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Taiwan watches as China closes in on Hong Kong

  • Taiwan is watching Hong Kong closely amid concerns over increasing interference in the special administrative region
  • Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen paid tribute to freedom and democracy to mark 30 years after martial law ended in Taiwan
  • The Chinese response to Taiwan is closely watched as the 19th Communist Party Congress approaches
Taiwanese in Nicaragua wait for the arrival of the President Tsai Ing-wen (not in frame) to the country on January 9, 2017.  The Central American nation is one of Taiwan's few allies.
Inti Ocon | AFP | Getty Images
Taiwanese in Nicaragua wait for the arrival of the President Tsai Ing-wen (not in frame) to the country on January 9, 2017. The Central American nation is one of Taiwan's few allies.

An increasingly assertive China is making its presence felt in Hong Kong, which is a development Taiwan is watching closely as the self-governed island marks 30 years after the lifting of martial law.

"The Hong Kong experience provided a glimpse of what might happen to Taiwan should the 'One Country, Two Systems' formula apply (to Taiwan). So far, it is not very optimistic," said Chen-shen Yen, an international relations researcher at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.

The "One Country, Two Systems" model is supposed to guarantee wide-ranging autonomy and judicial independence for Hong Kong and Macau, both former Western colonies.

Hong Kong recently commemorated 20 years under that system since the U.K. handed it over to China, but the celebration came amid fears about declining autonomy.

That is, activists in Hong Kong say Beijing has reneged on its promise.

In a highly-publicized case, booksellers hawking politically-sensitive texts in Hong Kong disappeared — only to resurface in detention on the mainland.

China has repeatedly pitched the "One Country, Two Systems" model to Taiwan, but with no success. Taiwan views itself as a sovereign state, unlike Hong Kong, which was a British colony, said Yen.

A recent survey by research organization Taiwan Thinktank found half of young Taiwanese polled deemed "One Country, Two Systems" to have failed in Hong Kong. Just 22 percent viewed it as a success. Meanwhile, more than 73 percent of respondents said they were not willing to accept reunification under the model.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council gave its take on China's influence in Hong Kong just before the territory's handover anniversary. The council's deputy head, Chiu Chui-cheng said Beijing should respond to the Hong Kong people's pursuit of democratic institutions and values, and keep its promise to Hong Kong.

"The principal structure of governance based on 'One Country, Two Systems' has not been altered in Hong Kong. However, many of the population believe interference from the mainland authorities on the island's political and legal affairs has grown in recent years, raising questions about the implementation of the principle," said Guo Yu, principal China analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Since the Taiwanese government lifted martial law in 1987, the Taiwanese people have enjoyed a level of freedom such that they now find it "very difficult to see such liberty being curtailed," Yen added. Taiwanese have also developed a distinct local identity in recent decades.

The heavy-handed rule was imposed by the Nationalist Party after it was forced to retreat to Taiwan in a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party. The two territories have been separately governed since 1949.

Mainland China now regards Taiwan as a renegade province that can be taken back by force if necessary and has worked to diplomatically isolate Taiwan.

Recently, China detained Taiwanese human rights activist Lee Ming-cheh on grounds of national security.

The deep political divide between China and Taiwan is unlikely to be bridged in the next few years as long as Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party remains the president, added Yu.

The political gulf between China and Taiwan was on display when, at an event to kick off her party's celebration of the anniversary last Thursday, Tsai paid tribute to democratic rule.

"Freedom is not a given, and democracy is not a gift from rulers. Everything we have today was won by the struggles of Taiwanese," Tsai said, according to the Taipei Times.

At night on the same day, she posted a tribute on Facebook to Chinese human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of cancer while in detention on the mainland.

Calling Liu a "human rights warrior," Tsai urged China to grant democratic rights and freedoms to its citizens in the same post. "We hope mainland Chinese authorities will display the self-confidence to grant mainland Chinese their natural right to democracy and freedom, and at the same time open up new prospects for cross-strait relations," Tsai wrote in Chinese.

The mainland has tightened its screws on Taiwan since Tsai won the presidential election last year. Taiwan is economically dependent on China, its top trading partner.

But moves such as restricting tour groups to Taiwan are "counter-productive" and won't help China's cause, said Chengchi University's Yen.

Yen said he does not foresee immediate military threats as long as Tsai's administration does not officially declare independence. Things may change, however, after Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidates his power as expected during the 19th Communist Party Congress in the fall, Yen added.