By Teng Pei-ju
“No China extradition!” “Support Hong Kong!” “Protect Taiwan!” people chanted outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei on June 16 – both in Mandarin and Cantonese.
On a burning summer afternoon in the capital where the temperature surpassed 30 Celsius, an estimated 10,000 Taiwanese and Hongkongers – mostly students – rallied in solidarity with the millions of protesters in Hong Kong.
This was one of the biggest demonstrations in recent years that was organised and attended by both Taiwanese and Hong Kong people. A number of student groups and non-profit organisations (NGOs) promoting human rights in Taiwan coordinated the event within three days.
However, the rally, part of a series of Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests springing up on the island in June, would not have been possible without a Hong Kong student, Ho Wing-tung, who has lived in Taipei for four years.
Ho, a fresh-faced student of small stature, does not fit most people’s idea of a vocal activist. Yet throughout June, Ho held the microphone during multiple events, criticising the Hong Kong government for not listening to its people, while demanding the withdrawal of the contentious bill.
Born in 1997, the year Hong Kong was handed over to China from the UK, Ho grew up witnessing the gradual erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong: “Never trust a commitment made by China,” Ho said during an interview with HKFP.
The “one country, two systems” arrangement promised no change for 50 years, but Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law have been in decline over the first two decades, Ho said.
When hundreds of schools and organisations back home launched petitions against the extradition bill in May, Ho took the same initiative with Hong Kong students in Taiwan. This marked the birth of the extradition law concern group in Taiwan. Even though most of the original members soon left for personal reasons, Ho stayed on.
She continued to connect with other Hong Kong students, while in the meantime reaching out to Taiwan’s NGOs and student associations in hopes of garnering more support. Together they held several press conferences in front of Hong Kong’s representative office in Taipei.
They filed a petition with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, launched school strikes at universities, and organised various events leading up to the rally in mid-June.
Ho acknowledged that she had expected a turnout of no more than 3,000 at the rally. Yet to her surprise, the number of demonstrators reached 10,000, according to organisers. In addition to students, lawmakers from Taiwan’s independence-leaning political parties, scholars and professors at the country’s prominent institutes, representatives of local and international NGOs also joined forces to speak up in favour of Hong Kong’s protests.
Ho used the Chinese idiom, “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold” as the reason why many Taiwanese took to the streets on June 16.
The idiom also appeared on the front page of Taiwan’s Apple Daily on June 28 as part of the effort to raise awareness of the anti-extradition bill protests ahead of the G20 meeting in Japan. It is derived from a fable that concludes with a message about small entities working together to survive a bigger threat.
Many across the island nation share the sentiment. Critics fear that, if the bill is passed by the Hong Kong Legislative Council, hundreds and thousands of Taiwanese living or travelling in the territory could also be extradited to China. Beijing considers the self-ruled and democratic state to be a breakaway province.
In recent years, Beijing has pressured other nations to deport Taiwanese criminal suspects to China for trial. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the top government agency handling cross-strait affairs, has warned that “any individual could be the next Lee Ming-che.” Lee, a pro-democracy Taiwanese activist, has been imprisoned in China since 2017 for “subverting state power.”
People, political parties, and the government of Taiwan must “recognise the political intentions behind Hong Kong’s extradition bill,” said Michelle Wu on June 16. Currently the president of National Taiwan University’s Student Association, Wu organised a student gathering on campus in June to back Hong Kong’s protests. The proposed amendments represent a “Chinese invasion of Taiwan and Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and democratic values,” she declared.
What prompted Taiwanese to support Hong Kong’s people’s protests against their government is not merely the concern over the passing of the extradition bill, which could post a risk to their own safety in Hong Kong. Taiwanese people stood shoulder to shoulder with the citizens of Hong Kong because they realised that their freedom and democratic way of life on the island were also under threat.
A survey released on July 10 revealed that the number of people of Taiwan who consider themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese had increased for the first time in four years to 56.9 percent. Tsai Chia-hung, director of National Chengchi University’s Election Study Centre, told HKFP that external factors may have played a crucial part in the survey results.
The mass protests in Hong Kong against the extradition bill, which showed the current situation of Hong Kong under Chinese rule, and the address delivered by China’s leader Xi Jinping in January, were possible factors driving the growth of Taiwanese identity, Tsai said. Xi had proposed a “one country, two systems” framework for Taiwan, while refusing to rule out the use of force against the island.
The survey also showed that the percentage of Taiwanese preferring independence had reached a record high – even though those who opt for the status quo indefinitely, and for a later decision, remain the majority. Rather than interpreting the results as a desire to pursue independence, it should be read as a message for Beijing that Taiwanese do not want to be annexed by China, Tsai observed.
The rally on June 16 yielded some returns. Taiwan’s legislature issued a joint statement the next day, expressing its support for peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong, and urging the Hong Kong government to revoke the extradition bill in accordance with public opinion. The statement was signed by bipartisan lawmakers, including those who represent China-friendly political parties.
Not everyone agreed with Ho’s action, however. A week after the rally, four members of the Concentric Patriotism Alliance (CPA), driving a red van with several of China’s five-starred flags flying above the top of the vehicle, turned up at Ho’s school. The pro-Beijing political party orchestrated a counter-protest targeting Ho after its members read in the newspaper about her involvement in the rally.
With the Chinese national anthem blaring loudly from the van, the CPA members – all of them elderly people – held banners featuring Ho’s name and made insulting remarks against her outside the university. The episode ended shortly after the police intervened. Even though there was no confrontation, Ho later received a letter full of personal abuse.
Having been told that the CPA has a record of physically attacking anti-China groups, Ho admitted that she was “a little afraid.” But she is determined to push ahead with what had been started.
The concern group, now renamed the Hong Kong Outlanders, will continue to monitor various social issues in Hong Kong and act on them when necessary, according to Ho. The group will also hold talks and other events in Taiwan.
The aim is to “let Taiwanese be more aware of the human rights condition in Hong Kong” so that they will learn from Hong Kong’s experience, she said. Ho did not expect a few months back that her first direct engagement with activism would take place in Taipei, where she studies art and philosophy. Nevertheless, she has begun making plans for her next year in Taiwan.
Teng Pei-ju is a journalist based in Taipei, covering mostly politics and diplomacy.