One hell of a contrast: As Beijing renders illegal small political parties in the Hong Kong experiment with autonomy, Taiwan has moved in the opposite direction, even allowing the existence of political parties that openly advocate for unification.
Hong Kong authorities this week signaled that the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) could be banned under the Societies Ordinance.
If HKNP is banned, it would be illegal to be a member of the party, to raise funds for it or to act on its behalf. Violators could face up to three years imprisonment and a HK$12,000 fine. Party leaders have been given three weeks to make the case as to why HKNP should not be slapped a prohibition order, which would ostensibly be issued “in the interest of national security.”
This unprecedented move is proof, yet again, that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has lost much of its administrative independence from Beijing under Xi Jinping. The notion that Hong Kong would retain much of its autonomy after Retrocession of 1997 always was an overly optimistic reading of Beijing’s intentions — which never made a secret of the kind of relationship that would develop between the center and the periphery. Efforts by pro-democracy and independence activists in Hong Kong, including the Umbrella Movement, have painfully demonstrated the limits to the freedoms that Beijing is willing to countenance. Under Xi, all pretense of politics as usual, or that the social system in the SAR would be maintained, has been met with the sting of harsh reality under an increasingly nationalistic — and simultaneously paranoid — China.
The accelerating erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong has put a nail on the coffin of Beijing’s hopes of convincing the Taiwanese that its proposed “one country, two systems” formula, or even Xi’s claim (repeated just last week) that China would “fully respect the existing social system and way of life of Taiwan compatriots,” would eventually bear fruit.
Developments in recent years, from the imminent ban on a political party to the SAR’s loss of its independence on matters of security and border management, have made it clear to Taiwan’s 23.5 million people that the existing social system and way of life which defines them, whether they vote “blue” or “green,” would not survive annexation unscathed. In fact, given the decades of real independence that Taiwan has enjoyed, Beijing would arguably be under an even greater compulsion to limit freedoms and political activity early on to ensure the annexed “province” didn’t become a hotbed of instability.
Besides this dark scenario, the ongoing crackdown on freedoms and liberties in Hong Kong heightens the contrast between China and its coveted object, Taiwan, for the rest of the world to see. Beijing’s mounting intolerance is in stark opposition to Taiwan, which has internalized and very much made its own liberal democratic traditions that are now part of the very DNA of this island-nation.
When Hong Kong authorities — and we can be sure, the Beijing government lurking behind them — decide that the very existence of a small political party in HKSAR threatens the very security of the nation, it signals weakness, apprehension, and a stunning lack of confidence in the appeal of the prevailing political system.
As Beijing renders illegal small political parties in the Hong Kong experiment with autonomy within China (not to mention the sheer impossibility of such parties ever emerging within China proper), Taiwan has moved in the opposite direction, even allowing the existence, registration and running in elections of political parties that openly advocate for unification, the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and New Party among them.
What this tells us is that Taiwan, the weaker party in the bilateral relationship in the Taiwan Strait, is confident enough in its system, and in the appeal thereof with its citizens, to allow for the existence of political parties and organizations that advocate a different path. Their existence can be brooked, by the government and society, because ultimately they know that the views they espouse are so marginal as to never represent a threat to national security, or to the way of life that the Taiwanese have chosen for themselves. Conversely, when Hong Kong authorities — and we can be sure, the Beijing government lurking behind them — decide that the very existence of a small political party in HKSAR threatens the very security of the nation, it signals weakness, apprehension, and a stunning lack of confidence in the appeal of the prevailing political system.
A confident government, one that has sufficient assurances that its ideology and governance have secured public approval, would not take unprecedented action such as enacting a Colonial-era article of law to outlaw what is, in the grand scheme of Chinese politics, a mere ant…unless, of course, Beijing fears that the ideas espoused by that little ant have a chance of spreading — across Hong Kong, and perhaps elsewhere in China proper.