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What Hong Kong's Turmoil Means For Taiwan


Taiwan is closely eyeing the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, including this weekend, when civil servants have marched in solidarity with protesters upset by the Hong Kong government's tighter cooperation with mainland China. As NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, those demonstrations reverberate in Taiwan, a place that is routinely threatened by Beijing.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign country since the end of China's civil war in 1949, but Beijing still views the island as its territory and vows to annex it by force if necessary - a threat it repeated last week. However, as protests have gathered pace in Hong Kong against Beijing's tightening grip over its quasi democracy, Taiwan, too, has spoken up.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Ten thousand people rallied in support of Hong Kong this summer outside Taiwan's Parliament, chanting, support Hong Kong, protect Taiwan, and, together, we are against the extradition bill.

Hong Kong's turmoil began after Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to push through a bill that could extradite individuals to the Chinese mainland with no guarantee of due process. The bill has come to symbolize what protesters say is the erosion of their liberties, which Beijing promised to safeguard under the one country, two systems formula that governs Hong Kong.

Nineteen-year-old Gary Cheung is part of a group of Hong Kong students studying in Taiwan who helped organize the rally to raise awareness about what he says has gone wrong in the two decades since Hong Kong reverted from British hands to Chinese.

GARY CHEUNG: (Through interpreter) I want to tell the Taiwanese people that the way the Chinese government handles the one country, two systems policy is a failure. In the future, they'll be alert to how the Chinese apply it.

MCCARTHY: Taiwan-based Fulbright scholar Lev Nachman says Hong Kong has brought to the fore Taiwan's most salient issue.

LEV NACHMAN: Which is, will we become a part of China, or will we maintain our own autonomy and our own sovereignty? And Hong Kong is just a very clear-cut, close-to-home example of what unification looks like.

MCCARTHY: Looming over Hong Kong is the specter of the Chinese People's Liberation Army marching in. Taiwan student Kevin Chen, a newly minted math graduate, says the unrest in Hong Kong got him researching events of 30 years ago in Tiananmen Square.

KEVIN CHEN: (Speaking Mandarin).

MCCARTHY: "There, a group of people went to the streets to voice their opinion," Chen says. "But in both cases," he says, "the Chinese authorities suppressed the crowd by force. It's true the police are out in Hong Kong, but they take their orders from Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is manipulated by Beijing," he says. "I think the Chinese Communist Party is the one giving the orders, and I'm very worried." He asks, "if it's Hong Kong now, will Taiwan be next?"

Taipei-based analyst Michael Cole (ph) has authored several books on Taiwan and says its politicized youth are keenly aware of what's going on in Hong Kong.

MICHAEL COLE: And to them, it's the canary in the mine shaft, if you will. It's a sign of what - a possible future for Taiwan that, evidently, they do not want for themselves.

MCCARTHY: Taiwan Democracy Watch president Wen-Tsong Chiou says Hong Kong is for Beijing a petri dish to examine the viability of the one country, two systems formula for Taiwan.

WEN-TSONG CHIOU: They are testing the solutions - how to handle this type of demonstration in a democracy. So they are learning. They are learning from Hong Kong.

MCCARTHY: Patrons of Taipei's Saturday morning flower market seemed resigned to events in Hong Kong, saying it had been absorbed by China two decades ago. Wu Hsueh-Chen (ph), 62, says there's an inevitability to how the protests will end.

WU HSUEH-CHEN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "China will win because the army is ready to enter Hong Kong," she says. "Taiwan won't win a fight with China, either. What we should do is prevent China from penetrating our society," she says.

Wu's husband Wei Han-Ching (ph) says there is one way to avoid Beijing deploying force against Taiwan.

WEI HAN-CHING: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "If you don't say you want to be independent, China won't do anything," he says. "If we don't violate that principle, we should be OK."

China accuses the United States of interfering in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Last week, its defense ministry said that if anyone dares move on Taiwan independence, China's military, quote, "will be ready to go to war."

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.