For decades, Hong Kong served as a bridge between China and Taiwan. Now, that appears to be just one more thing that is changing in the former British colony.
China’s insistence that Taiwanese officials as a condition of stay in Hong Kong sign a statement agreeing that both sides belong to “one China” adds pressure on Taipei to close representative office in the territory.
The decision not only potentially impacts millions of people who travel between the two places each year, it also chips away at the territory’s role as a gateway from China to the democratic world.
The move advances two goals of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平): punishing President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for her refusal to accept the “one China” framework and curbing perceived sources of outside interference in Hong Kong.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Hong Kong and its predecessor agency have provided Taiwan with a diplomatic toehold in the territory for more than five decades, outlasting Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
“This development is a reflection of the tighter change in mainland China’s policy toward Taiwan,” said Sonny Lo (盧兆興), an academic and political commentator in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is now a battleground of geopolitical struggle between the US and China on the one hand, and between the mainland and Taiwan on the other.”
While Taiwan and Hong Kong have both long been proxies for disputes between China and the West, tensions have flared as Beijing grows more confident about asserting its authority and the US attempts to check a rising rival.
Tsai has courted support from US President Donald Trump, while offering to help resettle Hong Kong democracy protesters fleeing in the wake of tough national security legislation approved by Xi last month.
“In the past, Hong Kong was not only a buffer for cross-strait relations, it had been a window for global countries to engage and interact with China,” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Deputy-Secretary General Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) said in an interview on July 7. “But now the city may be just another Chinese city.”
Efforts to increase pressure on the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office came to light last week after its acting head, Kao Ming-tsun (高銘村), refused to sign the “one China” statement and returned home.
A number of more junior staffers are also encountering visa difficulties and Taiwan is withholding the renewal of work permits for staff in Hong Kong’s representative office in Taipei, said a senior Taiwanese official who asked not to be identified.
As a result, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, which was first established as the Chung Hwa Travel Service in 1966, might soon find it difficult to operate.
Its closure would deal another blow to a series of agreements between Taipei and Beijing that helped expand trade and paved the way for the unprecedented meeting between then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Xi in Singapore in 2015.
“The DPP and Taiwan’s separatist forces spare no effort to support the US strategy of playing the ‘Hong Kong card,’” the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) People’s Daily said in a commentary on Sunday.
“They, on one hand, criticize the practice of ‘one country, two systems’ in the city to attack their own political rivals and win votes, while on the other hand support Hong Kong’s opposition forces and provide them assistance and training,” the commentary added.
Requiring representatives to sign the “one China” pledge shows Beijing is taking a more direct role in Taiwan’s relations with the territory, the Taiwanese official said.
Taiwan is not commenting publicly in an attempt to smooth relations, but China’s new posture could eventually force Taipei to withdraw the more favorable treatment Hong Kong residents received compared with other non-Taiwanese, the person added.
Although the move might not have any immediate ramifications on the almost 6.5 million annual number of passengers traveling between Taipei and Hong Kong — one of the busiest flight routes in the world, according to Routesonline — it could have a greater impact on Hong Kongers looking to study or emigrate there, because they would now need to apply to Taipei.
It could also eventually lead to Hong Kongers, who do not need a visa to visit Taiwan and can simply apply for entry permits upon arrival, being treated more similarly to mainland Chinese residents, who do require a visa and are subject to a quota, said Chan Che-po (陳?博), an associate professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, who has studied Hong Kong-Taiwan relations.
“In the future, Hong Kong won’t enjoy these privileges,” Chan said.
It could also have “tremendous” implications as the security legislation freezes up contacts between Taiwan and Hong Kong political parties, student exchanges and cooperation between non-governmental organizations, which interact frequently, Lo said.
One key question was how broadly the Hong Kong officials would apply the new “one China” requirement.
Ties between Taipei and Beijing have worsened since Tsai’s re-election in January, including disagreements over China’s efforts to limit Taiwan’s participation in world health bodies.
Taiwan has also become an issue in the US presidential election, with former US vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, challenging Trump’s record on support for human rights in China.
“None of this bodes well for cross-strait peace,” said Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania. “But Beijing is no doubt waiting to see the outcome of the US presidential election before taking any more significant actions.”
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