Hong Kong clash stirs the pot for Taiwan

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – The Taiwanese, who do not eat on subway trains, have been taking note of recent developments in Hong Kong. Peking University professor Kong Qingdong infamously branded the city’s residents as “dogs” for telling off Chinese tourists for eating on the Hong Kong MTR, causing the insulted to publish newspaper ads likening mainland Chinese to “locusts” in retaliation. As Beijing and Taipei are rapidly closing ranks, and the number of mainland

Chinese visiting the island grows, such trouble is bound to happen in Taiwan. Governments on both sides are on guard, knowing that political ramifications could be an unwelcome side-dish.

In Hong Kong, accumulated public resentment against mainland visitors has reached an explosive level. Close to 25 million of them are said to set foot in the former British colony – now China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) – annually, bringing in tremendous revenue but also causing significant social friction. In the eyes of many Hongkongers, while the rich among the mainlanders show off their wealth in a repulsive manner, it’s the lower classes who exploit Hong Kong’s social welfare system – and both groups generally lack sophistication.

With some 2 million Chinese tourists to Taiwan last year, arrival numbers pale in comparison with Hong Kong. The easing of restrictions is in the making, and the stereotypes harbored in Hong Kong are arguably also rampant on the island. How serious the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government under President Ma Ying-jeou takes such social sentiments became apparent in the run-up to the recent presidential and legislative elections. Asia Times Online has been told by insiders in Taipei that in order to prevent the behavior of Chinese visitors irritating Taiwanese voters to the disadvantage of the KMT, Beijing and Taipei deliberately reduced the number of Chinese tourists during the electoral run-up. The fact that in the weeks before the elections the arrivals of mainland tourists dropped by half to about 2,000 per day supports this notion. Arrivals of official Chinese delegations were scaled back temporarily for the same reasons, as indirectly confirmed by the Presidential Office in Taipei.

Running havoc in midst all this political cautiousness, Kong Qingdong, a known new leftist advocating for China to return to some sort of socialism, did not only take on the city’s residents in his rants. Giving the Taiwanese a foretaste on how it is being on the receiving end of cocky nationalist verbal attacks, in the same breath, Kong also mocked Taiwan’s democratic system.

The Taiwanese elections were “fake-democracy,” akin to a TV drama, and the total votes President Ma won for his re-election was not even “half the population of Beijing”, Kong was quoted as saying.

In an interview, Hsu Yu-fang, a political commentator and associate professor at National Dong Hwa University’s Department of Sinophone Literatures, explained the thoughts of most Taiwanese when hearing the related news coming out of China’s SAR of late. In the eyes of Hsu, the controversy certainly does not help Beijing in its quest to achieve cross-strait unification.

“The Hong Kong clash is both a civic as well as a systematic one. Although China became rich, due to a long-term neglect of civic education, most Chinese aren’t very law-abiding and also lack civic-mindedness. This is a very different matter in Hong Kong, which was ruled by Britain for a long time.”

Hsu dismissed remarks reportedly made in private by Taiwanese officials, according to which mainlanders culturally have more in common with the Taiwanese than with the Hongkongers so that the mainlanders and Taiwanese could be more tolerant toward each other’s misbehaviors. He acknowledged nonetheless that in terms of law-abidance and civic-mindedness, there is still some room for improvement amongst his fellow countrymen.

“But compared with the Chinese, the Taiwanese are doubtlessly much better. This becomes evident when observing how differently mainlanders and Taiwanese wait in line.”

He then singled out the aspect of the Hong Kong problem that makes the Taiwanese in particular prick up their ears. According to Hsu, it’s there for all to see what’s in store for Taiwan after unification.

“Pregnant mainland women overwhelm Hong Kong’s hospitals to deliver babies [about 43,000 last year] because of the better social and medical system. If one day Taiwan becomes a Special Administrative Region of China, of course it will be the same here.”

Hsu predicted that it would actually be even worse as Taiwan’s social and medical system is better than Hong Kong’s and went on detailing a scenario that is immensely disturbing to the Taiwanese mind.

“Taiwan has National Health Insurance (NHI), China hasn’t; medical costs there are very high, and mainland doctors look down on poor people. mainlanders will want to enjoy Taiwan’s cheap NHI, and pregnant women will come in order to pocket advantages such as 12-years compulsory education for their offspring” , he said.

The Chinese leadership has all along used Hong Kong as a model to make unification palatable to the Taiwanese. The SAR’s continuing economic success after the handover from Britain in 1997, in combination with Beijing’s relative restraint in interfering in the city’s internal affairs, was aimed to make the “one country two systems” idea as proposed by Deng Xiaoping an attractive option to the Taiwanese. According to “one country two systems” , there is only one China, but Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan would be allowed to retain their own political system and run their own affairs – social, legal, economic and financial, etc.

The question how useful a billboard Hong Kong remains today in terms of convincing the Taiwanese was taken on by Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. Tsang himself has a Hong Kong background.

“Beijing used to think Hong Kong set a great example for enticing Taiwan to rejoin or join Mother China. There is less confidence that this would work now, but the basic idea that the ‘one country, two systems’ model as applied to Hong Kong can be modified to work for Taiwan remains.”

According to Tsang, that Beijing has Taiwan in mind is certainly a factor that restrains the Chinese Central Government when dealing with Hong Kong. “But there is next to no market in Taiwan for the ‘one country two systems’ model anyway.”

Tsang furthermore brought into account that as the Taiwanese by and large do not take the Hong Kong case as a model for them, the souring of relations between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese will only have a limited impact on cross-strait relations in the short term.

“However, in the longer term, seeing Hong Kong being bullied by the mainland, certainly makes the prospect of unification with China repulsive to Taiwanese,” he said.

Tsang emphasized that the conditions that have been generating the intense feelings among Hongkongers do not at the moment exist in Taiwan.

“It’s about scale and intensity; the sheer number of mainland Chinese living in and visiting Hong Kong and the percentage of them to the local population is incomparably higher than in Taiwan. Also, Hong Kong allows numerous mainland Chinese to gain residence there, purchase expensive properties and, above all, use the health services to give birth and thus gain Hong Kong citizenship. But none of these welfare entitlements apply to Taiwan.”

When taking mainlanders’ different attitudes towards Hong Kong and Taiwan into account, it becomes even less likely that clashes as intense as the ongoing one will occur on the island any time soon, according to Tsang. He explained that mainland Chinese now feel that they are subsidizing Hong Kong and no longer accept that they are in any way inferior to Hong Kong people, and that many mainlanders see Hongkongers as unjustifiably arrogant and rude.

“The Taiwanese-mainlander relationship has not yet reached this point. But problems can certainly happen, and the chance of them happening grows with increasing intensity of economic integration and population flow,” Tsang concluded.

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