(Post)colonial state of mind: A survey of the ongoing political democratisation in Taiwan and Hong Kong

By Iulia Lumina| Singapore & Ross Cheung| Hong Kong 

The recent mobilisations for political democratisation in Taiwan and Hong Kong reflect a historical opening for decolonisation in East Asia. The 2014 Sunflower and Umbrella movements have prompted a re-evaluation of Taiwanese and Hong Kong identities. Firstly, the negotiation of democratic liberties addresses the enduring colonial and Cold War legacies which define their postcolonial political and economic structures. Secondly, the ‘China factor’ has prompted a reflexive civic consciousness that is revisiting the historical relationship with mainland China and the current opposition to its influence.

The economic liberalisation of People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) in the 1980s and the subsequent trade with Taiwan and Hong Kong have consolidated a class of business elites who participate in the political scene. The pro-democracy movements and the ongoing anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong are reactions to the increased social inequalities sustained by this elitism and reflect the anxieties around PRC’s authoritarianism, which is perceived as another threat of colonisation.

In the long run, the impact of these pro-democracy movements will depend both on a deepening of civic pressure as well as the PRC’s mediation of its renewed imperialist impulse, which is visible in notions such as the Beijing Consensus and the ‘Asian century’.

Understanding democratisation in East Asia

Among the regions of the world that define our geographical imaginaries in terms of the Cold War, East Asia is the one that has yet to experience regional reconciliation. This is mainly due to the painful memories of Japan’s brutal imperialism and the immediate shift of much of East Asia to US protection.

Contrary to the belief that the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many scholars point out that it still has enduring effects in East Asia. Kuan-Hsing Chen (2010) argues that the Cold War postponed the chance for the former colonies of East Asia to reflexively determine their relationships with the colonial powers of Britain, Japan, China, as well as with US imperialism.

Taiwan transitioned from Qing rule to a Japanese colony, straight to a US protectorate under the Kuomintang (KMT), while Hong Kong was handed over to the PRC after more than 150 years of British colonialism. These historical dynamics have definitively shaped the identity politics of Taiwan and Hong Kong and mediated their relationship with mainland China.

The desire for democracy in East Asia cannot be understood as nostalgia for colonial rule, nor as an appropriation of Western values made possible by globalisation. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is imperative to leave Western references aside.

In Euro(centric) narratives, the spirit of civil society grew in opposition to authoritarian regimes and strengthened following their demise in the 1990s. While the current pro-democracy movements are directly opposed to PRC’s authoritarianism, the genealogy of civic mobilisation in Taiwan and Hong Kong, has a much longer history.

The desire for democracy in East Asia cannot be understood as nostalgia for colonial rule, nor as an appropriation of Western values made possible by globalisation. In order to understand this phenomenon, it is imperative to leave Western references aside and shift our attention to the local historical context of East Asia.

Dirlik (2018) argues that the democratic impulse is not so much a product of Western colonial rule, but rather of the struggles against colonialism. While Hong Kong inherited a system that allows for some liberties in comparison to the PRC’s political system, one cannot equate British colonialism with democracy.

The coming of US-backed KMT rule in Taiwan installed a regime of martial law for 40 years. The White Terror campaign that followed the 28 February massacre in 1947 had violently crushed political dissent, while at the same time precipitating a local sense of belonging among the Taiwanese in contrast to the Chinese nationalist discourse of the KMT.

Historically, anti-colonial movements provided an important source of identity formation. The sudden transitions of Hong Kong and Taiwan replaced the old colonialism with a new imperialism, leaving no room to address these historical relations. 1997 is viewed by the PRC as the moment of huigui, or Hong Kong’s return to the motherland.

Similarly, the KMT maintained its nationalist stance of ‘One China’ after its takeover of Taiwan in 1949. In their demands for autonomy, both Taiwanese and Hong Kong civic consciousnesses have emphasised the colonial past as a marker of their difference from the PRC. This in turn provides legitimacy for a new form of historical identity (Dirlik 2018).

Taiwan and Hong Kong: (post)colonial identities in the making

While Han Chinese migration dates back to the Portuguese and Dutch colonial period in the 17th century, Taiwan was absorbed into the Qing dynasty[1] as a peripheral province in 1887, due to imminent threats from the Russian and Japanese empires. This brought about an increase in Han settlement and an active process of sinicisation. Shortly after, in 1895, the Japanese invaded Taiwan and subjected its population to the policy of kominka, or assimilation of the colonial subject.

Following the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, ending 50 years of Japanese colonialism, the Republic of China (RoC) took over Taiwan in 1949, in what can be seen as another colonial succession. Taiwan officially became a US protectorate and the stronghold from which the KMT planned to take back China. As a result, Chinese nationalism became Taiwan’s hegemonic discourse.

