Why Taiwan is the most outspoken critic of Hong Kong’s extradition law

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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As debate raged in Hong Kong in recent months over a controversial extradition law that would allow the city to send suspects to mainland China, governments from countries around the world have expressed their concerns. None have been more vocal than Taiwan.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has taken to multiple social media platforms to strongly express her support for protesters in Hong Kong. Following a protest over the weekend that drew an estimated 1 million people on to the streets, the president tweeted that she would never allow “one country, two systems”—the framework under which Hong Kong is governed semi-autonomously from mainland China—in Taiwan.

Yesterday (June 12), as protesters in Hong Kong surrounded the main government complex ahead of a planned second reading of the extradition bill in the legislature, she took to Instagram with the slogan, “Hang in there Hong Kong, protecting Taiwan.” After the protests turned violent, with police shooting rubber bullets and deploying tear gas on protesters, Tsai tweeted that she was “utterly saddened” by the scene.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu also backed the protesters in Hong Kong.

China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has long tried to pitch the “one country, two systems” model as an incentive for unification. In recent years, however, as Beijing’s attempts to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy has intensified, many in Taiwan look fearfully at the prospect of a unified future with China.

T.C. Chang, a cultural commentator in Taipei who previously lived in Hong Kong, said that the extradition law debate in Hong Kong comes at a time when Taiwanese society is especially attuned to what’s happening across the strait that separates it from China, and with presidential elections coming up in January, its relations with Beijing are in the spotlight. Furthermore, the youth of both Taiwan and Hong Kong are connected by the fact that major student-led protests happened in both places in 2014.

“Since then, people have been repeating the slogan ‘today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan,'” said Chang.

Taiwan has played a central role in the evolution of the extradition law. The Hong Kong government used a 2018 case in which a Hong Kong man fled back to the city after he murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan to illustrate why there is a major loophole in Hong Kong’s current extradition rules, justifying the need to amend the law. Hong Kong has no extradition agreement with Taiwan, so he can’t be sent to face trial there. Tsai, however, said that Taiwan would not ask for him to be extradited if Hong Kong passes the controversial legislation. She reiterated that view today at a press conference about the extradition law, and said she did not want to be a “culprit to an evil law” (link in Chinese).

Even Taiwan’s opposition, which espouses friendlier ties with Beijing, has expressed concern over Hong Kong’s extradition law. Today (June 13), the Kuomintang’s presidential hopeful Terry Gou—the founder of Foxconn who made a fortune assembling iPhones—expressed support for Hong Kong’s protesters, and said he was “pained” to see scenes of violence in Hong Kong. “I have already firmly decided that ‘one country, two systems’ has failed in Hong Kong,” he added.

Gou’s opponent, the populist and stridently pro-China Kaohsiung mayor Han Guo-yu, also wrote on Facebook (link in Chinese) yesterday that he hopes the Hong Kong government slows down the process of passing the extradition law. “Not just Hong Kong people, but Taiwan people also care about Hong Kong’s prosperity and democratic system,” he said. Han had earlier said that he didn’t know anything about the weekend’s massive protest in Hong Kong.

Han’s closeness to Beijing—he visited Hong Kong in March and met with top Beijing and local officials—has alarmed Taiwan, said Chang, the commentator, as many fear that Taiwan’s “sovereignty will be endangered” if the opposition wins the election and Han becomes president.

Tsai’s outspoken stance on the extradition law also came at an opportune time for her, politically speaking. Today, she won the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s primary, meaning that she’ll stand for re-election in January. Austin Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tweeted that Tsai’s firm resolve to reject the Hong Kong model as an option for Taiwan, as well as the recent legalization of gay marriage, helped rally support among core supporters in her party.