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Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan

November 13, 2015
A little over a year ago, on a warm humid September day, a student-led protest erupted on a few major routes in Central, the financial and governmental center of Hong Kong. This movement came after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress declared an election framework[1] on August 31, 2014 that greatly restricted any anti-Beijing candidates from being able to be elected as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, the top executive position of the Special Administrative Region.

The civil disobedience movement started on September 28, 2014, under the group Occupy Central with Love and Peace, and tens of thousands of people started to gather on the same day. Wide public outcry against the use of tear gas by the Police that day fueled the continuation of the movement. However, in December, with several injunctions in place and the number of protesters dwindling, the government cleared the several occupied areas and ended the so-called “Umbrella Revolution.”

Joshua Wong on the cover of TIME Magazine
Joshua Wong on the cover of TIME Magazine. Credit: James Nachtwey,  TIME Magazine

Albeit it made international headlines because the Hong Kong people were finally willing to outwardly demonstrate their discontent towards the Central Government’s decision, the Umbrella Revolution was truly unique in that it was student-led. Joshua Wong, a member of the pro-democracy group called Scholarism appeared on the cover of TIME magazine on October 8, 2014.[2] Radicals of Scholarism called for localization, even independence, of Hong Kong. But Hong Kong was not alone.

Rewind to March 2014, when Taiwanese students occupied their own parliament for 24 days in opposition to  the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which was signed between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party across the strait. The CSSTA promoted service trade agreements that would “open up dozens of industries to cross-straits investment.”[3] But to many skeptical Taiwanese, this was a play by their burgeoning neighbor to extend influence, and more importantly dependence of Taiwan on China. This argument is not without statistical support. China is by far the largest trade partner of Taiwan, both in terms of imports and exports.[4] [5] Apart from trading with China, many Taiwanese corporations have their production lines in the Mainland. Some of these companies, like Foxconn, manufacture products in China that are then sold around the world. These trades would be all but impossible had the two sides not normalized their relationship and signed trade pacts to tighten their ties. From a purely economic standpoint, Taiwan is indeed dependent on this huge market. From HTC phones to Taiwanese pop music, China is a huge consumer market that shares the same language and culture at large. It is only natural for businesses to take advantage of this common bond and try to link the two markets.

To many in Hong Kong, this situation is more than familiar. When the SARS epidemic hit hard in 2003, the economic situation was adverse. Businesses, especially tourism and real estate, struggled as no one wanted to visit a place labeled with a WHO travel advisory. Consequently, the Chinese government signed the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) with Hong Kong to provide preferential treatment to services from Hong Kong and waive the tariffs of goods from Hong Kong.[6] In the years that followed, several more supplementary agreements were made to expand CEPA. According to Chinese reports, these agremeents helped Hong Kong achieve an average annual GDP growth rate of 5% from 2004 to 2011, which is double the average amount of other advanced economies in the region.[7] Along with CEPA came millions of mainland tourists who were eager to shop in this tax-free paradise and they gradually dominated the tourism scene in Hong Kong. Most of the services were catered to this significant influx of capital and resources, and Hong Kong’s economy became gradually dependent on China. For example, as China’s economy growth slowed in 2015, the value and volume of total retail sales in Hong Kong decreased.[8] We can see that with the free trade agreements in place, Hong Kong became more dependent on China economically. The positive influence of economic growth provides more favorable views towards China and a good basis for it to gradually exert political influence. In Hong Kong, this is mainly done through pro-establishment political parties and the SAR Government, as shown in the proposed controversial moral and national education that was eventually protested by Scholarism and postponed. However, in Taiwan, there are supposedly no such proxies hitherto. Taiwanese students are worried that this will change.

There are many ways to exert political pressure, and perhaps the most influential strategy is through the controlling of educational institutions. Hong Kong universities are publicly-funded and have the Chief Executive as the Chancellor (N.B. Hong Kong universities follow the British system with vice-chancellor as president). As a result, many of the council members of universities are nominated by the Chief Executive and they represent the overarching presence of politics in the university scene. The recent drama involving the refusal of the council to appoint Professor Johannes Chan, Dean of the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong, as pro-vice-chancellor call into question the academic freedom of the institutions; the University justified their decision to not appoint Chan based on the fact that he did not have a Ph.D and only moved up previously in academia because he is a “nice guy.”[9] Many challenge that the motivation to block his appointment was political, but nonetheless it shows that government-appointed council members hold a disproportionate amount of administrative power compared to actual academic staff such as the vice-chancellor. These incidents inevitably bring politics onto the Chinese college campus and reveal to Hongkongers that politics are seeping in from all aspects of life, even in the academia, which was supposed to be a sanctuary.

Looking over the strait at the current situation in Hong Kong, many Taiwanese treasure their democracy and voting system where they can freely choose between the candidates from the KMT and the opposing, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The presidential election may be in January but early polls have seen the popularity of KMT plummet after their original candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, proposed to have the PRC recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) government but not the ROC as a state.[10] Even the chairman of the KMT did not agree with this view. This pro-union stance had come under great scrutiny in the political world after the Sunflower Movement, and led Ms. Hsiu-chu to become very unpopular within her own party. The KMT finally replaced her with chairman Eric Chu to become the 2016 presidential candidate in October.

It is always hard to balance economic and political interests, but the events in Hong Kong seem to have solidified Taiwanese’s stance to take the mainland’s economic agreements with a grain of salt. As the popular saying in Taiwanese protests go, “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan.” Perhaps Hong Kong has become too integrated with China to ever be economically and politically independent, but at least Taiwan still has its choice. Now all eyes will be on the Taiwanese as the presidential election draws near in two months.


  [1] “Full text: NPC Standing Committee decision on Hong Kong 2017 election framework”, last updated August 31, 2014. http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1582245/full-text-npc-standing-committee-decision-hong-kong-2017-election

  [2] “The Voice of a Generation”, published October 8, 2014. http://time.com/3482556/hong-kong-protest-teenagers/

  [3] “Concession Offered, Taiwan Group to End Protest of China Trade Pact”, published April 7, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/world/asia/concession-offered-taiwan-group-to-end-protest-of-china-trade-pact.html

  [5] “Taiwan’s Top Import Partners”, published April 12, 2015.  http://www.worldstopexports.com/taiwans-top-import-partners/2613

  [6] “Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA)”. Retrieved on November 2, 2015. http://www.tid.gov.hk/english/cepa/cepa_overview.html

  [7 ]“内地与香港CEPA实施九年 香港GDP年均增长5%”. Published June 12, 2012.


  [8] “Report on Monthly Survey of Retail Sales”. Published August 2015. http://www.statistics.gov.hk/pub/B10800032015MM08B0100.pdf

  [9] “港大否決陳文敏任命  他們的理由竟是……”. Published September 30, 2015. http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/news/first/20150930/19315054

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