The Hong Kong protests could not have come at a worse time for China. Amidst a ‘Trade War’ with the US, the protests broke out less than a year from Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. The international community should not ignore the significance of this upcoming election to the way China is handling the Hong Kong protests.
Since the incumbent presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, relations between China and Taiwan have significantly deteriorated. Taiwan has increasingly adopted pro-independence stances from China, having rejected the ‘1992 consensus’ supported by both China and the main Taiwanese opposition party, the Kuomintang. It’s unsurprising then that China has an interest in making the incumbent president Tsai lose the upcoming election.
Kuomintang’s candidate, Han Kuo-yu on the other hand, who is challenging Tsai for Taiwan’s presidency, has pushed for closer ties with China, having previously travelled to mainland China to negotiate trade deals with Beijing. Despite denying to be Beijing’s “preferred candidate”, Han and China share similar views on Taiwan-China relations which would greatly benefit China in making any unification between the two countries easier. Among these shared views, the ‘One-China’ policy stands out. This policy considers Taiwan and China as two regions of the same country, and not two sovereign states. Unlike Tsai, who has previously rejected this policy, Han positively advocates for adopting the ‘One-China’ policy if elected president.
But how is Taiwan’s presidential election, and China’s interest in its outcome, relevant to Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong protests have notably increased support for President Tsai. Embracing the slogan “Taiwan will not become Hong Kong”, Tsai’s once relatively low popularity in Taiwan has not only benefited from the unrest in Hong Kong, but may even secure her re-election.
But the race for the presidency is far from over, and China will not waste opportunities to influence its outcome given the high stakes involved. As a Japan Times article notes, “what happens in Hong Kong, including the way Beijing responds to protracted unrest, matters for democratically run Taiwan”.
Reversing the article’s statement, the way China is responding to the protests in Hong Kong appears to be influenced by the Taiwanese election: meaning that China is unlikely to crackdown on the protests too violently, since it cannot afford to further alienate the Taiwanese people before the election. After the election however, China’s approach to the protests may change, especially if Tsai is successful. Without the constraint of having to appeal to the Taiwanese electorate, China will have fewer reasons to tolerate the protests, which currently show no signs of resolution. This could mean that in the days following 11 January, Hong Kong could experience its own ‘Bloody Sunday’.
China, the Hong Kong government, and the Hong Kong police are increasingly embarrassed and frustrated by the length of the protests, ongoing since April 2019. The Chinese Communist Party does not have a history of tolerance with protests: the longest and most significant being the Tiananmen square protests, which lasted for almost seven weeks and ended in a massacre by the People’s Liberation Army. For comparison, the Hong Kong protests have lasted more than seven months, and will likely continue into 2020.
The response from the international community so far has also made it clear that no significant consequences would follow for China if similar violence occurred in Hong Kong. The United Kingdom, the country with arguably the greatest legitimacy to intervene in the affairs of Hong Kong, after China, has displayed a neutral approach, urging “Hong Kong protesters to ‘end the violence’”. Based on President Trump’s indifferent attitude to the contradiction of signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act whilst continuing trade talks with China (now having agreed on a preliminary deal), the US also seems undetermined to take any significant action.
The title of this article is deliberately provocative and even if any crackdown on the Hong Kong protests occurs, it’s unlikely to see ‘tanks rolling’ like in 1989. However, a significant obstacle to China intervening will fade on 11 January, and after that day the situation for China and Hong Kong may become very different. Whether China will violently intervene, impose martial law, and/or send in its People’s Liberation Army or paramilitary police, cannot be predicted. However, it’s likely that once the situation in Taiwan changes, China’s approach in Hong Kong will change accordingly, and it would be a grave mistake to ignore the significance of the upcoming election to the way China continues to handle the current protests.
Mirco Di Giacomo is an international relations and history student at the University of Adelaide, Treasurer of the university’s politics and international relations association, and digital content lead for YAIA.