMT, the election was primarily about domestic issues in Taiwan. This is usually the case with local elections in Taiwan. The round of solidarity protests are one sign that Taiwanese continue to be concerned about the dangers to Taiwan’s democracy from China.
Cross-strait issues take greater precedence in Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections, which will take place in 2024. It is a question whether protests will continue with such intensity in China, given that the Chinese government began to relax zero COVID policies in their wake. However, much as the 2019 Hong Kong protests loomed large in the 2020 election cycle, as the frame issue by which long-standing concerns about China were repackaged, protests in China could play a similar role in the next set of elections. As the number of COVID-19 cases will rise in China with the relaxation of testing and quarantine policies, this could further stoke dissent against a government that yoked its political legitimacy to zero COVID. Any future protests will likely also receive significant attention in Taiwan.
Both the DPP and KMT, as Taiwan’s major two political parties, have expressed concerns over ongoing developments in China. KMT chair Eric Chu called on the Chinese government to listen to the views of the people, while former chair Johnny Chiang changed his Facebook photo to an image of a white A4 paper, a symbol of the protests to date. Chu and Chiang are among the KMT leaders in recent memory that sought to try and change the pro-China image of the party, increasingly an obstacle to victory in national-level elections.
Even deep Blue firebrand Jaw Shaw-kang, a media personality, called on the Chinese government to relax zero COVID policies and criticized the Chinese Communist Party for trying to blame the protests on external actors. That being said, some commentary from the pan-Blue camp has accused the DPP of seeking to distract from its election losses by redirecting attention to the protests. Other major deep Blue figures, such as former party chair Hung Hsiu-chu, who visited Xinjiang to express support for China’s “anti-terrorism” efforts in May, have been silent.
President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP has not made any particularly strong statement on the protests to date. Tsai resigned as chair of the DPP to take responsibility for the party’s election losses, as is traditional in Taiwan, and has generally kept a low profile since then. Tsai may also be hoping to avoid retaliatory action from China by avoiding direct statements on the protests.
Instead, statements on the protests from the DPP have come from other politicians. Premier Su Tseng-chang and Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Joanne Ou have stated that the government is paying close attention to the protests in China, while the Mainland Affairs Council called on the Chinese government to listen to the demands of the public. On November 29, the DPP party caucus held a press conference expressing support for the protests. Wang Dan, as well as representatives of Uyghur and Hong Kong organizations in Taiwan, were also present at this press conference.