Members of the pro-Taiwan independence Taiwan Solidarity Union take part on a march in downtown Taipei on September 29 in support of Hong Kong protesters who have been demonstrating for several months in Hong Kong demanding more freedom and autonomy from China.

Alberto Buzzola | LightRocket | Getty Images

TAIPEI — Taiwan heads to the polls next week in what’s considered one of the most significant elections for the island, as voters closely watch the protests in Hong Kong amid concerns about alleged Chinese encroachment in the elections.

In Taiwan, where an increasingly assertive China presents an existential threat, the self-ruled island’s relationship with the mainland loom large.

Between the presidential candidates, “the biggest difference is over China policy,” wrote Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent report.

Taiwanese will be voting for the island’s next president and legislature representatives on January 11.

Beijing — which claims Taiwan as its territory and considers it a wayward province — says it wants reunification with the island and has never renounced the use of force to achieve the goal. President Xi Jinping’s government has been using a carrots-and-sticks approach to win hearts and strike fear into the psyche of Taiwanese.

The anti-government protests in Hong Kong thrust China’s influence into the spotlight and gave incumbent Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen a boost. Opinion polls show Tsai has a wide double-digit percentage point margin against her closest opponent Han Kuo-yu from the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Nationalist Party.

In a sense, it’s China’s policies that have hardened domestic opinion in Taiwan and given more support to (Taiwanese President) Tsai.

James Crabtree

Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Tsai saw her approval ratings plunge from the time she took office until early 2019. But her fortunes started to turn around after her forceful response against Xi’s New Year speech which called for the reunification of the two lands under the “one country, two systems” framework the mainland uses on Hong Kong.

Her popularity climbed further after widespread protests in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, which were spurred by fears of China’s growing influence and control.

In her New Year’s Day speech this year, Tsai said Taiwan will “never accept” the one country, two systems framework, according to a transcript published by Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

“Democracy and authoritarianism cannot coexist within the same country. Hong Kong’s people have shown us that ‘one country, two systems’ is absolutely not viable,” Tsai said.

“In a sense, it’s China’s policies that have hardened domestic opinion in Taiwan and given more support to Tsai,” said James Crabtree, an associate professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. If Tsai wins, it will put pressure on Xi in China, Crabtree told CNBC.

The protest movement has “heightened concerns” in Taiwan about how Beijing mishandled “promises to respect Hong Kong’s political and economic freedoms,” said Kurlantzick in his report.

In December, Chiang Min-yen, a research fellow at the Economic Democracy Union, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations, called on presidential candidates not to negotiate or sign agreements — such as a peace deal — that would bring Taiwan under Beijing’s “One China” framework.

“We need to reject ‘one country, two systems’ as well as all kinds of different ways China is using to package the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” Chiang told CNBC separately in Mandarin, and cautioned about China’s erosion of boundaries defining Taiwan.

Taiwan’s identity crisis

Even though Beijing has claimed Taiwan as its own, the island has never been under the control of Communist China. Under the KMT — which fled to Taiwan after losing to the Chinese Communist Party in a civil war 70 years ago — Taiwan was governed under martial law for 38 years until 1987.

Since then, Taiwan has morphed into a vibrant democracy and its political, societal and cultural gaps with Communist China has widened, particularly among the younger generations that have lived under a democratic system.

Many Taiwanese, particularly the younger generation, find it difficult to identify with Communist China.

“Young people are definitely more sensitive to the issue of sovereignty,” said Chiang, who was born in 1996 — the year Taiwan’s first direct presidential election was held.

Chiang said Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign nation with a democratic political system, so there is no basis for a so-called unification with a Communist mainland political system.

Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan

The “one country, two systems” framework would be a hard sell in Taiwan, where there have been several demonstrations in support of the protests in neighboring Hong Kong.

Since the Hong Kong protests started in June, thousands have taken to the streets of Taipei in solidarity with protesters in the Asian financial hub. In September, organizers estimated a 100,000-strong crowd in a march in Taipei.

“Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan,” has become an enduring slogan among the youths in Taiwan, who watch the live streaming of violent crackdowns in Hong Kong, said Chiang.

Young Taiwanese leading the pro-Hong Kong march in Taipei downtown on Sept. 29 carrying banners and outfits identical to the one wore by Hong Kong’s protesters. Most young Taiwanese taking part to the solidarity march have no political party affiliation.

Alberto Buzzola | LightRocket | Getty Images

Chiang said the protests in Hong Kong have further pushed young Taiwanese to stand up against mainland influence, which many see as undermining the island’s democratic political system.

He cited the example of a Taiwanese YouTuber who was recently dropped by his agency in China for referring to Tsai as “president” in an online video.

The incident “makes the Taiwanese public recognize how different Taiwan is from China, and understand why Taiwan should not be encroached by China,” said Chiang.

“It’s a question of dignity, it’s a question of how we now have the right to live our lives freely in the way we want to,” he added.

A survey in March conducted by Taiwan government-backed think tank Academia Sinica showed 58% of those polled said national security was important. That’s compare to 31% who viewed economic interest as most important. Polls in the last seven years showed that economic concerns trumped sovereignty.

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