Is Hong Kong Changing Beijing’s Plan for Taipei?

Although Hong Kong’s protest movement has politically benefited Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the upcoming presidential elections in January 2020, it does not really change Beijing’s plan for Taipei.

Undeniably, Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement has provided a golden opportunity for the DPP to campaign on a platform that rejects the “one country, two systems” model, bringing about a comfortably leading edge of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen over Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu.

The DPP’s election campaign is appealing to voters to support Tsai for the sake of avoiding the “Hongkongization” of Taiwan. This strategy has been accompanied by an anti-infiltration bill initiated by the DPP in the Legislative Assembly. The entire DPP campaign strategy appears to work quite well in the current presidential campaign.

Conversely, Han Kuo-yu’s campaign team has been adopting a very defensive rather than an offensive campaign strategy. Han’s eloquent and populist style has secured the support of some Taiwan people, but it has seemingly failed to attract more young voters.

Tsai avoids any open debate with him, mainly because she is not a fluent and eloquent debater as with Han. Underground gambling syndicates have already placed huge bets on Han’s likely defeat, focusing on the huge number of votes that Han is trailing behind Tsai. 

Han’s new campaign strategy in the last month of his campaign is to adopt a more assertive and aggressive Internet electioneering approach while appealing to his supporters to refrain from frankly answering questions from pollsters.

Yet, this strategic change may be too little too late unless most public opinion polls fail to tap the views of voters, as with the surprising victory of Donald Trump in the previous US presidential election.

Han’s background as a rapidly rising Kaohsiung mayor does not really help him. The Kuomintang remains dominated by a group of influential oligarchs, but Han’s rapid rise represents an unconventional challenge of local-level elites to the old party elites at the central level.

The Kuomintang was also plagued by the competition between businessman Terry Guo and Han Kuo-yu. Guo was defeated in the presidential primary election in July 2019, but the Kuomintang has become deeply divided and the internal competition undermined Han’s authority to some extent.

Compounding Han’s problematic campaign is the decision of James Soong, the leader of the People First Party, to run in the presidential election. Since Soong and Han advocate dialogue and economic interactions with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), both have an overlapping power base of public support. As a result, the beneficiary of the contest between Soong and Han is Tsai of the DPP.

Some observers of Taiwan have maintained that the PRC has already “lost Taiwan,” and that Beijing will likely continue its dual policies of co-opting the Taiwan elites and masses and “intimidating” the island republic by the refusal to renounce the use of force. 

It is understandable that Beijing must adopt a combination of hard and soft measures, including the utilization of military force and the co-optation of the Taiwan people through economic enticements, notably the some 57 preferential policies implemented by Beijing and other mainland provinces and cities for the Taiwan people to invest, reside, work and study in the PRC.

Given President Xi Jinping’s emphasis that the Chinese would not fight against the Chinese themselves, the soft-line implications of Xi’s remarks have been neglected by many outside observers, who usually harp on the same theme of the PRC’s military threat to Taiwan.

Many observers have also turned a blind eye to the concept of a Taiwan model of “one country, two systems,” an idea floated by some mainland experts on Taiwan affairs.

In mid-August 2019, when the intensity of the Hong Kong protests increased, the Taiwan New Party leader, Yok Mu-ming, suddenly raised the idea of a Taiwan model of “one country, two systems.” He mentioned some interesting characteristics of this Taiwan model.

First and foremost, the “one country” in the Taiwan model would refer to China rather than the PRC in the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems.” This idea maintains the 1992 consensus reached by the PRC authorities and the Kuomintang counterparts, namely both sides can agree to disagree the meaning of “one China.”

For Beijing, one country means the PRC. For Taipei, one country refers to the Republic of China on Taiwan. Yok’s compromise model is to use the name China as “one country.”

Second, Taiwan would be able to retain its military but would refrain from having arms supplies from the United States. Third, Taiwan would disallow independence movement on the island. Fourth, Taiwan would be able to participate in international organizations, including those that have the PRC’s but not Taiwan’s participation.

The expansion of Taiwan’s diplomatic space in Yok’s idea is noteworthy and may become a bargaining chip for Taipei to negotiate with Beijing in the long run. 

Interestingly, the mainland media have reported on Yok’s ideas, implying that the PRC would perhaps consider at least some elements of this “Taiwan model” of “one country, two systems.” Yok’s discussions have been neglected by many observers, especially all the American specialists in Beijing-Taipei relations.

His point of retaining Taiwan’s military in the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” was and is nothing new, because PRC authorities had long suggested that, under the “one country, two systems” applicable to Taipei, the island would be allowed to retain its military. Yet, under the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems,” the American military ties with Taiwan would likely be a bone of contention in any political dialogue between Beijing and Taipei.

For Yok’s idea of disallowing Taiwan’s independence movement in Taiwan, it would perhaps be easier said than done, but any Beijing-Taipei political agreement would and can consider stipulating that Taiwan’s executive and legislative branches would not raise the issue of independence in any format. 

If the mainland media have seen Yok’s ideas of the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” as reportable, PRC authorities appear to be more flexible toward Taiwan’s political future than conventional wisdom may assume.

Hence, Beijing remains quite consistent with its plan on Taipei. First, economic measures favouring the Taiwan people to invest, reside, work and study in the mainland are retained and strengthened. The Taiwan people are welcome to invest, reside, work and study in the Fujian province, the Greater Bay Area and big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The message is very clear: economic integration with Taiwan remains the foundation of Beijing’s policy toward Taipei.

Second, the softer measures are packaged under a slowly emerging Taiwan model of “one country, two systems.” Although the Hong Kong protests have already discredited the “one country, two systems” in the eyes of most Taiwan people, Beijing’s leaders attach importance to the “one country, two systems” principle, which was laid down by the late leader Deng Xiaoping. President Xi Jinping’s think tanks and experts have perhaps modified the principle silently to embrace the Taiwan characteristics in the “one country, two systems.”

If the mainland media have found the Taiwan New Party’s “Taiwan model” of “one country, two systems” as reportable, if not totally acceptable, then there would be room for political dialogue and negotiations between Beijing and Taipei.

The use of military force by the PRC would likely be a crucial condition in exchange for Taiwan’s concessions in some important areas, like the promise of not raising the issue of “independence” in any constitutional amendment, executive action, and legislative bills and deliberations.

Under the scenario that Han Kuo-yu would likely be defeated, Beijing would still make use of the Kuomintang and New Party members as well as some Taiwan businesspeople as the intermediaries between Chinese Communist Party leaders and DPP leaders in the coming years.

In the event that the Kuomintang would return to political power, the room for mutual dialogue and negotiations would undoubtedly be greater.

Regardless of the presidential election results in January 2020, the Hong Kong protests have not really changed Beijing’s plan on Taipei. The plan is already surfacing, namely the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems.” Since many Taiwan people see the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” as a failure, it will likely be an uphill task for Beijing and its intermediaries to persuade the Taiwan people, especially the political leaders, on how the characteristics of the Taiwan model would be politically, economically and diplomatically beneficial to Taiwan in the coming years. The Taiwan New Party’s model could and would perhaps be a starting point, from Beijing’s perspective.

Hence, it is likely that the ongoing political chaos in Hong Kong is making Beijing’s policy toward Taipei potentially even more flexible than ever before, rather than a staunchly hard-line and rigid policy as portrayed by most observers on Beijing-Taipei relations.