TAIPEI (Reuters) – Beijing’s crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong will rekindle suspicion of the mainland on the self-ruled island where worry has been spreading about economic domination by its largest trading partner, across the Taiwan Strait.
Police in riot gear and firing tear gas in central Hong Kong over the weekend gave many people in Taiwan a sense of what could befall their democratic island should it return to harsh mainland rule.
Taiwan has ruled itself since Chinese nationalists fled there in 1949 after being defeated by mainland Communists in a civil war. China has never renounced the use of force to take back what it regards as a renegade province, particularly should Taiwan make moves toward independence.
The 140-km (90-mile) wide strait was for decades a Cold War front line but in recent years the US-backed island has established extensive commercial ties with the mainland and sabre-rattling over the sea seems a thing of the past.
But fear of a military confrontation has been replaced by anxiety about the mainland’s economic domination.
Taiwan student leaders who held an anti-China sit-in at parliament this year to lobby against a trade pact they said gave China unfair advantage, called at a protest in Taipei on Monday for an immediate cessation of cross-strait dialogue.
“We can’t tolerate any more economic or political dealings,” said protest leader Chen Weiting.
About 100 people gathered to show support for Hong Kong, waving black and white banners that read “protesting against the violent repression of Hong Kong police”.
“We are here in solidarity with Hong Kong against the Communist Party,” said protester Cho Yu-hsieh, 18.
The Hong Kong protests come after Taipei announced it was investigating the cyber security of mobile phones made by Chinese handset maker Xiaomi Inc
In another instance of cross-strait suspicion, opposition lawmakers in Taiwan have pressured the government to reconsider letting a Chinese ship dock in Taiwan for a renewable energy project.
Alexander C Huang, chairman of the Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies in Taipei and formerly a senior policymaker on China affairs for Taiwan, said the crackdown in Hong Kong would feed into such anxieties.
“There will be more Taiwan people who believe that China cannot be trusted,” Huang said.
“It is going to further complicate cross-strait exchanges.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping repeated China’s “firm and unwavering stance” on unification in a meeting last week with a group of pro-unification Taiwan politicians in Beijing.
Xi described the cross-strait political situation as “one country, two systems”.
But that formula, under which Hong Kong returned to China from British rule in 1997, has long been rejected by Taiwan and its president, Ma Ying-jeou, rejected Xi’s comments.
“We do not accept the one country, two systems. The Republic of China is a sovereign country,” Ma said in a media interview published on his office’s website, referring to Taiwan by the official name it uses.
Ma, who took office in 2008 and has overseen a blossoming of cross-strait business relations, reiterated Taiwan’s stance that there was “one China” but that each side of the Taiwan Strait was free to interpret what that meant.
He said Taiwan people were watching Hong Kong closely.
But even politicians in Taiwan who have flirted with the idea of independence said economic relations were too extensive and the island could not put them at risk.
“There’s too much at stake for Taiwan’s economy,” said Ketty Chen a senior member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which has its roots in independence for Taiwan.
“The key is that all negotiations are closely monitored.”
Over the past two decades, $140 billion in investment has flowed from Taiwan to the mainland. Hundreds of factories in China owned by Taiwan companies churn out the world’s technology goods for the export-oriented island economy.
But DPP lawmaker Kuan Bi-ling said despite the economic ties, Taiwan people would be discouraged.
“Taiwanese people will not have good feelings toward China,” said Kuan. “It is inevitable that they will think: today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan.”