Hong Kong and Taiwan: seeking perspectives

Jul 8, 2021

My intention here is to provide some information on Hong Kong and Taiwan, having regard  to media failure and  the general drought of information in Australia. Policy and public sentiment is being driven by passions and our tendency to prefer conflictual in news and argument.

There have been a number of valuable essays recently at P & I about Hong Kong. Authors include Jocelyn Chey with her lifelong immersion in China and Chinese language and culture and experience working in Beijing and Hong Kong, and Grenville Cross and Richard Cullen with their depths of experience in legal matters in Hong Kong. Among others.

This essay by Richard Cullen discusses the perverse way in which Taiwan has dealt with the case of the young Hong Kong man who has confessed to murdering his girlfriend while they were visiting Taiwan, whose case was a large element in the Hong Kong government bringing forward extradition legislation in 2019, contributing to demonstrations, then riots. Taiwan still will not allow this man to travel to Taiwan, accompanied by a minister of religion, to be arrested on arrival. Cullen’s essay also addresses the wider international legal obligation on Hong Kong to bring its extradition laws up to proper standards. In a situation where Hong Kong has long been a refuge for the corrupt, the anti-corruption campaigns of the government of the People’s Republic of China have been a threat to people with dark power in Hong Kong.

The events in Hong Kong in 2019, demonstrations then violence, must be seen in the context of the run-up to presidential elections in Taiwan, and the heavy involvement of the United States in both places.

We have problems of cross-cultural understanding in Australia. Both the ABC and The Guardian tend to dive in with home-bred passionate values and limited local experience to report on China and other places. Wanning Sun’s extensive discussion of the cross-cultural issues in universities is relevant.

In 2019 I had the time to watch many hours of live coverage of the mass events in Hong Kong, as offered only by RT and Ruptly. Russian broadcasters yes, but hours of reality rather than sensational grabs by most western media. During the daytime period of approved demonstrations families and others moved through the streets happily and quietly; most could be seen heading home around 4pm. But then in the period after the approved hours the mood changed. Road barriers were moved to create barricades against police units that had not moved all day and had excluded vehicles from major streets. In the evenings, as police sought to clear the mobs, western media got their meat.  Read Grenville Cross, former director of public prosecutions in Hong Kong, on the continuing situation of violent threats to rule of law.

Taiwan was claimed by and increasingly integrated into China from the 1600s, a century before Cook claimed Australia for Britain, interrupted only by Japanese occupation, ceded to Japan in the Treaty of Shimoneki 1895, ending the first China-Japan war . There is still a large body of public opinion in Taiwan in favour of reunification with the mainland.

In Australia we have at whatever time a balance between governing party/ies and opposition. This is much as is the case in Taiwan, though perspectives of the two sides are more distinct. It is only since the 2016 presidential elections that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by President Tsai Ing-wen, increasingly openly against reunification with the mainland, has been dominant at that level over the Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist Party, which ruled on the mainland before the 1949 revolution and dominated Taiwan up to the 1990s. In the 2020 Presidential elections the DPP got 57% of the vote, KMT 38%.  (In my Australian federal electorate, Gilmore, Labor got 39%, Liberal 29% in 2019. A figure of 38% is not to be scoffed at… nor is 29%.)

In Taiwan’s local government elections in 2018, as Wikipedia reports “[t]he elections resulted in a substantial defeat for the DPP. The DPP previously held 13 of 22 municipalities and counties, but won only 6 in this election due to widespread public distrust, a de facto vote of no confidence on President Tsai’s Administration, both politically (relations with China), economically (agriculture, tourism), and socially (pollution, labor laws, wages), which were reflected in the series of referendum results.” [accessed 7 July 2021]

Tsai’s resurgence in the 2020 presidential elections was assisted by Trump’s vigorous support and by the situation in Hong Kong. James Soong, presidential candidate of the third party which secured five percent of the vote is not a member of the fabled Soong family (two separate links) but son of a Nationalist general who came to Taiwan in 1949, along with 1.3 million supporters of the KMT. James Soong has long split the reunification vote, stalwart against the dinosaurs of the right. He came to fame in 1978 making a speech for the government denouncing United States President Carter on the morning the US announced it was shifting recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing. It’s appropriate to note here that during the US presidential campaign in 1980, then candidate Ronald Reagan declared that he would restore recognition to the “true, free Republic of China”. The Chinese foreign ministry asked Australia to speak to the US on China’s behalf. We replied that we would not speak for China but would express our own views. Australia did, and it was evident that the voice of a conservative ally was appreciated in Washington by the establishment who did not want recognition of Beijing reversed.

