ST Global Forum Quarterly Briefing: Taiwan, Hong Kong set to become 'bigger headaches than ever' for China

Taiwan's pro-independence president Tsai Ing-wen will be sworn-in next week, while there's growing unhappiness in Hong Kong over the government's inability to take care of bread and butter issues.
The Straits Times' Senior Regional Correspondent Li Xueying speaking at the ST Global Forum Quarterly Briefing on May 11, 2016.
The Straits Times' Senior Regional Correspondent Li Xueying speaking at the ST Global Forum Quarterly Briefing on May 11, 2016. ST PHOTO: JERMYN CHOW

Taiwan and Hong Kong look set to become "bigger headaches than ever" for mainland China, said The Straits Times Senior Regional Correspondent Li Xueying, pointing to current volatile and tense relations.

The tensions are not likely to let up, with Taiwan electing a pro-independence President, Ms Tsai Ing-wen, and a growing chorus of people in Hong Kong calling for independence.

At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping is battling to consolidate his power base and does not want to look weak in dealing with both Hong Kong and Taiwan, Ms Li said on Wednesday (May 11).

China is also not likely to resolve the simmering issues "in the near future".

Ms Li was speaking at the second of three quarterly briefings leading up to the annual Global Outlook Forum organised by The Straits Times. The briefing, titled "The triple Chinese challenge: Hong Kong, Taiwan and the New Normal", focused on China and the challenges it faces with a slowing economy, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

 

ON TAIWAN

Ms Li said cross-strait relations will become more volatile, despite outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's efforts to bring stability across the Taiwan Strait and the prudent nature of his successor.

This is because Ms Tsai does not have a strong support base within her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and may be seen as "too moderate" for the "deep-green camp".

Ms Tsai, who will be sworn in on May 20, is under pressure to revitalise the flagging Taiwan economy quickly. Ms Li said she is not sure that Taiwanese voters are patient enough.

So there is concern that Ms Tsai might be forced to adopt an overtly pro-independence stance to consolidate her support and distract the middle ground from the economy, though this will provoke Beijing to "take strong action". China views Taiwan as a renegade province to be taken back by force if necessary.

ON HONG KONG

Ms Li said there is a "strong sense of despondency and uncertainty" about the Chinese city's future.

This is due to tensions between a group of people seeking independence for Hong Kong and a hardline Beijing government that "is interfering openly in local affairs - the government, the media and universities", said Ms Li.

Plagued by income inequality and pollution, among other things, Ms Li said that Hong Kongers are unhappy with their lives. Things have not improved under Hong Kong's current Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, Ms Li said, adding that "Hong Kong had only become more chaotic". An example is the riot that broke out in Mong Kok early this year.

The gloom and doom is causing middle-class professionals to consider emigrating while elites, such as tycoon Li Ka Shing, are moving their businesses out of Hong Kong.

As for the young people, they are "literally playing with fire" trying to seek Hong Kong independence, said Ms Li.

This means that Hong Kong will continue to be chaotic in the coming years, she added.

"The government will struggle to put in place any decisive policies needed - whether in housing or retirement planning. The city will struggle to cope with Beijing's open interference in its domestic affairs."

While Beijing will not let Hong Kong fail as it needs the city as a platform for financial liberalisation, there is an "insidious change", said Ms Li. This is due to mainland Chinese companies asserting pressure and fears that standards and independence are being compromised.