TAIPEI and HONG KONG — Every rally involving thousands or millions of people since June, every brick thrown, every barricade and subway exit set on fire, every act of solidarity in Hong Kong—they all have their roots in a murder that happened in Taiwan.
In 2018, 19-year-old Chan Tong-kai strangled his girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, during the couple’s Valentine’s Day trip to Taipei. He stuffed her corpse into a suitcase, dumped it in some bushes, and then boarded a plane to return to Hong Kong.
Nearly a year after Chan’s arrest, in February, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam used the case to introduce a bill that would establish conditions for extradition with multiple countries and territories, including mainland China. Hongkongers believe that if the bill becomes law, then dissidents and critics of the Chinese Communist Party would find themselves exposed to a draconian and opaque legal system in the mainland.
Sustained and at time massive protests against the proposed legislation began nearly four months ago, and there’s no end in sight. This weekend, demonstrations picked up steam again, as September 28 was the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement’s onset, when Hongkongers occupied major roads for 79 days in their quest for universal suffrage, and October 1 will be the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding.
The Chinese mainland may be celebrating on Tuesday, but that won’t be the case in Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a former British colony whose sovereignty was handed over to the Chinesed Communist Party (CCP) in 1997, Hong Kong operates under different political and economic systems from the rest of China, and more freedoms—of speech, assembly, the press—exist in the city, at least for now.
To the east, Taiwan is de facto a sovereign nation known officially as the Republic of China, though the CCP says it is a rogue province that must be brought back into the fold. Reunification, as Beijing calls it, is consistently one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stated goals.
Now, the motivation behind the popular uprising in Hong Kong has moved beyond Lam’s bill. The rage and fervor present on the street every day reflects fundamental distrust in the city’s political apparatus, and more importantly a rejection of the CCP’s concept of maintaining “one country, two systems.” It’s an idea that was put forward in the 1980s to pave the way for some degree of autonomy in Hong Kong and Macau—colonies of the United Kingdom and Portugal at the time—and later proposed as an arrangement for Taiwan.
But ask anyone on the streets of Hong Kong or Taiwan, and you’ll more than likely hear that the principle is dead, that it was naïve to ever think Beijing’s strain of authoritarianism could exist alongside any form of autonomy or democracy.
“If you have an opportunity to do a public opinion survey over here [in Taiwan], asking people how they feel about the ‘one country, two systems’ model, the answer is almost always an overwhelming rejection,” Taiwanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu told me in early September.
This year marked a turning point where the impossibility of accepting Communist rule truly sunk in on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Ketty Chen, vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, which was set up to emulate the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C., traces this to statements made by Chinese president Xi Jinping at the beginning of the year: “If you looked at the local [Taiwanese] reaction to the Umbrella Movement back in 2014, they saw what’s going on in Hong Kong as a little bit of an abstract. But when it comes to what is happening this year, especially at the beginning of this year during President Xi’s speech to Taiwanese compatriots where he emphasized that ‘one country, two systems’ is the only pathway for Taiwan’s unification with China, that stirred a lot of attention from the Taiwanese people, especially the youth population, when it comes to how they want to approach the upcoming election, or how they want to have a say for the future of Taiwan.”
Chen describes “one country, two systems” as a “kiss of death” for any current or future politician who includes it as part of an election campaign platform. In fact, all serious candidates who have tossed their hats in the ring for Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2020 have disavowed the concept.
Yet Beijing’s influence in Taiwan and Hong Kong is a constant specter over both territories, because their economies are intertwined with mainland China’s. Instead of mobilizing the People’s Liberation Army, Beijing’s toolbox to manage Hong Kong’s unrest involves tycoons and their business holdings, placing pressure on the general populace by threatening their livelihoods and long-term economic stability. In Taiwan, that threat runs deep too, with the United Front—a CCP organ that taps corporations and elites to circulate political, commercial, and academic influence—waging a bloodless battle on Taiwanese soil.
For instance, the Beijing-based online video platform and Nasdaq-listed company iQiyi—think of it as one of the Chinese counterparts of YouTube—was found to be a vessel for United Front operations in Taiwan. A similar Chinese service called Bilibili has been illegally renting server space on the island. “For the past few years, mainland China has used OTT [over-the-top media services] as part of its grand propaganda campaign, as part of its United Front tactics,” Chen Chui-cheng, deputy minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, told me. “All of these OTT companies are supported by the Beijing authorities. They may seem like purely commercial activities. However, we cannot overlook government involvement.”
