Why Taiwan’s Assistance to HK Matters

04-Jul-2020 Intellasia | Foreign Policy | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Taiwan’s government is signaling its status as a regional beacon for democracy and human rights in contrast to South Korea, which frames assistance to North Korean refugees as helping ethnic brethren.

On July 1, Taiwan formally launched a new humanitarian assistance and resettlement programme for Hong Kong residents. The move comes as Beijing tightens its grip on the city, most recently through the passage of a new national security law that allows mainland security forces to operate in the city and grants mainland courts jurisdiction over national security-related cases. The law was unanimously approved and promulgated by the Chinese government earlier this week, and Hong Kong police have already made their first arrests under it.

Shortly after beginning her second term in late May, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen offered assistance to people seeking to leave Hong Kong, calling on Taiwan’s legislature to develop a “humanitarian assistance action plan.” Last month, the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s governmental office for relations with the mainland, announced details of the programme, framing it as Taiwan’s support for Hong Kong’s people in their defense of democracy, freedom, and human rights. That announcement prompted a stern response from Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which warned that “taking onto the island the rioters and elements who bring chaos to Hong Kong will only continue to bring harm to Taiwan’s people.”

Taiwan’s recent move might look like a straightforward humanitarian response to the intensifying crisis in neighbouring Hong Kong, but there’s more to the emerging policy framework than meets the eye. In fact, what Taiwan is doing solidifies a particular nationalist path that differs from others in Asia and has the potential to fundamentally alter the region’s power dynamics.

A comparison helps to make the distinctiveness of Taiwan’s approach clear. Taiwan has framed its assistance programme as humanitarian, aimed at aiding the fight for democracy and human rights. While that might seem obvious, it contrasts with the way another democracy in the region, South Korea, characterises its resettlement programme for North Korean refugees: assisting ethnic brethren.

These differences reflect the divergent paths taken by Taiwan and South Korea in framing their national identities in recent years. Taiwan nationalism the notion of Taiwan as a national community distinct from China was forged during the period when the island was under martial law and ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that had fled mainland China after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite shared Han roots, many islanders saw major cultural differences between themselves and the mainlanders (waishengren, or “out-of-province people”). But with democratisation and generational turnover, the ethnic cleavage between mainlanders and islanders has largely faded, leaving a growing consensus in support of maintaining the status quo with China and a shared civic identity focused on Taiwan’s democratic status.

In recent years, the percentage of citizens who identify as solely Taiwanese, rather than Chinese or both, has reached an all-time high. Although that identity crosses party lines, it is particularly strong among the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the long-standing opposition party that pushed the KMT toward democratisation and whose leader, Tsai Ing-wen, now holds the presidency. Tsai’s latest move further solidifies the civic basis of this identity: Rather than taking an ethnic or pan-Chinese approach, as it once did, Taiwan sees itself as a democratic nation, first and foremost.

South Korea, meanwhile, is stuck between old and new identities. The country is moving toward a “multicultural” Korea in many respects something it acutely needs, as a dramatic decline in fertility has prompted an increased need for immigration and foreign labour. But when it comes to North Koreans, the state strictly upholds a co-ethnic principle: North Koreans are often spoken of as having “automatic citizenship” and receive preferential resettlement benefits not offered to multicultural immigrants or even to Korean-Chinese immigrants, or joseonjok.

The resettlement centre for North Korean refugees is named Hanawon, or “house of unity,” a reference to the idea that Korea is a single nation based on shared Korean lineage and only temporarily divided into two opposing systems of governance by the tragedy of the Korean War. The ethnic dimension of Korean identity has remained durable, in part because it was how the nation survived when political autonomy was lost to Japan during the first half of the 20th century. But looking to the 21st century, South Korea’s ethnic exception toward North Koreans creates a dual-track approach, and it holds back its national identity from evolving to include the growing influx of foreigners, a trend that is inevitable given the country’s demographic realities.

The different paths taken by Taiwan and South Korea come with domestic and international trade-offs. Domestically, research shows that strong identity linkage between nation and state drives a greater sense of civic duty among citizens. At a moment when both democracies face integration challenges from their resettlement programmes, they will need high levels of civic cooperation from native citizens. Taiwan’s identity consolidation toward civic nationalism stands to fare better at incorporating a diverse array of newcomers than South Korea’s approach, which uses multicultural rhetoric, but, in practice, remains fragmented and at least partly reliant on an ethnic conception of nationhood.



Category: Taiwan

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