Is it a Sino Spring? Via the ABC:
A younger generation of Taiwanese is confronting an increasingly hard-line attitude from its nearest neighbour.
At a rain-soaked music festival in the southern Taiwanese city of Chiayi, Foreign Correspondent caught up with Freddy Lim, as he revved up his young fans about Hong Kong.
“Democracy is not just important for Taiwan, but for all oppressed people, including our friends in Hong Kong, right?” he asks the adoring crowd of thousands.
The death metal rocker, complete with black make-up across his face, is lead singer of Chthonic, one of Asia’s biggest death metal bands.
The head-banging fans are enthralled as Lim delivers the message: “Only if Taiwanese are united can we overcome all difficulties!”
The crowd answers with chants for independence.
The Red Line
For years Chthonic has been a musical and political force on the self-ruled island of 23 million people.
But for the past few years, Lim has preferred political battles in the parliamentary arena, where a role on Taiwan’s Parliamentary National Security and Defence Committee has sharpened his focus on China.
The New Power Party, co-founded by Lim, has harnessed the passion of a younger generation that increasingly identifies as Taiwanese — not Chinese. Lim recently split with the party and now sits as an independent, but maintains his uncompromising views.
“Am I afraid we are crossing red lines? And something bad might happen? I think the Chinese Government just keeps moving the lines, even when we hold back,” he said from his office in Taipei’s Legislative Yuan office building.
“Now there are no lines. It’s just: ‘If you do anything, I’ll kick your arse’.”
For nearly four years, Beijing’s been waging a pressure campaign against Taiwan’s left-leaning President, Tsai Ing-wen.
Ms Tsai leads the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is backed by a coalition that includes the inked, ponytailed and passionate Lim.
Threats of blockades and invasion from Communist China have ramped up, with Peoples’ Liberation Army drills in the waters around Taiwan now taking place.
On the political front, China has been busy too. It has poached five of the 22 diplomatic allies that recognised Taiwan’s Government when Ms Tsai took over in 2016.
Last month, China announced fresh restrictions on individual tourism to Taiwan to put an economic squeeze on the island.
International brands like Qantas and Marriott Hotels have increasingly been targeted by China or online Chinese nationalists for not rigidly adhering to the Communist Party’s claim to the island.
Taiwan’s sovereignty has remained unfinished business since the Nationalists fled there after being defeated in 1949 by the Communists in China’s civil war.
Ms Tsai cautiously balances the growing demands of a younger generation calling for independence, with the dire consequences of pushing China too far.
Beijing is wary Ms Tsai and her supporters will make small moves towards formal independence if given the chance, and Chinese leaders are fond of saying they will resort to force to ensure that never happens.
“If you believe in democracy, I think the people here are already saying, ‘We are not interested in unification with China’,” Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, said.
“We understand our responsibilities in preventing war from taking place, and we are taking a very prudent approach towards China.”
Beijing’s pressure campaign and the pushback in Hong Kong is setting up an electrifying presidential election battle in Taiwan over the next five months.
Ms Tsai will face off against a populist mayor hoping to restore the more conservative Kuomintang (KMT) to power.
The KMT agrees Taiwan and the mainland are one country, despite being separately ruled, a position Ms Tsai does not acknowledge.
But the upheaval in Hong Kong has eroded poll momentum for the KMT’s candidate, Han Kuo-yu, seen as much friendlier towards the mainland.
As the protests first erupted in Hong Kong, Mr Han moved to assure supporters he would only accept China’s offer of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ “over my dead body”.
China’s soft power push
Some news channels and papers in Taiwan’s free and boisterous media have been accused of aiding KMT candidates with sycophantic coverage on behalf of mainland interests.
“There’s one major group that controls television, print magazines, whose owner has been making a fortune in China. And it has been revealed that the Chinese Government has been funding one of the related companies, to the order of hundreds of millions of US dollars over the past decade,” J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based strategic analyst, said.
“They test different techniques in Taiwan … disinformation is certainly an area where the Chinese have been very active, creating confusion about the current leadership in Taiwan,” Mr Cole, a former Canadian intelligence officer, said.
According to Mr Cole, this includes muddying the waters on a number of issues: “The state of the economy, the workability of democracy, notions of inevitability when it comes to unification — the futility of resisting Beijing.”
In recent weeks the UK’s Financial Times has published allegations about Taiwan’s Want Want Group, a major corporation with extensive media interests, claiming its editorial managers take orders from China’s Government.
The company has denied the allegations and is suing the Financial Times for defamation but Taiwan’s Government remains convinced China is using covert means to interfere.
“We have seen the Chinese are engaged in a disinformation campaign against various government institutions, to create distrust in the Government, and to create distrust in the democratic institutions,” Mr Wu said.
Lim says it keeps him awake at night and confirms the parliamentary defence committee has sought advice from countries in the region, including Australia.
“We try to learn what other countries are doing about that — like the Australian government,” he said.
“Now you have the anti-interference law … and try to start a conversation between Taiwan, Japan, Australia and the US.”
All the diplomatic back and forth across the strait seems a long way from the islands of Kinmen, which have far more at stake if conflict ever flared up between the two sides.
Just five kilometres from China, the islands face the bright lights of Xiamen — a city of nearly four million that highlights the mainland’s economic might.
Once the target of Cold War-era artillery fire from the mainland, these days a special permit deal allows locals from both sides to cross the water easily.
Chinese and Taiwanese flags line a prominent shopping street, and war fortifications and bunkers have now been surrendered to tourists.
On Kinmen, there is little appetite for confrontational policies from leaders in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei.
“Kinmen is like a bargaining chip for Taiwan when Taipei negotiates with the mainland,” local politician Dong Senbao said.
“I am concerned Taiwan could give up Kinmen, but if it did, this would show Taiwan isn’t a free and democratic country because that would mean it’s abandoned its people.”
For now, relations are far friendlier on the small islands off the coast than between the mainland and Taipei.
The bad blood between China and the ruling DPP, or pro-independence politicians like Lim, is countered by a small but vocal group of local communists.
Local Communist Party supporter Wei Minren said he would welcome the arrival of China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army in Taiwan — “the sooner the better”.
He and his group are increasingly buoyed by the assertive nationalism of Chinese President Xi Jinping — who has abolished term limits for himself and may be eyeing the unification of Taiwan as an historical legacy prize in his lifetime.
“We support One Country, Two Systems. It’s the best solution for Taiwanese,” Mr Wei said.
That is the same system Beijing granted Hong Kong when the British handed it back in 1997 — a system that has come under sustained pressure from protesters in recent months who claim Beijing is violating the autonomy it promised.
In the wake of the Hong Kong protests, many Taiwanese are nervous similar unrest could occur if Beijing keeps tightening its grip.
It is a fine balancing act that almost everyone in Taiwan has to make — how to assert the freedoms that make Taiwan more liberal and open than mainland China, without poking the dragon.
It will only get harder in the years ahead but Lim and his supporters have already made their choice.
“We can’t give up, because Taiwan is our home, we have nowhere to escape,” he said.
“We just have to try to protect our way of life.”
He is also a former gold trader and economic commentator at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the ABC and Business Spectator. He is the co-author of The Great Crash of 2008 with Ross Garnaut and was the editor of the second Garnaut Climate Change Review.