In recent weeks, the CCP has put tremendous pressure on multinational corporations and popular businesses in Hong Kong. Over in Taiwan, the fates of many corporations rely heavily on favorable conditions in cross-strait business relations. TSMC, the world’s largest semiconductor foundry, is part of Huawei’s supply chain. And companies that assemble consumer electronics, like Foxconn, rely on an abundance of trained labor in mainland China.
Beijing has taken it even further to sow fear among private individuals, detaining an employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng, for 15 days before releasing him. A Taiwanese national named Lee Meng-chu, on the other hand, is still missing after crossing from Hong Kong into Shenzhen. Lee was at a protest in Hong Kong on August 18, and then entered Shenzhen the next day. A Taiwanese newspaper published a photograph of Chinese armored vehicles near the border that was taken by Lee. He hasn’t been seen since.
Cheng’s detention and Lee’s disappearance send clear signals to everyone in Hong Kong and Taiwan: The Party doesn’t truly envision any manner of autonomy in these locations. While the idea that one nation under the CCP can have different modes of governance may have been sincere more than three decades ago, that is no longer the case under Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong’s blackshirt movement has struck a harmonic emotional chord in Taiwan. Younger people on the island see traces of the Sunflower Student Movement that took place in 2014, as was pointed out by Audrey Tang, who was involved in those days and is now Taiwan’s digital minister and, in her words, the “world’s first anarchist minister.” That spring, students in Taipei occupied the Legislative and Executive Yuans. As for the older generation, police brutality and the lack of accountability in Hong Kong remind them of Taiwan’s martial law period that lasted for 38 years until 1987, when democratization took root to eventually lead to a democratic presidential election in 1996. Hongkongers and Taiwanese also share an affinity in their struggle for maintaining their identities, ones that are distinct from the homogenous national character sculpted by the CCP.
Taking an even broader look, Taiwanese bureaucrats say the CCP throws its weight around in international organizations to bar the island’s representatives from participating in meaningful dialogue, like at the World Health Assembly or International Civil Aviation Organization. In the latter case, Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration strings together open source information like news reports and relies on the occasional tip from contacts in other countries to ensure it stays up to date on matters of aviation safety.
And within the United Nations, Beijing is the second largest funder, contributing enough cash to cover 12 percent of the UN’s budget. The CCP also commits 2,500 peacekeepers. That’s more than the other four permanent Security Council members—the United States, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—combined.
It’s little surprise that Taiwan has been losing diplomatic allies, with nations cutting ties to establish formal relations with the Chinese Communist Party. The Solomon Islands and Kiribati are the latest to do just that, and Beijing has warned that Taiwan will lose all of its 15 remaining diplomatic allies if Tsai Ing-wen is reelected as president in January 2020.
Beyond political manipulation, corporate proxies, and disinformation, Beijing and the PLA have more than 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan at any given time. Military confrontation initiated by Beijing is a constant possibility.
In July, the State Department said Taiwan will procure 108 Abrams tanks and around 250 Stinger surface-to-air missiles in a $2.2 billion arms deal. Then, in August, the Trump administration authorized a $8 billion sale for 66 F-16C/D fighter jets to the island nation, ribbing Beijing. But given the PLA’s incredible advances in military science and technology in recent years, how effective could Taiwanese forces be in a hot war?
Let’s look at the numbers. China’s military budget for 2019 is 1.19 trillion yuan, or $167 billion. Taiwan plans to spend $13.1 billion on its military next year. The People’s Liberation Army of China has at least 1 million soldiers on active duty. Taiwan has about 140,000 ground troops. The Chinese navy has 68 submarines; Taiwan’s has two. The chasm persists whether comparing numbers of jets, armored vehicles, ships, or missiles.
Taking that massive difference in resources into account, Taiwan’s defense strategy in the past was to disrupt Chinese forces, to make it clear that an attack from the mainland would be bloody and costly, so that the CCP’s forces do not congregate in the Strait for an invasion, Holmes Liao, coordinator of security technologies at Taipei’s Prospect Foundation, told me. Yet due to a slowdown in the domestic development of military technologies under Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s predecessor, the island’s defenses have failed to keep pace with aggressive advancements made in mainland China.
