TAIPEI (Reuters) - Hong Kong activists and budding pro-democracy politicians have flocked to Taiwan to observe its elections, aiming to bolster exchanges and galvanize an alliance against China’s influence.
One delegation of about 50, including a batch of young district councillors who stormed to a landslide electoral victory in November, arrived this week and has been networking with key Taiwan civil society leaders, academics and officials.
“We want to learn and gain more experience, to help Hong Kong people as they struggle on their democratic road in the future,” said Raymond Tang, a district councilor who attended an evening seminar in Taipei with fellow delegates on countering fake news.
The links between the two places has never been deeper: Hong Kong has been convulsed by more than seven months of anti-China protests, and Taiwan’s elections come amid heightened fears of an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping.
“There’s an acute sense of threat from China. What’s happened in Hong Kong has made everyone reassess its relationship with Beijing,” Joseph Cheng, a veteran pro-democracy activist and one of the leaders of the delegation.
“Democracy has taken root in Taiwan and it refutes the basic argument that democracy is for the West, that it doesn’t apply to Chinese people, which is the argument propagated by Beijing,” he added.
In a Facebook video late Thursday, 15 district councillors from Hong Kong, including former student leader Lester Shum, urged the people of Taiwan to treasure their unfettered democracy and to vote.
“This time it’s over to you,” they said in a montage. “Hong Kong and Taiwan, let’s go for it together.”
Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who has been barred from leaving Hong Kong during an ongoing court case, also appealed to the youth of Taiwan to “protect Taiwan’s democracy”.
“I hope our Taiwan friends really go for it, and with their votes show the Taiwan people’s determination to refuse to bow and scrape before Beijing. This is the greatest support you can give Hong Kong,” he wrote on Facebook.
Taiwan has become home to a small but growing number of Hong Kong protesters who have fled there fearing politically motivated charges against them in Hong Kong.
They have no legal way to gain permanent asylum, but President Tsai Ing-wen’s broadly sympathetic government has allowed about 60 of them to temporarily extend their stay.
Around 6,200 immigrants from Hong Kong and Macau are eligible to vote in Taiwan.
“We will fight against the Communist Party with our vote,” said Edward Leung, a 58-year-old Hong Kong emigre who now lives in the southern city of Kaohsiung and plans to vote for Tsai. He says she can better defend Taiwan against China.
Some Hong Kong protesters fear Taiwan’s support will vanish if Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang opposition party, which favors close ties with China, wins the election.
Han has said he fully supports the Hong Kong protesters and their struggle for democracy.
China’s President Xi Jinping early last year threatened to use force to take back Taiwan while reiterating a call for unification with the island under the “one country, two systems” model used in Hong Kong.
But the political crisis in Hong Kong, fueled by public anger against Beijing’s tightening grip on the city, has hardened public sentiment in Taiwan, including both major political parties, against such a system.
Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller once abducted by Chinese agents, is trying to rebuild his life in Taiwan by setting up a new bookstore, set to open in March. He said he was optimistic because of the burgeoning intellectual and political ties between Taiwan and his home.
“What we’re seeing in Taiwan is a country facing a military threat and economic encroachments from China. This is not a good combination and it perpetuates uncertainty,” he said, standing in an empty store space he plans to fill with thousands of books focused on politics in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. “I hope my bookshop can make a little difference, to influence Taiwan, and raise their awareness.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee. Editing by Gerry Doyle