Hong Kong pro-democracy 'Umbrella' leaders seek closer ties with Taiwan

Joshua Wong (centre), the teenage face of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, at a press conference in Taipei on Jan 17, 2016.
Joshua Wong (centre), the teenage face of Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, at a press conference in Taipei on Jan 17, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP) - Student leaders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy Umbrella Movement said on Sunday (Jan 17) they would seek closer ties with Taiwan after the island elected a new president who pledged to stand up to China.

Taiwan's presidential election has drawn keen interest from Hong Kong's pan-democratic camp, which has sent more than 50 party politicians and about 100 students and activists in different delegations to observe the polls, said South China Morning Post.

They have visited election headquarters of the Taiwanese parties, met their think tanks and attended supporters' rallies, the newpaper said.

Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan's main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won by a landslide on Saturday as voters expressed their discontent over warmer relations with China under the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

"Whether it is the issue of Taiwan's sovereignty or the future of Hong Kong, we both face the China factor," said Joshua Wong, the teenage face of the Umbrella Movement which brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014 seeking fully free leadership elections.

"I think more exchange is very much needed," Wong told a press conference in Taipei.

The 19-year-old was in Taiwan as part of a pro-democracy group observing Saturday's elections.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous since being returned to China by Britain in 1997 and enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland, but there are fears those freedoms are being lost.

The pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong were sparked when Beijing insisted on vetting candidates for the city's next leader.

Self-ruling Taiwan split from China in 1949 after a civil war on the mainland. But Beijing still sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

The KMT's Beijing-friendly strategy brought trade deals and a tourist boom but sparked fears that China was trying to erode Taiwan's autonomy through economic ties.

Support for Tsai surged as Taiwanese sought to assert their own identity and reject China's influence.

The island saw its own mass protests in 2014 when student-led demonstrators occupied parliament over a trade pact with China, in what became known as the Sunflower Movement.

"We face the same threat, we have to guard our places, to own our destiny. We need to have stronger alliances in all areas," said Alex Chow, another key Umbrella leader speaking in Taipei on Sunday.

He called for more dialogue, whether through civil groups or the new government.

The calls for unity come in the wake of the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers from a publishing house known for titles critical of the Chinese government - the latest incident to exacerbate fears over the city's autonomy.

Sunflower activists gained seats in Taiwan's legislature in Saturday's parliamentary vote, standing for the New Power Party (NPP) which grew out of the protest movement.

In Hong Kong, former Umbrella protesters also took seats in recent district elections.

Wong said the NPP was an inspiration.

"How they can turn street protests to power within the legislative system, I think that can serve as a very good reference for those in post-Umbrella student or civil movements in Hong Kong," he said.

Tsai's landslide victory is unlikely to affect Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong, but Beijing could be more closely watching young activists in the city who have close ties with the new political forces emerging from the election, observers have said according to SCMP.

Dr Camoes Tam said the Communist Party could be concerned by the rise of new political forces which are close to Hong Kong activists.

"I understand from my mainland contacts that mainland officials are curious about what these Hong Kong young people are doing in Taiwan," Tam, a veteran journalist and commentator on cross-straits relations, was quoted by SCMP as saying on Saturday.

"Beijing is most concerned with how activists from the Umbrella Movement are connecting with those from the Sunflower Movement, and whether they get close to the DPP."

Another commentator, Ivan Choy, agreed that the election has shown a strong bond between the civil societies in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

"Beijing will have to be careful when dealing with Taiwan in future because any tough move on Taiwan could trigger strong reactions among Hongkongers, who feel they share the same fate with the island," Choy told SCMP.