“The military right now is focusing on so-called asymmetric warfare. With that strategy, the new force posture is to . . . anticipate an invasion from the Strait and then to defeat the enemy on the beach. I understand that sounds ridiculous, but that’s the fact,” Liao said.
The proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles in warfare is giving Taiwan a new tool for defense against a potential invasion that would come by sea and air. A drone called Jian Hsang has been designed by Taiwanese aviation scientists to perform kamikaze strikes on Chinese targets, and is part of a program that has a budget of about $2.6 billion. David Axe, who covers war and politics for The Daily Beast, told me, “Taiwan is smart to invest in small, inexpensive drones and missiles. The idea is to overwhelm Chinese attackers. Plus, large numbers of small systems are easier to hide than small numbers of large systems such as F-16 fighters.”
Back in Hong Kong, chief executive Carrie Lam said she will withdraw her extradition bill when the legislature reconvenes in October. If this happens, she will be giving in to one of the protestors’ five demands, running counter to Beijing’s proclamation that the government will make no concessions—and more importantly, signaling that the protests have worked, if only a bit. But the blackshirts called Lam’s move a “band-aid on rotting flesh.” Now, they have other priorities: to keep up the pressure so that there will be an investigation of police conduct, and to ensure that those who had been arrested will not face hefty prison sentences. The call for universal suffrage is stronger than ever before.
During the first week of September, school commenced. Some students were chased down by police on campus after they committed to a strike. Normally, pupils assemble to sing the Chinese national anthem and their school anthem at the start of the academic year. This time around, on many campuses, students belted out “Do You Hear the People Sing” instead, using the Les Misérables song—one that is banned in mainland China—to drown out the CCP’s lyrics. And after the last note, they shouted in unison, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time!”
At schools in the morning, on the streets during the day, and yelled out of windows every night—the slogan, just eight syllables in Cantonese, has come to define the shared mindset of a generation that believes they won’t have another chance to speak up and act if they don’t do it now and do it loud.
Putting their belief into practice, it’s now normal to see the Chinese national flag removed from posts to be burned or trampled over. It’s a particularly potent act as the People’s Republic of China turns 70 on October 1. The CCP has organized a massive military parade in Beijing to celebrate the occasion—a show of strength more for domestic consumption than power projection beyond China’s borders. Neighborhood committees have been distributing Chinese national flags so they can be hung across the capital. Tanks have rolled over major boulevards during nighttime rehearsals. Jets have flown in formation over the central business district. Entire neighborhoods have been put on lockdown, with residents urged to stay indoors and keep their curtains shut. The internet connection is throttled. VPNs used for leaping over the Great Firewall are barely functioning.
While the Party’s symbols blanket Beijing, they’re being torched, distorted, and destroyed in Hong Kong. The Chinese national anthem is met with boos and middle fingers, as happened at the World Cup qualifier between Iran and Hong Kong. Stickers and posters show yellow stars like those on the Chinese flag arranged in a swastika formation over a red background, echoing the #Chinazi hashtag that is used online and found graffitied on walls across the city. Portraits of Xi Jinping are printed out and pasted on the ground so they can be trampled upon.
On Sunday, during a march, people on the street chanted, “Death to the Chinese Communist Party.” Red banners and placards that were put up by real estate conglomerates to congratulate the People’s Republic of China for turning 70 were dismantled, sprayed with black paint, or torched.
Once in a while, we see protestors hoisting the American or British flags, with the aim of displaying symbols that are political antitheses to the CCP. But people have been much more receptive to efforts that establish the city’s own identity, like when one composer penned “Glory to Hong Kong,” a piece of music that many have come to think of as the city’s own anthem. Every day, Hongkongers gather in public places—often shopping malls—to sing its four verses.
For many in Hong Kong, Beijing’s offer of governing with “two systems” is poison, delusion. The Party may have presumed triumph, but Hongkongers say they’re ready to spend years in the struggle against Communist rule.
(In cases you were wondering what happened to Chan, accused of killing his girlfriend on their Valentine’s Day vacation, he was convicted of money laundering and given a 29-month prison sentence in Hong Kong. He has not faced any murder charge yet.)