Why Carrie Lam's climbdown from divisive extradition Bill is good for China's stand on Taiwan

HONG KONG – If having to backpedal on the highly controversial extradition Bill is a bitter pill to swallow, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam can take comfort in that her decision will be in the interest of the Communist Party of China (CCP), particularly as Taiwan heads to the polls in January to elect a new president.

The reason for this is steeped in history.

China has considered Taiwan to be a renegade province that is part of its territory awaiting reunification.

To persuade Taiwan’s population of 23 million to rejoin motherland, China has dangled the “one country, two systems” principle as a way forward.

This is the principle under which Hong Kong operates. It was devised by China and Britain for the territory to hold on to its high degree of autonomy and freedoms after the 1997 handover.

But doubts and scepticisms have grown with the recent unrest in Hong Kong, sparked by Mrs Lam’s push for an unpopular extradition Bill that would allow Hong Kong to send criminals back to the mainland for trials.

Despite Mrs Lam’s declaration that the Bill was initiated by her as she felt “obliged to find a way to deal with the Taiwan murder case so that justice can be done for the deceased”, critics argued that the move underlines that the chief executive is only accountable to Beijing.

As Mr Phil Chan of the Institute for Security and Development Policy puts it, Mrs Lam’s extradition Bill, her mishandling of it, and the protests in Hong Kong have helped show voters in Taiwan that the “one country, two systems” formula “is at best fragile and at worst illusory”.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking a second term, is from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and has repeatedly referred to the clashes in Hong Kong last week as a wake-up call.

Her personal popularity may have slipped since her landslide election victory in 2016, but she successfully fended off a surprise primary challenge last Thursday (June 13) from her former premier William Lai, who is more pro-independence.

This shows that people approve of her policies to balance relations with China by getting the United States as a counterweight to Beijing.

Professor Harry Harding of the University of Virginia noted that “what has really helped Tsai’s standing in the polls has been her willingness to explicitly say that ‘one country, two systems’ is unacceptable to Taiwan, and more generally, to stand up against pressure from China”.

And while Mr Chan is more cautious not to suggest the unrest in Hong Kong helped Ms Tsai with her win, he believes Mrs Lam’s Bill and the fierce protests that have followed have given Ms Tsai “an opportunity to present herself to voters in Taiwan and to foreign governments, and to the CCP, as a stateswoman who has sufficient political acumen and foresight to know where Taiwan’s priorities lie” and how to protect them.

He did qualify that the opposition parties in Taiwan have generally expressed the same views as DPP’s regarding events in Hong Kong and their repercussions for Taiwan.

But the bottomline is this: Ms Tsai can now rise again by rejecting China’s push for unification dialogue based on the “one country, two systems” framework since this is a ticket to Taiwanese voters’ heart.

This is especially when Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to rule out using force to assert sovereignty over Taiwan.

For the January 2020 presidential election, it has been reported that the opposition party or Kuomintang (KMT), is likely to nominate populist Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, who has publicly commented on his willingness to seek closer ties with China.

He is trailed by Mr Terry Gou, founder of tech giant Foxconn, who entered the KMT primary in April.

Mr Han would now take his chances alongside four other KMT contenders, including Mr Gou and the former mayor of New Taipei Eric Chu Li-luan, in next month’s primaries.

The winner will then run for presidency against the DPP’s candidate.

Logic dictates that with the unrest in Hong Kong quelled for the time being, Ms Tsai will have less of an excuse to win voters in the upcoming battle by using Mrs Lam’s extradition law.

“Equally importantly, it (unrest in Hong Kong) is not helping the KMT, which the CCP favours over the DPP,” said Prof Harding.

“We’ll have to see who the KMT nominates, what position that candidate takes on cross-Strait relations, and whether there is a significant third-party candidate such as (popular mayor of Taipei) Ko Wen-je, but certainly the prospects for Tsai’s re-election are increasing, despite the trouncing she and the DPP took at in last year’s mayoral or magisterial elections,” he added.

By pressing pause on the divisive extradition Bill, Mrs Lam has not only provided room for the tensions back home to ease a little, she has also removed a key disadvantage facing pro-Beijing candidates in Taiwan, to let them get back to winning the hearts and minds of Taiwanese voters.

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