TAIWAN (AP) — For 20-year-old Olivia Tam, a journalism student at Hong Kong Baptist University, Taiwan in the run-up to its presidential election seems a world apart from her hometown.
As part of an eight-day trip organized by her university, Tam watched thousands of members of the opposition Nationalist Party sing and cheer for their candidate at a festive rally decorated with Taiwan flags, balloons and banners. It's a stark contrast from black-clad protesters back home in streets strewn with tear gas canisters and Molotov cocktails.
“We don’t have such happy rallies in Hong Kong. Whenever we hold a rally its about something unfavorable — we're protesting against something," Tam said. “But I think here it's different. They are really happy, they are hoping to see their favorite candidate to be elected, so I think it's very different.”
Hong Kong has seen months of chaotic anti-government demonstrations that often devolve into clashes between protesters and police. Young Hong Kongers have been agitating for greater democracy in their territory, a former British colony used to more freedoms than on the communist-ruled mainland.
Those protests have been watched closely in Taiwan and likely have further set back China’s hopes of incorporating the self-governing island under the “one country, two systems" framework that governs Hong Kong.
Tam was with several dozen students from Hong Kong who took the opportunity this week to observe Taiwan's democracy up close. The students visited party campaign headquarters and attended rallies as part of their study tour of the election, which will be held Saturday.
Tam expressed mixed feelings.
“I feel very distant, though geographically we are very near to each other,” she said.
In Taiwan, Tam and the other students will observe a direct presidential election for the first time. It's a contrast from Hong Kong, where an election committee with 1,200 members vote on behalf of its population of more than 7 million. Another key difference — candidates in Hong Kong must be endorsed by Beijing.
Directly electing the city's top leader is a key demand of the current protesters and an issue that also sparked protests in 2014.
Hong Kongers turned out in record numbers in November for district council elections, their only fully democratic vote, and many pro-government and pro-Beijing forces lost seats in the city’s 18 district councils.
Tam and the other students paid 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($130) to participate in the study tour, while the university helped pay for their plane tickets and lodging.
Kylan Goh, 21, said he was pleasantly surprised at how easily Taiwanese would speak with the aspiring journalists.
Getting what journalists call “vox pops," or on-the-spot interviews, can be challenging in Hong Kong, he said.
“But in Taiwan, almost everyone will accept your interview," Goh said.
Taiwan, which China claims as its own, transitioned from martial law to democracy more than 30 years ago.
Ben Lam, a newly elected Hong Kong district councilor, traveled to Taiwan on his own study tour, hoping to learn more about election strategies
He urged Taiwan voters to turn out in force to use their rights.
Having “universal suffrage in Taiwan, voting for the president of Taiwan is very precious," Lam said. Hong Kong lacks such opportunities, “so I would like to remind Taiwanese to vote because you don’t know if in the future they can vote — no one (can) guarantee that.“