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China and the volcanic politics of Hong Kong and Taiwan

Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Tsai Ing-wen is seen as a dangerous splittist by both Beijing and the US.

Taiwan’s main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Tsai Ing-wen is seen as a dangerous splittist by both Beijing and the US.

The people of Hong Kong may now have to wait years to vote after the city rejected Beijing’s offer of a castrated form of universal suffrage. By contrast, the people of Taiwan, electoral eunuchs no more after a two-decade democratic evolution, will be going to the polls again in about six months.

Their choice could be explosive. In all likelihood, January’s presidential election will result in a victory for Tsai Ing-wen, an opposition leader whom Beijing – and the US – has previously depicted as a dangerous splittist.

Within the constraints of the “one-country, two systems” framework, Beijing has mostly called the shots in Hong Kong since the city reverted to Chinese rule 18 years ago this week. Not so in Taiwan. The island has remained in effect independent since it was lost, first to the Japanese in 1895 and then to the retreating Kuomintang nationalist army in 1949.

Authoritarian for decades, Taiwan has become a rambunctious democracy. In January, that rambunctiousness will test the patience of Beijing, which is sworn to reclaim what it considers an inalienable part of China – by force if necessary.

The situations in Hong Kong and Taiwan pose prickly problems for Xi Jinping. Hong Kong’s rejection of Beijing’s deal could plausibly be good news for China’s president. He can now say he offered a form of democracy but that ungrateful Hongkongers slapped it down. Theoretically, that could put the issue to rest for years. In practice, it leaves Hong Kong about as dormant as an active volcano.

True, life has temporarily drained from the student-led pro-democracy movement that last year brought parts of the city to a standstill for weeks on end. The 2017 election for the city’s leader will now take place under existing rules: a 1,200-strong committee tilted heavily towards Beijing will appoint the chief executive. The next chance for Hong Kong’s 5 million electors to make their preference known will not come before 2022. Even then, Hong Kong would have to swallow its pride and accept the deal it has just rejected.

Broader resentment against China is running high. Hongkongers’ sense of their own identity – rooted in its distinct language and the rule of law – is stronger than ever. Mainlanders are depicted as nouveau riche boors snapping up luxury goods and driving property prices skyscraper-high with their ill-gotten gains. The mood is ugly. Some Hongkongers recently demanded the repatriation of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, abandoned by his parents, who had lived undocumented in the city for years (eventually he was allowed to stay). If electoral reform goes nowhere, the pro-democracy movement is likely to metastasise into identity politics and street protests.

If Hong Kong is a volcano with magma just below the surface, Taiwan is in active flow. Last year, up to half a million people marched against a deal to integrate the island’s economy more closely with that of the mainland. Activists stormed parliament. In local elections in November, electors showed their distaste for closer ties with China by handing the opposition Democratic Progressive party a thumping victory. There is a good chance momentum will carry the DPP’s Ms Tsai to the presidency.

When she ran in 2012, nerves jangled. The US feared she could provoke a crisis like that seen during the previous DPP administration of 2000-08, when it threatened to call a referendum on independence. Beijing, incandescent, said it would invade if the referendum went ahead. Ms Tsai has, perhaps wisely, moderated her stance. On a trip to Washington, she persuaded officials she was no longer a grandstander who might drag the US, which is pledged to defend Taiwan, into war. Even so, she wants to reverse economic dependence on the mainland. Although she stresses the need to maintain status quo with Beijing, she has struggled to square this with her party’s refusal to sign the so-called 1992 consensus. Under this, Beijing and Taipei agree there is only “One China”, but each claims to represent it.

Orville Schell, a veteran China watcher, says politics in Taiwan is ominous for the Chinese Communist party. The authoritarian Mr Xi, he says, has all but extinguished hopes of China gliding towards greater pluralism. Taiwan can no longer play for time in the hope that, when reunification eventually comes, it will be with a democratic mainland. The stakes are thus higher. In Taiwan, as in Hong Kong, any sense of calm will be fleeting.

Source: Australian Financial Review – China and the volcanic politics of Hong Kong and Taiwan

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