The youth‑led pro‑democracy movements denounced their deteriorating socio‑economic status in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The subsequent anti-Communist-and pro-American policy (Chen 2010) legitimised four decades of martial law and the suppression of political dissent. This led to a kind of historical amnesia in government discourse, as the memory of resistance was not properly recorded.

The suffering during Japanese colonialism and the suppression of the RoC’s re-colonisation became two major sources of development in Taiwanese modern history. The late 1980s witnessed the beginning of political democratisation, with the rise of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the indigenous movement. Moreover, the election of the first Taiwan-born president, Lee Teng-hui, marked the beginning of a Taiwan-centric consciousness.

Identity politics in Taiwan have largely been played out as a discourse of ‘blue’ (KMT) versus ‘green’ (DPP). The rotation of the political parties was achieved peacefully in 2000, and represented a historical watershed in the anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian history in East Asia. Taiwanese identity is described as multicultural, acknowledging elements of Chinese, Japanese and indigenous heritage. The confrontation of these two discourses is an extension of the complex politics of the past seven decades.

The island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British empire by the Qing dynasty in 1842, following the First Opium War. As a boundary/liminal area between East and West, it became the pioneer of modern Chinese society. The city has been a window for the spread of Western culture to Asia and also a Chinese gateway to the world, which made it a unique place for cultural convergence, contagion, divergence and hybridisation (Wieland, Cheung & Baumann Montecinos 2019).

During the Cold War, Hong Kong was strategically placed between the capitalist and socialist camps. On the one hand, the British claimed that they elevated Hong Kong from a fishing village to an international city. On the other hand, the Chinese government sought to incorporate the separate trajectory of Hong Kong into its grand revisionist narrative of Chinese history.

Initially proposed for the unification of Taiwan with the PRC in the 1970s, the ‘one country, two systems’ has been an experiment in Hong Kong to allow the co-existence of the socialist state and the capitalist way of life. It was eventually codified in 1990 as the Hong Kong Basic Law.

The movement injected new energy into the city’s identity. What will the Hong Kong Way, a human chain of 210,000 people, bring to the future of the city?

Following the negotiations for the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997, Hong Kong maintained its cosmopolitan lifestyle as well as the British colonial state infrastructure, which is safeguarded until 2046. This has resulted in a depoliticised Hong Kong identity: the lack of political liberties has been traded for the pursuit of economic freedom.

Known for being an ‘Asian miracle’ due to its economic success, Hong Kong has become an international hub for trade and finance. Ironically, its depoliticised identity is a bottom-up formation, tied to the rise of middle-class consumerism since the 1970s.

The success of Cantopop and the Hong Kong cinema industry, which gave the world Bruce Lee and later Jackie Chan, became a source of pride which helped shape an identity for Hong Kong. The international distribution of Hong Kong-produced media and television series overtook Chinatowns all over the world, at a time when freedom of press was suppressed across East Asia.

This served as a major differentiation of Hong Kong as an urban, modern society against mainland China’s rural and oppressive image. More recently, this contrast has been reflected in the dissatisfaction of Hong Kongers with the behaviour of tourists from the mainland.

Overall, two main factors have suppressed the active political formation of a local Hong Kong identity. The British colonial legacy is embedded in Hong Kong’s postcolonial predicament, which translates into undemocratic political representation and high social inequality. Moreover, to this day only about 60% of Hong Kong residents are locally born, and the influx of Chinese migrants is perceived as ‘mainlandisation’. This has sparked a series of crises in the economy, governance, and the territory’s social fabric.

The Sunflower and Umbrella movements: the consolidation of local identities

Ever since the PRC opened up in the 1980s, trade with Hong Kong and Taiwan has been the lifeline of Chinese economic development. In the mid-1990s, Taiwan sought to diversify its economy through a ‘southward advance’ into Southeast Asia.

Nonetheless, due to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, it was drawn back to the PRC. Moreover, the 2001 tech bubble and 9/11 hampered business with the US, forcing Taiwan to turn its investment and capital flow to the PRC. The 2008 financial meltdown only served as a further catalyst, and has since prompted an agenda of a possible trade agreement between Taiwan and the PRC.

At the same time, Hong Kong was integrating further into the Chinese economy and signed a Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with mainland China in 2003. This mutually beneficial intensification of trade and investment gave rise to an unprecedented elitism, which intensified economic inequality and frustration with the undemocratic nature of political representation.

The new social class of CEO-scholar-official sparked tensions over inequality and injustice in Taiwan, and has fuelled a sense of civil identity built on a Taiwanese-centric concept. The civic mobilisation that culminated in the Sunflower Movement in 2014 was triggered by young Taiwanese netizens, or xiangmin (country people), who have been reclaiming justice from the abuses of the Taiwanese elites (Chuang 2018).

