Countering China with Hong Kong’s Help

The temporary exile of a well-known Hong Kong actor over his support for the Sunflower Movement highlights Beijing’s fear of cooperation between Taiwan and the territory
J. Michael Cole

In a surprise announcement on May 26, Hong Kong actor Chapman To (杜汶澤), a rising star in Chinese cinema, said that he and his family were “temporarily” taking leave of the territory and moving abroad. The decision by the 41-year-old, perhaps best known for his role in the classic Infernal Affairs (無間道), followed several weeks of online harassment by Chinese Netizens for his open support of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and its occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March.

Other Hong Kong entertainers had joined To in expressing their solidarity for the Sunflowers, among them Anthony Wong (黃秋生) — who also starred in Infernal Affairs — and singer Denise Ho (何韻詩). But To, who had a regular column in the Apple Daily, a publication that is banned from the Chinese market due to its criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was the main target of Chinese anger. In response to the severe attacks over the past two months, To, who stated that he was leaving for “personal reasons,” said he would never let money buy his principles. This was beyond doubt a reference to the problems that artists who are too vocal in their support for democracy tend to encounter in accessing the highly lucrative Chinese market. In fact, To’s critics have called for a boycott of the movies in which he features, and film projects he was involved with appear to have suddenly found it difficult to secure financing. (We do not know at this point whether To was threatened with physical violence.)

Entertainers from the territory, which was retroceded to China in 1997, were not alone in supporting the movement. Several students from Hong Kong also expressed their solidarity for the Sunflowers during the 24-day occupation. Their hand-written messages — there were hundreds of them — were posted on a wall inside the legislature and have since been preserved.

Recent events in Hong Kong seem to indicate that crisis might be imminent. Growing discontent with Chinese visitors and controversy over tourists from the Mainland who relieve themselves in public have served as outlets for escalating fears over the impact of Beijing on the territory’s system of laws and quasi-democracy. Incidents in which critics of the CCP were physically attacked — including the stabbing of journalist Kevin Lau (劉進圖) in March by individuals with Triad connections — have highlighted those tensions. Hanging over the rising anger is the realization by the residents of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) that Beijing will not respect the promises it made prior to retrocession, and has no intention to give an inch on issues such as universal suffrage or the permanent basing of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces in the territory. Some Western journalists based in the territory have already reached the conclusion that there is no going back for Hong Kong and that it is “too far” in the process of total absorption by China.

Still, many of its residents have chosen to fight, and their experiences are a treasure trove for Taiwanese who want to make sure that a similar process of no return is not initiated in Taiwan. There are many lessons to be learned from Hong Kong, among them the fact that Beijing’s promise to respect the islanders’ way of life under the “one country, two system” model was as empty as it gets. For far too long Taiwanese have failed to recognize the importance of what is happening in the SAR. Little by little, events there have led them to realize that Hong Kong could very well be a future scenario for Taiwan, and one that should be avoided at all cost.

It will therefore be very tempting — desirable, in fact — to reach out to the people of Hong Kong in order to learn from (if not work with) them. Likeminded individuals from both societies have many things in common, much more, in fact, than they do with the Chinese. Beijing is rightly worried at the possibility that activists, academics, politicians, legislators, and journalists from Hong Kong and Taiwan will join forces as they seek to preserve their way of life amid pressure from authoritarian China. Hence the violent assault on journalists and the campaigns to sabotage the careers of individuals like To whose appeal can serve to inspire others.

Taiwan and Hong Kong will be much stronger if they work together. Both societies are ripe for cooperation. Beijing will therefore do everything it can to prevent the emergence of a confederation of societies as a countervailing force to Chinese pressure.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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