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Taiwan and Hong Kong: An Analysis of Recent Political Culture


Image: “Freedom Park” in Taiwan.

Daniel Yen         Sept. 2016


When people mention China, they almost always refer to the People Republic of China (PRC). Yet many forget that there exists another China, the Republic of China (ROC), more commonly referred to as Taiwan. The PRC (Mainland China) claims sovereignty over Taiwan, so due to the PRC’s ever-increasing foreign influence in recent decades, Taiwan has found itself more and more isolated from the international community. Taiwan’s economy has unspectacular performance but remains stable, while the country continues to maintain a formidable military force and, perhaps most notable of all, a democratically elected government. Ever since political liberalization in the 1990’s, Taiwan has held free and fair elections. Taiwan’s liberal democracy forms a stark contrast against the PRC’s Communist-controlled one-party state. Today, Taiwan’s increasing isolation serves as a reminder of Mainland China’s meteoric ascent over the past few decades.

As recently as 1971, Taiwan’s ROC government represented China in the United Nations, holding a permanent seat in the Security Council. In 1969, 71 countries recognized the ROC, with 48 others recognizing the PRC. As of 2016, 22 countries still recognize the ROC, while 173 now recognize the PRC. This dramatic change has come in part due to the fact that the PRC governs and represents the vast majority of areas and people that have historically constituted “China”. The increased recognition of the Mainland China, however, has inversely affected the recognition for Taiwan, despite the fact that it controls an area bigger than Belgium and governs a population nearly as large as Australia’s. Taiwan’s increasing isolation has occurred while the PRC’s GDP has surged from $218.5 billion in 1978 to $11 trillion in 2015. Mainland China’s economic miracle has granted it substantial foreign influence, including the ability to pressure tens of countries, including the United States, to break formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Despite the fact that international community’s increasingly cold attitude towards Taiwan derives primarily from PRC pressure, however, the Taiwanese people have most recently chosen to resist closer ties with the PRC, ignoring the potential economic benefits that improved cross-strait relations could provide. Their choice has come subsequent to a period of enhanced cooperation between the ROC and the PRC. Taiwan elected the KMT (Kuomintang) party’s Ma Ying-jeou to the presidency in 2008 and 2012. Under President Ma, a staunch supporter of improved cross-strait relations, Taiwan permitted direct flights between the ROC and PRC for the first time ever, and also began to allow Mainland Chinese tourists into the country. President Ma began the first ROC president to meet a PRC president when he shook hands with President Xi Jinping in Singapore on November 7, 2015. Although the Taiwanese people re-elected Ma Ying-jeou to a second term, by the end of his presidency, much of the population and young people in particular showed great opposition to President Ma’s improvement of cross-strait relations. In the ROC’s most recent 2016 elections, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which supports an independent Taiwanese identity and decreased affinity with the PRC, won the presidency as well as a majority in the Legislative Yuan. Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, won election with 56.1% of the vote, ahead of KMT candidate Eric Chu, who placed a distant second with 32.0% of the vote, spelling an end to the KMT”s eight consecutive years of improved Taiwan-mainland relations.

President Tsai has promised to bring economic prosperity without developing a reliance on Mainland China, and supports continued economic and trade links with the PRC while simultaneously diversifying Taiwan’s trade partners. Even without international diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, though, President Tsai believes that Taiwan will survive by continuing Taiwan’s currently robust economic relations with Japan, establishing stronger trade ties with Southeast Asian countries as a counterbalance to the PRC’s economic muscle, and maintaining healthy, if not cozy, relations with Mainland China. She hopes that if Taiwan can fend off the temptation of economic reliance upon the powerful, wealthy PRC, Taiwan will remain a free democracy.

President Tsai’s nuanced but generally anti-Beijing stance on cross-strait relations reflects public opinion in Taiwan as well as reality, for even though she may, along with much of her people, identify more as Taiwanese than as Chinese and think of Taiwan as a nation separate from the PRC, Beijing’s tremendous foreign influence renders any unilateral declaration of independence from the mainland useless, as well as potentially dangerous. As the Taiwanese military’s primary supplier, the United States wields considerable influence over the Taiwanese government’s decisions. The United States’ official stance on cross-strait relations recognizes the PRC as a sovereign state and not the ROC, while simultaneously denying PRC’s claim over ROC-controlled territories. A 2007 Congressional Research Service report on the “One China” policy called Taiwan’s political status “undetermined” and “unsettled”. As a staunch supporter of the “One-China” policy, the US has stated that it will not support any change to the status quo, where the PRC claims sovereignty over Taiwan, and the ROC claims sovereignty over all of Mainland China. If Taiwan were to unilaterally declare independence from the mainland, the US would have no obligation to defend Taiwan from any potential PRC attacks. Therefore, official Taiwanese independence from the mainland remains highly unlikely in the near future.

Taiwan’s recent cooling of relations with the PRC reflects not only a political division, but also the increasing cultural enmity for Mainland Chinese residents in Taiwan. Between March 18 and April 10, 2014, tens of thousands of Taiwanese protesters demonstrated in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, against the then-KMT government’s proposed Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with Mainland China. During their protest, the demonstrators at times occupied the Legislative Yuan (equivalent of Parliament) and the Executive Yuan (workplace of the ROC’s counterparts to the US Cabinet). Although then-President Ma Ying-jeou said that the CSSTA would help Taiwan’s economy by improving cooperation with Mainland China, protesters argued that the CSSTA would actually hurt Taiwan’s economy and expose their government to PRC political pressure.

