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Analyzing the Relationship between Identity and Democratization in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the Shadow of China

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Analyzing the Relationship between Identity and Democratization in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the Shadow of China

Syaru Shirley

The Asan Forum

After 160 years of non-democratic colonial rule by the British, Hong Kong became part of China in 1997 under a mini-constitution, the Basic Law, that guaranteed a number of democratic civic values and pledged eventual universal suffrage for both the executive and the legislature. Since the handover, there have been protest movements demanding fulfillment of those pledges, led primarily by young people. At the same time, a distinct Hong Kong identity has emerged, again largely among the younger generation. Many who see themselves as Hong Kongers also explicitly add that they are “not Chinese.” There have been parallel developments across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan also experienced colonial rule by the Japanese for fifty years after 1895, until the Chinese Nationalists (the Kuomintang or KMT) accepted the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II. The KMT took over the island and imposed one-party rule and martial law until 1987. In the late 1980s, an intense debate over Taiwan’s national identity, on which the two major political parties, the ruling KMT and the newly legalized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), took opposing views, became an integral part of Taiwan’s struggle for democracy.

The development of a new identity in these two regions was inextricably linked to their democratization. Although culturally predominantly Chinese, both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese treasure their heritage yet long to be distinct from the communist authoritarian regime of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In fact, many living in these two regions had fled China decades earlier to escape the Chinese communist rule. The desire for democracy and a distinctive way of life differentiated both Hong Kong and Taiwan from the Chinese government and the Chinese people on the mainland and has become an important part of the identity of the younger generation in both places. Although the political systems are very different, both are experiencing a generational change. Young Hong Kongers and Taiwanese want to assert their distinctive social, economic and political identities that differ both from that of their elders and from that advocated by Beijing. Socially, they want to preserve freedom of expression. Economically, they question the need to prioritize growth over equality and fairness. Politically, they want to reform existing institutions and leaders, and reject political parties that have failed to make their societies more equitable and sustainable. Young people in both regions are now running for office, leading civic organizations to monitor political parties and leaders and generally becoming more engaged as citizens.

To understand how the emergence of a separate identity is an integral part of the pursuit of democracy and how pressure from China has fueled its rise requires a conceptual framework that explains how ethnic Chinese are building separate civic and cultural identities with a focus on democratic values and institutions, which they describe as an alternative to those they see in a rising China. Given the long shadow of China across Asia today, the cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong, despite their unique characteristics in nationality and culture, are instructive for others reacting to China.

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