Occupy Central

Beijing's treatment of Hong Kong protests watched by a wary region

Manik Mehta says any violence will further unnerve Taiwan and wider Asia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 2:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 11:37pm

The demand for democracy in Hong Kong, manifesting itself in the Occupy Central movement, is being closely watched by Taiwan and other Asian governments.

One worrying question is whether Beijing would ask the Hong Kong authorities to use force to crush the protests; such a move would send the wrong signal to Taiwan, which China wants to see returned to the fold of the "motherland".

Analysts in Taiwan fear that their president, Ma Ying-jeou, in his zeal for greater trade and economic benefits, is taking the island into the arms of the mainland, fostering Taiwan's economic integration with the mainland and, unwittingly, bringing it closer to a political merger.

This fear drove the so-called Sunflower Movement mass protests in Taipei against Taiwan's economic dependence on China, and against the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services which, although signed last year, has not yet been ratified by Taiwan.

Taiwanese concerns over the growing dependency on mainland China also surfaced during the recent visit of a three-member Taiwanese delegation to New York, where it underlined the island republic's interest in joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Mainland China absorbs some 40 per cent of Taiwan's total exports; two-way trade between Taiwan and mainland China is presently around US$160 billion, with Taiwan scoring a huge trade surplus with the mainland. Dependence on China makes Taiwan politically vulnerable to Beijing's attempts to force the pace of "reunification" on its terms.

That is also the reason behind Taiwan's interest in diversifying its economic and trading ties, notably with the United States, which is the island's most important investor.

Beijing's reaction to the Hong Kong unrest will serve as a yardstick for Taiwan to judge the treatment it could expect if, someday, it fell into China's political trap.

Taiwan has not shown any interest in the "one country, two systems" formula, a modus vivendi allowing Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and freedom, guaranteed for 50 years under the Joint Declaration signed by China and Britain.

While Britain seems uninterested in reminding China of its obligations under the Joint Declaration, other players, including the US, are closely monitoring the mainland's moves.

China's recent white paper categorically rejecting Hong Kong's full autonomy and reinforcing Beijing's authority over the city's governance has unnerved many Taiwanese. They wonder if and how Hong Kong will be allowed to elect its own leader in 2017, given the Chinese leadership's assertion that only candidates who "love" China will be allowed.

Most Taiwanese consider Hong Kong's present chief executive Leung Chun-ying to be a mainland puppet.

Occupy Central's unofficial referendum on reforming Hong Kong's voting system has been dismissed by Beijing through its compliant media as a "farce".

The mass demonstrations in Hong Kong have raised questions in Taiwan about the island's fate if it ever joined China under a repressive regime that is notorious for trampling on individual freedoms.

Should the Hong Kong unrest end as another Tiananmen Square episode, it would not only disrupt Hong Kong's thriving and vibrant economy but also destroy China's credibility as a partner that respects legally binding agreements.

A violent crackdown would also alarm Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, which worry about China's belligerent posturing in the East and South China seas.

Beijing must carefully weigh its Hong Kong options; ordering a violent crackdown is certainly not the best one.

Manik Mehta is a New York-based political commentator