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Taiwan warily eyes battle of wills between Beijing and Hong Kong

Photo credit to Reuters / Toby Chang.

In Hong Kong, they may be protesting with umbrellas, but in Taiwan earlier this year, it was sunflowers.Hong Kong Flag IcontaiwanChina Flag Icon

As Beijing locks itself into what now seems like a needless showdown with the pro-democracy activists who have formed Hong Kong’s ‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love,’ among the chief incentives for proceeding with caution are mainland China’s relations with the Republic of China (ROC), the island of Taiwan, which split from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war and which has maintained its de facto sovereignty ever since, to the annoyance of decades of Chinese leadership.

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RELATED: Hong Kong — one country, one-and-a-half systems?

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Even as Western commentators trot out tired comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown (at a time when Hong Kong’s British colonial governors were not prioritizing democratization in any form), the Hong Kong protests have a readier comparison to the ‘Sunflower Student’ movement in Taiwan earlier this spring, when another group of protesters demonstrated against closer ties between Taiwan and the PRC.


In June 2013, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the ruling Kuomintang (中國國民黨) signed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with mainland China, which would liberalize trade in services between Beijing and Taipei, including, most controversially, tourism, finance and communications. When Ma (pictured above) tried to push the CSSTA through the Taiwanese legislature without as much political deliberation as promised, an already skeptical Taiwanese opposition howled, and CSSTA protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan (立法院) to stop Ma’s push to ratify the agreement. Today, Taiwan’s legislature still hasn’t approved the CSSTA.

Moreover, Ma came out in favor of the Hong Kong protests on Monday and reiterated earlier this week his opposition to reunification with mainland China:

“We fully understand and support Hong Kong people in their call for full universal suffrage,” Ma told a gathering of business leaders in Taipei.

“Developments in Hong Kong have drawn the close attention of the world in the past few days. Our government has also been very concerned,” he added. “We urge the mainland authorities to listen to the voice of Hong Kong people and use peaceful and cautious measures to handle these issues.”

Cross-Straits relations have crested and ebbed over the last 65 years, but today it’s indisputable that Taiwan and mainland China have more ties than ever. Since 2008, direct flights between Taiwan and China have greatly intertwined the two economies, and a deluge of Chinese investment has taken root in Taiwan.

While Hong Kong and Taiwan have very different histories and relationships with the PRC, they share many similarities, so it’s not surprising to see so many similarities between the two popular anti-Beijing movements that swept across both jurisdictions in 2014.

In the second half of the 20th century, Taiwan and Hong Kong both became magnets for defectors from the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党), and both Taiwan and Hong Kong became pockets of economic prosperity while mainland China languished under Mao Zedong (毛泽东) and his fearsome reign of socialism, rural famine and political terror. Throughout, both Hong Kong and Taiwan developed particular cultural identities, such that majorities in both places see themselves today as Hong Kongers and Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

Both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese also worry that Beijing is plotting to  bring Hong Kong and Taiwan more firmly within its grasp. If it’s outlandish to think that Beijing can accomplish that goal with military might, it’s not difficult to believe it can do so through economic and political coercion. That’s exactly the kind of insidious influence that motivates both the Occupy Central’s fight for Hong Kong’s democratic sovereignty and the Sunflower Student movement’s fight for Taiwan’s economic sovereignty. Continue reading Taiwan warily eyes battle of wills between Beijing and Hong Kong

Glamorous singer Peng Liyuan reshapes role of China’s first lady

Guest post by Michael Cole


When asked, “Who is Xi Jinping?” a Beijing wit might respond, “He is Peng Liyuan’s husband.”

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Xi’s long slog to the top post in China’s Communist Party (中国共产党) was achieved by quiet service and loyalty to the right power players. It was a predictable course pursued by many ambitious scions of powerful Chinese families, with one surprising difference: Xi is married to Peng, one of China’s favorite superstar singers.

