Old Paths, New Ways: The False Comparison between Hong Kong and Taiwan, and Other Indo-Pacific Trends | Nathan Wilson


Since the introduction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020, it has been widely acknowledged that the special administrative region has suffered a monumental structural blow to its autonomy and functionality. In the aftermath of the 2019 protests, Beijing took direct efforts to quell all potential future unrest within the region. For the People’s Republic of China (PRC), this became part of its outward strategic messaging toward what it sought to achieve—this being a fundamental attempt to break down Hong Kong’s limited freedoms and send a strong outward message to the world about the PRC’s own seriousness toward quashing dissent and signaling its strength.

In addition to this, we have seen increased rhetoric toward the Republic of China (Taiwan) from the PRC, as the PRC has always sought for Taiwan to eventually reconcile and achieve a political dream Beijing has longed after for the past 70 years. As a result, many academics have begun to look at the events happening between the PRC and Hong Kong and wonder if the same could be applied to Taiwan. The train of thought being that reunification with the PRC is ultimately an inevitable, foregone conclusion—the same as proved to be the case for Hong Kong and Macau since their respective sovereignty handovers. This has been most notable from researchers like Michael Green and Evan Medeiros, Alessio Patalano, and Sarah Topol.

These three academic pieces have demonstrated a similar message that what has happened in Hong Kong regarding the NSL will eventually happen to Taiwan. However, after nearly two years of the NSL having come into effect, we now can stand back and address this narrative holistically. As such, I argue that Taiwan will almost certainly not end up like Hong Kong. This narrative that has been produced, I would contend, demonstrates a common recurring trend among academics of false comparisons within the Indo-Pacific region.

Firstly, Taiwan’s own place within the global supply-chain network is very different from that of Hong Kong. This is regarding the semiconductor industry that helps maintain the state’s structural autonomy. The reason for this is because it sustains the world’s largest semiconductor industry and company: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). Recent estimates state that “TSMC accounted for 54% of total foundry revenue globally,” alongside “producing (US$115 billion) in 2020, growing a considerable 20.9 percent annually.” Subsequently, this demonstrates that the world is heavily reliant upon the island’s physical semiconductor manufacturing and its intellectual expertise. Although Hong Kong has become famous for its financial services and technology industry, it does not hold the same degree of clout in those areas as the Taiwanese semiconductor industry in terms of global impact and connectivity.

Additionally, Hong Kong does not have the same type of history and political nexus that Taiwan has. For Hong Kong, the history that has developed and led to the 2019 protests that generated the NSL are unique to Hong Kong and Hong Kong alone. With Hong Kong having its origins in part because of British colonial interests, its development was largely shaped by foreigners from outside the region before handover to the PRC was completed in 1997. However, the political world that orbits Taiwan is very different, due to the differences in both how it originated under primarily local circumstances as a separate political entity and what it is willing to do to maintain its freedom.

Overall, the island’s importance to the global economy means that it is almost certain that other nations, inside and outside the Indo-Pacific region, will respond to the PRC’s military efforts against the island. This is due to the structural weight the island holds on the global supply-chain network, primarily through the semiconductor industry. Alongside this, the fact that Taiwan currently maintains its autonomy and its own security is something that Hong Kong historically and presently has never done. This has been demonstrated by the fact that last year Taiwan announced military spending would be “$16.89 billion for fiscal 2022,” something that could never happen with Hong Kong’s own history and political environment.

As such, comparative narratives that focus on similar outcomes can ultimately detract from the more-nuanced understandings needed toward these debates. This is because it will then allow for academics to generate a more adequate political discourse and framework around the subject matter. Since the end of the Cold War, we have often seen similar academic literature focusing on the coming of a Second Cold War emerging between the United States and the PRC, especially after 2007. Such examples can be observed from Guy-Philippe Goldstein, Paweł Paszak, and Ethan Yang. The central claim is that the relationship between the United States and the PRC is like that between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the post–World War II Cold War. We see this no-nuance, inadequate comparison again within the Indo-Pacific region, rather than the formulation of a more-descriptive and intricate understanding of this complex relationship. We should instead attempt to develop a new comparison, which would allow a better formulation of the US–PRC relationship and the Indo-Pacific region writ large.

A final example of this type of evaluation is that of West and East Germany, being a mirror between Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively. The assessment here misunderstands the complex relationship that existed between West and East Germany, something that I would argue does not exist between Taiwan and Hong Kong; nor does this narrative adequately explain the supposed “Soviet Union role” attributed to the PRC. This comparison has been put forward by both academic and politician alike, for example Sen. Josh Hawley (R–MO) and Dr. Sumantra Maitra. Overall, what this shows is that we tend to regard the Indo-Pacific region through evaluations that do not adequately explain the intricate nature of these debates. This has been best demonstrated by the comparisons about Taiwan’s future being like that of Hong Kong.

I argue that Hong Kong is Hong Kong, and Taiwan is Taiwan. They are not the same, nor are their futures related. They are, however, interlinked into that of the wider fate of the Indo-Pacific region. Larger powers outside of their control and range, like the United States and the PRC, will decide their futures. Nevertheless, this relates to a larger structural trend within Indo-Pacific discourse regarding how we view these topics and how we develop a thorough understanding of them.

With talk about a second Cold War, we will most likely lose sight of the key details that build into these debates. When comparing the Cold War of the twentieth century with the current situation in the Indo-Pacific, we should not be too one dimensional into the ways topics can be understood and analyzed. The external connections between Taiwan and Hong Kong should be no different when approaching this subject matter, especially when the NSL is involved. Subsequently, we tend to have the view that we can only see a set topic in a set way, instead we should be thinking of new ways to view these new debates and issues.

This contrasts with forming inadequate connections between history and political entities. These comparisons should only be used as a guiding method to simplify and help construct a good initial understanding of the relevant topics. They should not be used as a tool to generalize and then attempt to add to the present discourse. The way in which the PRC has handled Hong Kong will look very different to how it strategically messages toward Taiwan, and such approaches will be very different to how the Soviet Union handled West and East Germany respectively.

One possible solution to the remediation of these misperceptions, is through the promotion of a structural change in how we observe and approach the topics of international relations and the wider field of security studies. A viable alternative could be generated through a more neoclassical realist interpretation, which will allow academics to directly compare the internal dynamics at play within each state. This would help produce a more holistic image and tackle the overarching narratives, within this misunderstood region of the world. It is this, that then would allow a better understanding behind why we choose the comparisons we do

In conclusion, within the field of international relations and security studies, we should try to avoid these false comparisons and narratives within the Indo-Pacific. Instead, we should be focusing on new innovative ways of viewing and thinking about these topics so that we can in turn develop a more accurate understanding of the region itself.


Photo Credit.

You may also like...