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Hong Kong and Taiwan, so similar yet so different

While Taiwan is a model democracy, Hong Kong is losing the limited freedoms it once had

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A Taipei street with a Taiwan flag. (Pexels, Alan Wang photo)

A Taipei street with a Taiwan flag. (Pexels, Alan Wang photo)

Twenty-five years ago, Hong Kong reverted to China on July 1, while Friday also represents the halfway mark of the territory's agreed implementation of a "one country, two systems" political structure. Additionally, it is the date when the torch of chief executive passes from Carrie Lam to John Lee.

It is, therefore, a good time to reflect on how Hong Kong and Taiwan's leaders — Lam and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) — have in their different ways responded to the challenges emanating from Beijing. Both leaders have the rare distinction of being the first female leaders of their respective states.

Some might say the comparison is a bit like comparing apples and oranges but there is one fundamental difference between Hong Kong and Taiwan. While the former is supposedly a special administrative region of China, the latter is a sovereign, self-governing democracy in the comity of nations.

Lam had to work under the watchful eye of the communist regime in Beijing. Meanwhile, Tsai continues to govern with steely resolve despite China's coercion and economic pressure.

Competing claims

Hong Kong was ceded to the British under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and reverted back to China on July 1, 1997. It was condemned as a "barren island" by the then British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston but transformed itself into an economic tiger.

Taiwan, on the other hand, was proclaimed as a sovereign nation when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) fled from China in 1949 after losing a civil war against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The 1951 San Francisco Treaty with Japan, signed by 48 nations on behalf of the United Nations, ended the war between the Republic of China and Japan.

Article 2 of the treaty renounced all Japan's rights, titles, and claims to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu as well as the Spratly and Paracel islands. All treaties, conventions, and agreements concluded before 1941 between China and Japan became null and void as a consequence of the war.

While democracy didn't have much of a chance to flourish in the "barren" soil of Hong Kong, it quickly struck deep roots in Taiwan. Democracy in Taiwan is home-grown and has a bottom-up approach.

The values of democracy have been internalized by its people and in the national political psyche, so much so, it is irreversible. The way Taiwan has transformed from despotism to democracy, with all its attendant attributes — such as an independent judiciary, vibrant media, a professional and apolitical civil service, and military — is awe-inspiring.

Taiwan is not only an economic miracle but also a political miracle. The Taiwan model of democracy has acquired a distinctive flavor of its own in terms of its soft power, just like the grace and elegance of its soft-spoken people.

Money first

Hong Kong's story is more about going from rags to riches. Productivity and profit have been the guiding principles of its dynamic people. Hong Kong, from its very inception, was primarily an economic entity. Its political identity has been incidental and secondary.

The British never thought of seriously introducing democratic reforms in Hong Kong except once during World War II, and later in 1992, when the final Governor Chris Patten introduced democratic reforms after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Although there have been sporadic democracy movements in Hong Kong, in Taiwan there was a sustained campaign for democracy, demonstrated by the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979, leading to the formation and development of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986.

The repeal of Martial Law in 1987, after it was declared in 1949, provided an impetus to democratization and there has been no looking back since. In Taiwan, the democratic aspirations of the people have now been institutionalized and enjoy cross-party support.

Political developments in Hong Kong have always resonated in Taiwan. For example, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong at the end of 2019 greatly helped the electoral victory of the DPP in January 2020.

The empathy that Taiwan shares with Hong Kong is yet another aspect of the democratic narrative and connection between the two states. Taiwan has always extended moral and material support to the democratic yearnings of the people of Hong Kong.

The writer, a Delhi-based China scholar, is a Taiwan Fellow at National Chung Hsing University and author of the book "Hong Kong Conundrum: Pangs of Transition," published in April this year.