Lessons from Hong Kong: Taiwan watches closely

Students from Taiwan and Hong Kong display placards in front of the Freedom Square during a gathering in support of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protestors, in Taipei.
Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images
Students from Taiwan and Hong Kong display placards in front of the Freedom Square during a gathering in support of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protestors, in Taipei.

As protesters demanding for universal suffrage continue to occupy streets in various parts of Hong Kong, some in Taiwan are keeping a close eye on the event.

The slogan "Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan" is used by Taiwanese campaigners who feel that Beijing's refusal to allow a free vote of the territory's government will be seen on the island should it come back under mainland control.

Beijing has offered Taiwan - which split ways with China in 1949 during a civil war - the "One Country, Two Systems" formula and hopes that the integration of once-colonial Hong Kong will convince the self-ruled island to return to Chinese rule. However, Beijing has never renounced the use of force to reunify Taiwan.

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For the past week, rallies in support of Hong Kong's civil disobedience movement have sprouted across the country, with the largest turnout seen in Taipei's Liberty Square. Thousands turned up at the night rally Wednesday donning yellow ribbons and umbrellas - symbols of the "Occupy Central" protest.

Taiwan's President, Ma Ying-jeou, said Monday that Hong Kong's call for free elections had his full backing. The island's opposition Democratic Progressive Party also said that if China disregards its promises to Hong Kong, Taiwan will have to give "a second thought on the promises" made to them.

Political analysts say the protest which has caused a standstill in the heart of Hong Kong is a setback for Beijing's efforts to win over Taiwan.

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"What's going on in Hong Kong makes Taiwanese more wary of a reunification. They have longed rejected the 'One Country, Two Systems' model as certain elements like stationing the People's Liberation Army in Taiwan soil is an absolute 'No'," said James Tang, professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated the model as the basic principle to resolving issues with Taiwan at a recent meeting with a faction that supports the island's reunification with China.

"It is ironic for Xi to be advocating this. The extremely limited democracy given to Hong Kong suggests that Taiwan will find it difficult to maintain its current system if comes under China," David Zweig, director of Center on China's transnational relations at the HK University of Science and Technology, told CNBC.

Ketty Chen, director of Research at The Association of Public Issues Studies believes Xi's statement indicates that Beijing is taking a harsher position towards Taiwan.

"The series of protests against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement are all reasons for Beijing to panic and come to the realization that the Taiwanese simply do not want to be part of China," wrote Dr Chen via email to CNBC. "Will this harsher stance work? I don't believe so. As we seen, after Xi made his statement, both leaders and politicians from political parties, and government in Taiwan have iterated the fact that 'One Country, Two System' will not be accepted by the Taiwanese."

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Hundreds of students raise their cell phone with one sign reading 'hold on to freedom in the rain' in front of Liberty Square to show support for Hong Kong pro democracy rallies on October 1, 2014 in Tai
Ashley Pon | Getty Images
Hundreds of students raise their cell phone with one sign reading 'hold on to freedom in the rain' in front of Liberty Square to show support for Hong Kong pro democracy rallies on October 1, 2014 in Tai

Voices from Taiwan

Earlier in March, opposition against a trade deal with the mainland sparked an unprecedented student-led protest, dubbed the "Sunflower Movement" in Taiwan. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the island's legislature and the area around it for nearly three weeks.

A 23-year-old undergraduate who participated in the March demonstrations told CNBC that he is supporting the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. "Taiwan needs to stand behind the protesters in Hong Kong because we share the same fate. China is threatening the freedom and democracy we have and we need to them know that they can't force their way on us," Kang said.

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Taiwanese have also taken to the social media to express their support for protests in the territory.



However, there are some in Taiwan who fear that growing antipathy towards the mainland could ultimately hurt the island amid warming cross-straits economic ties under the Kuomintang administration in recent years.

Kenny He, sales manager of a local logistics firm told CNBC: "Over the past year, my business with the mainland has been growing and I'm not sure whether these protests will anger [Beijing]. Taiwan's economy isn't doing as well as before so I think we have to be pragmatic, whether we like it or not."