This protest represented the economic and cultural resentment that many Taiwanese people feel towards the PRC. High-tech manufacturing has anchored Taiwan’s economy for years. Its most notable companies include the Chi Mei Corporation, which owns Westinghouse Digital Electronics and manufactures chemicals, plastics, and electronics, and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which is the world’s largest dedicated semiconductor foundry, competing against Samsung and Intel to manufacture semiconductors for companies like Apple. In recent years, Mainland China’s manufacturing sector has ventured into the high-tech industry, coming into direct competition with Taiwan’s own established high-tech manufacturing companies. Taiwanese companies such as Asus and HTC have struggled to compete with Mainland Chinese technology companies like Lenovo and Xiaomi. Although some Taiwanese companies, such as the Evergreen shipping company, have benefited from access to the Mainland Chinese ports, much of Taiwan’s populations blames the PRC for their country’s unspectacular economic performance in recent years.



Hong Kong:

A British colony up until 1997, Hong Kong’s leaders continue to feel the influence of a highly educated population well versed in Western forms of government. Although Britain never implemented democratic elections in Hong Kong, it introduced liberal democratic ideals that continue to inspire new generations of young students to promote a pro-democracy agenda in spite of considerable practicable obstacles. Unlike Taiwan, where the rejection of closer ties with the PRC has come subsequent to a short period of increased cooperation, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have been a thorn in the PRC’s side for nearly two decades, persistently demanding a representative government independent of Beijing influence. In the 21st century and especially and the past couple years, repeated pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have managed to slowly move along the political democratization process, against the firmly anti-democratic desires of the PRC government. Most recently, from September 26 to December 15, 2014, Hong Kong residents protested an plan from Beijing for the 2017 Chief Executive election that would grant universal suffrage to Hong Kong’s citizens but only allow a maximum of three candidates approved by a pro-Beijing election committee to run for the office. The 79 day protest, called the “Umbrella Revolution”, occupied many major street intersections and demonstrated that the city’s youth would continue oppose a government not elected through free, open elections. In Hong Kong’s September legislative council elections, young voters once again showed their disdain for the PRC’s authoritarian tendencies, electing among other pro-democracy candidates a 23-year-old localist Occupy protest student leader.

Just like Taiwan, Hong Kong’s interest in democracy and administrative independence from Beijing derives in part from a fear of the mainland. As the PRC’s economic power has steadily increased over the past couple decades, cities such as Shanghai have sought to supplant Hong Kong as the region’s foremost financial center. Hong Kong’s notably more business-friendly environment (ranked as the world’s freest economy by the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom since 1995) has so far allowed it to remain China’s primary international business center. Nevertheless, Mainland China’s economic potential looms over Hong Kong, threatening to suck foreign business away from Hong Kong in the future. In addition, some fear that if the Communist Party begins interfering with Hong Kong’s economy, foreign investors will shy away from Hong Kong. Therefore, perhaps Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists represent not only political idealism, but also the city’s nervousness about a more powerful Mainland China.



Taiwan’s democracy will most likely fail to inspire political liberalization in Mainland China. As Taiwan seeks to toe the line between economic growth and reliance upon the PRC, it has turned to Japan, its former colonial ruler and currently the largest importer of goods into Taiwan. Although Japanese products enjoy solid reputations in Mainland China’s better educated urban centers, Taiwan’s love for Pokémon, Hello Kitty, and Japanese anime is much more fervent and widespread. This difference reflects that Taiwan hopes to distance itself culturally from the Mainland China’s majority anti-Japan population. Lingering disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands divide the PRC from Japan and in Mainland China, with anti-Japan protests in the mainland referring to the Japanese as “Riben Guizi“, or “Japanese devils”. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Center report found that less than 15% of the PRC’s population has a “favorable” view of Japan. Taiwan’s love for the “Made in Japan” label demonstrates its hope to not only minimize economic dependence on Mainland China, but to also develop a distinct cultural identity.

Significant portions of Taiwan and Hong Kong’s populations resent Mainland China not only because of economic competition, however, but also due to Mainland Chinese tourists’ reputation for uncivilized behavior. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong experienced economic success a few decades earlier than Mainland China. Therefore, they boast better educated populations that tend to think of themselves as well-mannered. Many people from Taiwan and Hong Kong consider Mainland Chinese people to be immediately identifiable by their loud voices, poor manners, and unruly conduct. In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, residents lament Mainland tourists’ boisterous behavior, littering, and line-cutting while unenthusiastically acknowledging that the tourists’ love for shopping benefits their respective economies. Despite the boost they provide to the economy, however, tourists who speak proper Mandarin (as opposed to Cantonese, Taiwanese, or Mandarin with a Cantonese/Taiwanese accent) struggle to command respect from local residents.

Some would suggest that Hong Kong and Taiwan’s recent rejection of increased cooperation with Beijing might bring about political liberalization in Mainland China. To do so would underestimate the PRC’s tremendous economic muscle. As Mainland China continues to develop, the likelihood that Hong Kong and Taiwan will be able to induce political change in the Mainland drops lower and lower. These two areas, one democratic, and the other with democratic aspirations, represent but tiny slivers of a Greater China Area that otherwise remains firmly in the grasp of Beijing’s Communist government. Even if the PRC considers limited political liberalization at some distant point in the future, it remains possible that a Mainland Chinese population that has experienced tremendous economic prosperity under the one-party system would not care for increased democracy. The tremendous differences in political culture that separate Hong Kong and Taiwan from the Mainland suggest an unenthusiastic public appetite for political liberalization in the PRC, at least in the near future. Taiwan will hope its economy remains strong enough to protect its democracy for as long as possible, while Hong Kong seeks to carve its own path to democracy and independence from Beijing influence.

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