The imminence of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) created much anxiety around the autonomy of Taiwanese businesses, and eventually led to a 29-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan by young activists.

In Hong Kong, collusion between business and government is by no means a new phenomenon (Law 2009). The leaders of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Corporation (HSBC) and the Swire Group have always been non-official members of the Executive Council, the chief decision-making body since the British ruled Hong Kong.

This was a rather common colonial strategy, to co-opt business elites (from entrepreneurs to lawyers and accountants). This ‘administrative absorption of politics’ was considered an effective way of represent the demands of society and governing through the mechanism of indirect opinion (King 1975).

As of today, 22 years after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), local business elites become appointed members of the District Councils and join the Legislative Council through functional constituency elections. The 2014 political reform proposal further legitimised the absence of a directly elected government, which triggered the call for a real referendum in the subsequent 2016 Legislative Council and 2017 Chief Executive elections. This became the main demand of the youth-led Umbrella Movement.

The youth-led pro-democracy movements denounced their deteriorating socio-economic status in Taiwan and Hong Kong, especially the stagnation of graduate income and the skyrocketing property prices. While Hong Kong has always been one of the most expensive cities in the world, Taiwan’s property prices had been increasing since 2003. In addition, the post-war baby boomers still dominate the majority of economic resources and executive positions.

As production has moved to China, the inability to diversify the economy has led to low social mobility for the youth of Hong Kong and Taiwan. There was an overwhelming feeling that youth had ’no stake in the society’. Moreover, business elites often shared their support for ‘national unification’ and ‘one country, two systems’ through social media and pro-China media. This raised anxiety among the general public about the ‘China factor’ intruding into both societies, from daily life experience to politics, and threatening the local identities and autonomy of Taiwan and Hong Kong.

After the 79 days of occupation in Admiralty, Mongkok, and Causeway Bay in Hong Kong in 2014, the social movements subdued to white terror[2]. Since then, the government has responded with a series of arrests, and court cases have been ongoing. Six democratically elected parliament members were disqualified on accusations of separatism.

The arrests were enforced by the Public Order Ordinance, which was passed in 1967 in the context of the Cold War. Furthermore, the erosion of press freedom in Hong Kong was underlined by the disappearance of five staff of Causeway Bay Books, a prominent publisher of books on Chinese politics, and by attacks on local journalists. International journalists have also been denied permits to work in Hong Kong.

Even though the newly established ‘post-umbrella’ political parties and civil society organisations have widened the political spectrum, due to their overwhelming focus on ideological discourse they were unable to unite political power in the democratic camp, and failed to push forward the agenda of Hong Kong’s democratisation.

Since 2017, the year Carrie Lam was elected as the 4th Chief Executive of the HKSAR, a series of controversial bills alarmed Hong Kong’s citizens and civil society. The proposed bill for the Hong Kong-Mainland High Speed Rail Link, an express railway from Western Kowloon to the Shenzhen border, won a majority vote in the Legislative Council in 2018.

This stirred up a dispute over the imposition of juxtaposed controls and Chinese customs offices in the heart of the city. Subsequently, following the case of the alleged murder of a Hong Kong citizen in Taiwan, the government initiated a bill to resolve the absence of an extradition mechanism with Taiwan.

However, the bill proceeded without the proper procedures in the Legislative Council and in the absence of public consultation. The circumvention of lawful procedures was justified by the urgency of filing the murder case. Even though public demonstrations ensued across the island and public opinion polls reported that more than 50% of residents were opposed to the bill’s introduction, a second reading was proposed for mid-June.

As Mrs Lam sought to settle this ‘legal loophole’, anxiety over the possibility that Hong Kong citizens could be held liable under the PRC’s jurisdiction motivated over 2 million people to take to the streets in protests that have been ongoing since June 2019.

As the movement intensified and the protests turned violent, C.E. Lam apologised and announced the suspension of the bill. Nonetheless, the general public is still apprehensive about Chinese government intervention. After breaking into the Legislative Council on the 22nd anniversary of the HKSAR’s creation, the activists left behind a powerful slogan, ‘(I)t was you who told me peaceful marches did not work’, which signifies hopelessness in peaceful demonstrations as well as determination to change the status quo.

So far, only one out of the five demands of the anti-extradition bill movement had been met by early September. Following the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the activists are demanding the release and exoneration of arrested protesters, a public inquiry into police brutality, the resignation of CE Lam and universal suffrage. The movement has injected new energy to the city’s identity and is opening a new chapter of the Hong Kong story. What will the Hong Kong Way, a human chain made up of 210,000 people, bring to the future of the city?

