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Taiwanese Youth Rise with Hong Kong

Taipei, Taiwan—Overnight, a busy underground passageway in Taipei transformed into a colorful “Lennon Wall,” a bold display of support for Hong Kong’s ongoing anti-extradition protests. Thousands of handwritten messages on sticky notes and posters line the tunnel from ceiling to floor. One phrase appears everywhere—“加油!” or “don’t give up!” Passersby are welcome to leave their own words of encouragement, and the wall grows every day. 

The Hong Kong protests escalated in June, in opposition to a proposed bill that would authorize extradition to China on a case-by-case basis. Hongkongers view this legislation as a violation of China’s “one country, two systems” policy, which supposedly preserved Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy following its handover from the United Kingdom in 1997. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the extradition bill “dead” following the backlash, but protests have since evolved into a general push for greater democratic freedoms. Hongkongers now march for five demands, including an inquiry into Hong Kong police’s violent anti-protest conduct. The world has watched the conflict unfold tensely from a distance, but no nation is more shaken by Hong Kong’s condition than Taiwan. 

Many citizens of Taiwan, an autonomous island with a historical identity crisis opposite of China, fear that Hong Kong’s struggle with China may place their country in a path of collateral damage. Challenging the “one country, two systems” policy is but a step away from challenging Taiwan’s disputed political status—whether or not it is a part of China. As a result, the bond between Taiwan and Hong Kong has strengthened as both attempt to defend their autonomy from China’s political advancements, a movement that especially resonates with the youth of the two democracies.

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Taiwan and Hong Kong’s existing economic ties, centered on trade and tourism, are now expanding to become one of identity. The Taiwanese Hong Kong solidarity movement is largely led by the youth, in particular the Hong Kong Outlanders, an organization of Hongkongese students based in Taiwan. In addition to starting the Lennon Wall in early August, they have organized multiple solidarity activities in Taipei, including rallies and collections of motorcycle helmet donations for protesters in Hong Kong. 

Hongkongese student Michael Lui ’20 frequently stations himself at the Lennon Wall, striking up conversations with anyone who walks by. He attends the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei, and has seen the protests in his homeland erupt from afar. He is not affiliated with any organization nor is he compensated for his time, but he feels an intense responsibility to spread awareness about Hong Kong’s cause in Taiwan. Though Lui believes he has a stronger emotional connection to Hong Kong than his Taiwanese classmates do, he is grateful for their support.

“The Taiwanese and Hongkongers are standing a lot closer to each other,” Lui said. “In the Taiwanese mind, they know that [what’s happening in] Hong Kong is what might happen to Taiwan in the future… But no matter if it’s with their heart or their mind, what they did is the important thing. They did raise attention for us, and that’s what matters to us.”

Shaun Radgowski ’21 was studying Chinese at National Taiwan University when protests surged in the summer, and attended a solidarity rally in Taipei on June 16. He was one of several thousand attendees, mostly university students wearing black and carrying anti-extradition posters, braving Taiwan’s sweltering summer heat to support visiting activists from Hong Kong. From their impassioned speeches, Radgowski could sense a “feeling of mutual understanding between the youth of Hong Kong and the youth of Taiwan.”

“I went to the protest because I understand the movement and want to support [it] as much as I can. It can feel frustrating to see these protests happening from afar and there’s so little [one] can personally do to help, as I’m sure many people felt watching the Trump protests in the U.S.,” Radgowski said. “It’s also a once in a lifetime opportunity because this is history happening right before our eyes.”

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Taiwan is rising to meet Hong Kong not only in solidarity, but also to protect its own  autonomy as China grows more assertive in cross-strait relations. Officially known as the Republic of China, Taiwan’s tricky political status has long divided citizens; generally, Taiwan claims it is separate from China, while China firmly maintains that it is part of China. The debate, which continues to escape resolution, has flared up again with renewed urgency in the face of Hong Kong’s protests—a warning to Taiwan. 

Taiwan has resisted the looming possibility of unification with China so far, but is also acutely aware that it currently does not have the means, military or otherwise, to declare independence. Taiwan has instead settled for an ambiguous but safe status quo, a limbo that’s neither independent nor unified with China. An ongoing survey conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University (NCCU), regarding unification versus independence stances of Taiwanese citizens, reveals that the vast majority—86 percent—of respondents prefer maintaining some form of the status quo. 

“Jeopardizing the status quo, especially when war is in question, is very scary,” Radgowski explained. “That’s the sense of realism—accepting the state of affairs where even if a significant number of people in Taiwan want to enjoy the benefits of being an independent nation, they are aware that it would be virtually impossible to just win a war against China on their own… [Taiwan] is quickly approaching a crossroads. It’s kind of a ticking time bomb.”

If Taiwan is ultimately pushed to this crossroads by China’s advancements, a choice between unification and independence—neither entirely favorable, it seems—would have the greatest impact on the youth of Taiwan. George Tang  ’21, born and raised in Taiwan, feels “immensely worried for Taiwan’s future,” he said.

“Drawing from the protests, there’s a widely used line amongst Taiwanese people “今日香港,明日台灣 (today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan),” meaning Hong Kong’s present will be Taiwan’s future,” Tang said. “We see Hong Kong’s protest as a warning for Taiwan; if we don’t stand up for ourselves and our allies, the pro-China powers will drive our freedom and rights away.”

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Taiwan’s youth are becoming restless. As their country continues to develop on a path that strays from China, a distinct Taiwanese identity is emerging. A second survey by the NCCU Election Study Center, regarding Taiwanese self-identification, reflects citizens’ increasing tendency towards solely Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese or both Chinese and Taiwanese. This recent trend renders unification not only logistically difficult, but also ideologically unacceptable for Taiwanese youth. 

“In recent decades, with [Taiwan’s] democracy growing further and further away from China—for example, being the first country in Asia to pass same sex marriage law—and our embracing [of] all ethnicities and cultures in Taiwan, not just Han Chinese but also aboriginal Taiwanese, we’ve developed our own Taiwanese identity,” Tang said. 

Still, the Taiwanese identity is not a politically homogeneous one. Generational and partisan gaps are the most apparent; parts of the older generation with ties to China or members of the Kuomintang party may prefer cooperation with China. And despite the public awareness that a small group of student activists have generated worldwide, general indifference is not uncommon. Claire Fang ’23, who attended an international school in Taiwan, does not recall hearing peers discuss Taiwanese or Hong Kongese politics. “I wish we cared more about what is going on around us [in Taiwan], but I wouldn’t blame anyone just because of their [different] focus,” she said. Indeed, the views represented here were those of well-educated youth with exposure Western political thought, a single demographic that certainly does not encompass all of Taiwan’s 23.4 million residents. 

But regardless of ideological differences, Hongkongese native Lui holds fast to his belief that everyone should care about the rights and treatment of Hong Kong’s protesters. “[The protest] is far more than just for democracy,” he said. “It’s for human rights. It’s for humanity.” Even as demonstrations approach their fifth month, like the ever multiplying “加油—don’t give up” sticky notes on the Lennon Wall, protesters show no signs of surrender yet.