In the to-and-fro continuing, as small states shift their recognition, it is still a question of who is China, who sits in the China seat at the UN. The retreat of the Nationalists from the Mainland in 1949 was central to the rise of anti-communist phobia and McCarthyism in the US. Then with the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 the US Seventh Fleet was sent into the Taiwan Strait. There have remained strong personal, intimate, manipulative connections between Taiwan and the right in American politics, exemplified by the Chennaults. See these recent news items [1][2], and [3]… and a view from the Lowy Institute. It is sensible to see how these developments antagonise Beijing and that it is impossible for Beijing not to react.

Taiwan has long been vigorous and effective in influence in Australia, including in seeking to disrupt relations with the PRC. They have long had a Taiwan support group in the Parliamentary Liberal Party. It is evident that in Australia Taiwan controls the image not only of Taiwan but also now perception of the question of China’s reunification. It’s easy to discern their glossy style in the media… as also in the issues in Australian universities and loyalties of students.  Their advocates are more western trained, American trained, than plain-speaking representatives of the PRC. Even in Chinese, the Mandarin of Taiwan differs; on the mainland in the 1950s courteous expressions were uprooted as reflecting the feudal past. If we were honest about foreign interference we would not just focus on the PRC… and perhaps with some maturity we could see that all governments, all embassies, are committed to advancing their interests, in the media, with community, business and government. Those of us with foreign service careers behind us know this very well.  It’s what embassies are supposed to do, every day.

Chinese possession of Taiwan was much earlier than the British claim to Hong Kong. China speaks of ‘unequal treaties’. The British Army Museum is frank about the way Britain acquired Hong Kong in 1841, going to war because Chinese authorities destroyed British opium stores in Guangzhou. Start a war, win, demand reparations, start again. The ‘New Territories’ were leased for 99 years in 1898. The Qing Dynasty was then crumbling under its own weight and from pressures of colonial violence. The British worried about the French, German and Japanese occupiers of parts of China as threats to Hong Kong were able to grab more land from the Qing to defend Hong Kong. The New Territories were governed as part of Hong Kong. In 1984 Britain agreed to hand all of Hong Kong back to China when the lease on the New Territories would run out in 1997. That happened.

There was never representative democracy in Hong Kong under British rule. Inequality was the norm and has increased. Today on the GINI coefficient (zero perfect equality, 100 perfect inequality),  mainland China scores 38, Hong Kong is out at 53.9 — near the worst. Taiwan scores 33, Australia scores 34. Not least because of economic success on the adjacent mainland, employment prospects for ordinary people in Hong Kong have been bleak for several decades.

Although public unrest in Hong Kong has been addressed to mainland China, inequality is the tragic socio-economic reality of Hong Kong, dominated by big business and especially foreign banks. Here is the current Hong Kong profile of Austrade, the Australian government’s trade promotion organisation. Hong Kong’s prospects are bright if they use their experience in dealing with the wider world as a leading participant in the Greater Bay Area… that’s a Hong Kong government page. I trust Chinese authorities to do more for social justice than the destructive mobs and foreign interferers.

I wrote in May here about aspects of supply chains in East Asia and how the US is seeking to cut Taiwan, South Korea and Japan off from mainland China. There has been an increasing pace of events since then. But decoupling is not a real possibility for Taiwan: exports to the mainland are over 40% of total exports. Decoupling is not a real objective for South Korea or Japan either. The Japanese government persistently declares its fealty to Washington, but China is its major trading partner. The visit of South Korean President Moon to Washington in May was portrayed in most media as a reaffirmation of alliance. But… South Korean businesses announced investment in advanced technology plants in the US totalling USD 40 billion in value, Moon secured agreement that from now Seoul, not Washington, would command the development of inter-Korean relations and there was affable agreement that South Korea would pay more of the costs of US forces in Korea (as would be appropriate for mercenaries). Quietly the colonial relationship balance tips. Here find the top trading partners of the PRC, in order: US, EU, Japan, Hong Kong, ROK, Taiwan, Australia.

As noted earlier we have in Australia a mental focus on conflictual edgy issues, rather than the big. Our legal system is conflictual, as are our parliaments. About the opposite of Chinese mindframes. We have a problem in the proliferation since 9/11 of university studies called ‘security’. With threat, contest, and militaristic focus. There is also a wider western focus on international advocacy of ‘democracy’…at a time when western democracies are increasingly imperfect. At the centre of the international pressure system is a phalanx of organisations with wide congressional support set up in the United States during the Reagan Administration:

The National Endowment for Democracy

and its subsidiaries

National Democratic Institute

International Republican Institute

Solidarity Center (union based) and the

Center For International Private Enterprise

These are powerful advocates for regime change, offering pious language to justify opposing a large number of governments. In Chinese eyes these are inextricably associated with the century of humiliation. They are active in Taiwan, Hong Kong and of course many other places. I cannot find their country budgets. And what example of democracy do they bring?

In Australia we have the American Studies Centres in Sydney and Perth, both relied upon by media for quotes on Asia. They are focused on The Talk more than other Australian academics. We have long had both sides of politics sucked up into the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. A suffocation of independent thinking.

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