A historical opening for decolonisation

The occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan resulted in the scrapping of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), and the KMT losing the presidency and their majority in the parliament in 2016. The DPP has returned to power in coalition with the New Power Party which emerged from the Sunflower Movement.

In the case of Hong Kong, ironically, the business elites failed to pass the undemocratic political reform proposal that would have benefited them due to procedural shortcomings in 2015. The political status quo was preserved and the Umbrella movement’s demand for a real referendum was not met. This laid the seeds for the occupation of the Legislative Council in the summer of 2019, a symbolic action which reclaimed political representation of the people, for the people.

While it is too early to pronounce any victories for Hong Kong, the ongoing negotiation of political democratisation has influenced the formation of identities in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Building on the historical contestation of the colonial and Cold War legacies, resistance to PRC influence has revitalised civic consciousness in both societies. By revisiting their historical relationship with the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are undergoing a reflexive process of decolonisation, which has in turn strengthened local identities.

Building on the historical contestation of the colonial and Cold War legacies, resistance to PRC influence has revitalised civic consciousness in both societies.

The Cold War delayed this historical opening in East Asia. For Taiwan, it only emerged about three decades after the end of martial law in 1988 and two decades after political democratisation. For Hong Kong, this comes 22 years after the handover of sovereignty to the PRC in 1997. Resistance to the trade agreement and the extradition mechanism with the PRC proves that the ‘China factor’ is escalating identity politics. This reinforces different ways of being ‘Chinese’ or ‘Chinesenesses’ outside of mainland China, and unites Taiwan and Hong Kong against a common oppressor.

Decolonisation does not simply imply the takeover of sovereignty and the state. It is a strenuous process of evaluating identification with the coloniser as well as the imperial power. To some extent, Taiwan still identifies with the US: a body called Club 51 advocates for Taiwan to become the 51st state of the United States of America.

Moreover, the continuous oppression and colonisation of the indigenous population has only recently started to be addressed through the revision of the educational curriculum and the integration of indigenous people into society. In Hong Kong, in addition to their empowering slogans, the activists also hung the British colonial flag in the Legislative Council.

Finally, Chen (2010) argues that decolonisation in the former colony needs to be coupled with an undertaking of de-imperialisation in the imperial core. As a result, the key to regional integration in East Asia also involves the re-evaluation of Japanese and US imperialism.

Meanwhile, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the PRC is establishing new historical relations with the rest of Asia, reordering the economic and political power structure in the region and beyond. It remains to be seen whether China will reclaim its imperialist ‘Asian century’ or become the peaceful, friendly neighbour it once sought to be in solidarity with the Global South.

[1] The Qing was the last dynasty that ruled over the territories of what we now call China. For a critical discussion on the imagination and re-imagination of ‘China’, see Arif Dirlik (2019), Born in Translation: “China” and the Making of Zhongguo.

[2] “A systematic attack on the norms without always directly dismantling the Basic Law.” (Yan Sham-Shackleton)

IULIA LUMINA is an independent researcher based in Singapore, currently focusing on decolonial thought and the intellectual history of the Global South.She is the co-editor of the upcoming volume The Politics of Muslim Identities: South and Southeast Asia (Edinburgh University Press, May 2020).

ROSS CHEUNG is an Erasmus Mundus Master in Global Studies student. A Hong Kong native, Ross is the co-editor of the forthcoming book “Hybridity and Transculturality: Learnings about the Case of Hong Kong” (Metropolis, November 2019).

Photo credit: Alexandru Balasescu, Hong Kong.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Chen, Kuan Hsing. 2010. Asia as method: toward deimperialization. Durham: Duke University Press.

Chu, Yiu Wai. 2018. Found in transition: Hong Kong studies in the age of China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chuang, Ya Chung. 2018. ‘Democracy under Siege: Xiangmin Politics in Sunflower Taiwan’. Boundary 2, 45(3), pp. 61-78.

Dirlik, Arif. 2018. ‘Taiwan: The Land Colonialisms Made’, Boundary 2, 45(3), pp. 1-25.

King, Yeo Chi. 1975. ‘Administrative Absorption of Politics in Hong Kong: Emphasis on the Grassroots Level’. Asian Survey, Vol 15, No. 5 (May), pp. 422-439.

Law, Wing Sang. 2009. Collaborative Colonial Power: The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Vickers, Edward. 2008. ‘Original Sin on the Island Paradise? Qing Taiwan’s colonial history in comparative perspective’. Taiwan in Comparative perspective, Vol. 2, December 2008, pp. 65-86.

Wieland, Joseph, Cheung, Ross & Baumann Montecinos, Julika. 2019. Hybridity and Transculturality: Learnings about the Case of Hong Kong. Marburg: Metropolis.