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Taiwan’s resolve strengthened by Hong Kong’s new security law

Stephen MulrenanTuesday 30 June 2020

In late June the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress imposed a new national security law in Hong Kong, to penalise among other things acts of secession, subverting state power, and organising and carrying out ‘terrorist’ activities. The new law has given rise to widespread concern.

‘When you look at the kinds of organisations and individuals that have been prosecuted in China on charges of terrorism, it gives you a sense of how Beijing uses these terms,’ says Dr Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch.

Ever since the so-called ‘Umbrella Movement’ in 2014, which unsuccessfully sought to secure universal suffrage for the elections of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and Chief Executive, Beijing has been accused of increasingly undermining Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The new national security law is seen by some as representing perhaps the most serious erosion of the Basic Law to date.

There’s no doubt that China’s leadership wanted to get people off the streets of Hong Kong and Covid has made that easier

Dr Sophie Richardson
China Director at Human Rights Watch

Hong Kong’s Basic Law affords Hongkongers rights not enjoyed on the mainland, including the ‘freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration’.

Critics of Beijing argue that attacks on the Basic Law have intensified over the last few months, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has sought to exploit the chaos caused by Covid-19 to further threaten Hong Kong’s autonomy. Pro-democracy leaders have been systematically rounded up and detained and Hong Kong police officers exonerated for their handling of last year’s democracy protests. Those disrespecting China’s national anthem can now receive a three-year jail sentence and be fined up to HKD 50,000 ($6,450).

‘There are legitimate concerns regarding the extent to which the pandemic has offered an opportunity to crack down on dissent around the world,’ says Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and Executive Director of the Oxford Programme on International Peace and Security at the Blavatnik School of Government’s Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict.

Richardson says Beijing didn’t need Covid-19 to do these things. But she adds ‘there’s no doubt that China’s leadership wanted to get people off the streets of Hong Kong and Covid has made that easier. They’ve taken a very hardline decision about what kinds of expression will be acceptable in Hong Kong from now on.’

Hong Kong stocks fell five per cent on news of the impending national security law when it was outlined in late May. Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok said at the time that ‘it is pretty much “one country, one system” now […] it’s, in effect, breaking down completely the two systems that were guaranteed to Hong Kong people’.

China’s ‘one country, two systems’ approach to the governance of previously colonised territories was formulated in the early 1980s by then leader Deng Xiaoping during negotiations with the United Kingdom over the future of Hong Kong. The crux of the arrangement was that Beijing would grant semi-autonomous status in exchange for recognition of the existence of only ‘one China’.

Even before Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau adopted the model, in 1997 and 1999 respectively, a consensus was reached between China and Taiwan acknowledging ‘one China’. As the only other historically Chinese territory beyond the control of the CCP in the late 20th century, Taiwan and its then Kuomintang government reached a tacit understanding with Beijing to agree to disagree on the precise definition of ‘China’.

But while the CCP continues to hold the ‘1992 Consensus’ – named after a meeting between the two sides in that year – as the basis for cross-strait engagement, Taipei has vociferously distanced itself from the arrangement in recent years. ‘Most Taiwanese are resolutely opposed to “one country, two systems”’, said Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2019. ‘This is the “Taiwan Consensus.”’

‘Over the past few years, the relationship between Taiwan and China has got worse and worse,’ says Hung Ou Yang, Managing Attorney of Brain Trust International Law Firm in Taipei. ‘To some extent, I support the reunification with China as I think it is the ultimate destiny for these two countries. However, I would hesitate to say this is the right moment to reunite as China is currently quite oppressive against its enemies.’

Quite apart from showing little interest in being ruled by autocratic China, democratic Taiwan points to recent developments in Hong Kong as justification for its scepticism over the degree of autonomy it might receive under China’s dual-track approach.

Ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed plans to forcefully apply ‘one country, two systems’ to Taiwan in January 2019, Taipei’s resolve over the issue has only strengthened. In June last year it amended the state’s National Security Act to give heavier punishments to those who assist in the development of espionage rings for Beijing. In recent weeks, meanwhile, Taiwan’s government has established an organisation to deliver ‘humanitarian relief’ to those fleeing Hong Kong as a result of the new security law, much to Beijing’s ire.

Some commentators suggest that Taiwan produces such anxiety among the Chinese ruling elite because it represents a vision of what the mainland could be: a thriving, progressive democracy of ethnic Chinese. Unfortunately, such a vision also represents an existential threat to the CCP.

As a democracy, Taiwan’s final decision on the matter will rest with voters, and they made their feelings clear in January this year. ‘You can clearly see that the Taiwanese people used their vote to say “no” to the Chinese government. So, China has to think twice about using oppressive language and activities against us. We hate being excluded from participating in international organisations (such as the World Health Organization), and we hate Beijing always claiming that Taiwan is a part of China,’ says Ou Yang.

‘The CCP continues to take ever-more aggressive moves against the Taiwanese people because it understands that it cannot peacefully control us and our territory,’ he adds. ‘So, my biggest concern is that China may one day decide to take military action against Taiwan.’

Image: YT HUI / Shutterstock.com