In March, amid military pageantry at Tiananmen Square, in the shadow of the Forbidden City’s imposing gatehouse and the famous portrait of Mao with the Mona Lisa smile, Peng Liyuan ascended to the top of the Communist Party leadership dais with her husband, the new president. Soldiers marched, generals saluted, and the sun shone on a rare blue-sky day while Peng smiled and waved. In China, as it is everywhere, a warm personality stands out and gives heart. Peng was an uncommonly elegant presence among the dowdy leadership, and everyone noticed.

In the following weeks, headlines tinged with hopefulness have chronicled President Xi Jinping’s commitment to punish corruption, maintain and control China’s economic growth, and even curb the dangerous effects of pollution. His success will take years to assess, but his tenure is already proving to be a stylish departure from his predecessor’s as he travels the world and appears on television with his wife.

During trips to Russia, Tanzania, and Congo, she has received praise for her personal style. Stepping off an airplane in Moscow in March, she wore a trim black trench coat cinched at the waist, and carried a smart leather bag, both made by the highbrow but homegrown Chinese label Exception de Mixmind. In Tanzania, she wore a chic skirt-suit in peach brocade and carried a small leather purse made in Chengdu. Appearing on television in Beijing, she wore a silk qipao, a traditional tunic dress with a high collar. Her look is both elegant and distinctly Chinese, and her manner warm but formal.

Although the wife of a Chinese president has no official position, Peng Liyuan’s popularity is making her truly China’s first lady. Her presence at public events makes her unique, as most premiers’ wives have remained conspicuously discreet. When former president Hu Jintao visited Washington, DC to attend a state dinner at the White House, his wife Liu Yongqing was notably absent, but Peng’s image makes her a potential game-changer. The New York Times compared her to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; London’s Daily Telegraph compared her popularity to the “Lady Katherine effect;” and Weibo fan groups proliferate. In the ultimate sign of China’s approval, the massive retail site Taobao – China’s eBay – is flooded with copies of her popular clothing choices.

Critically, Peng arrives on the scene at a moment when China’s Communist Party and government need a new face to show the public, despite the fact that they form a system that is adamantly, and sometimes violently, opposed to change. Chinese politicians do not like to make waves. Senior Party members’ tight-lipped discretion keeps generations of political secrets, and their unfashionable uniform of red ties and square black suits masks immense wealth. Observers speculate endlessly about rivalries within the Party, but officials are united in their mission to maintain appearances.

The Communist Party’s stale old images have little appeal in media-saturated modern China. Elderly Chinese tell folk stories of Mao’s personal warmth and penchant for wordplay, but few want another leader like him. State companies produce grand dramas about well-known revolutionaries beloved for idealism and selflessness, but the cinemas sit empty. Global news outlets have dissected the government’s trust deficit amid news of corruption and abuse, but they arguably miss the point: modern Chinese peoples’ cynicism masks their unmet need for leaders who make them proud, and who represent their best selves. China wants a hero. 

By some accounts, the Party’s image problem is rapidly becoming a legitimacy crisis. Riots break out over problems such as economic inequality, labor abuse, and pollution, but leaders lack both inclination and credibility to address the issues, and instead use violence. “Netizens” on Weibo and Renren — the Chinese Twitter and Facebook, respectively — spread news of officials’ corruption faster than government censors can ‘harmonize’ their posts. In magazines, social media, and conversation, commercialism rules and ostentation wins the day. Pop stars and athletes receive adulation while officials struggle to evade ridicule.

In a system that thrives on stability — or harmony, as the Chinese say — Peng Liyuan presents an opportunity to try a new approach. Personally, she now occupies the role of a much-loved first lady, but it’s unknown who her role models might be. Chinese and international observers are watching for signs of how she understands her role, how she intends to use their unprecedented good will, and whether her image indicates changes in how the top leadership will behave and relate to the public.  Continue reading Glamorous singer Peng Liyuan reshapes role of China’s first lady