Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party has decided to field Kaohsiung major Han Kuo-yu to run in the island’s upcoming presidential election against incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen, who is with the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

Han is less than a year into his tenure leading Taiwan’s second largest city, having won last year’s mayoral election and smashed the DPP’s decades-long rule in this bastion in southern Taiwan known for its anti-reunification electorate. He had dropped hits since then that he was considering a tilt at the presidency, and the result of the KMT’s primary based on approval ratings suggests the charismatic nationalist who backs the “one China” principle is still riding a wave of popularity.

But Han’s contacts with Beijing are again under the glare of the media, who met senior cadres from Beijing behind closed doors during his much-hyped and disputed tour to Hong Kong, Macau and several mainland cities in March, in the name of promoting Kaohsiung’s specialties.

If Han’s core base holds strong it could mean a strenuous fight for Tsai to defend her presidency. But the KMT candidate appears to vacillate between different approaches, fanning doubts about his resolve to defend Taiwan, even after he said at a recent stumping campaign that Beijing could only replicate Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement in Taiwan “over his dead body”.

Han meets with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Handout
A rally in Taipei in support of Hongkongers’ call to retract an extradition bill which could allow rendition of wanted people to China. Photo: Facebook

Taiwan is now home to more than 80,000 Hongkongers who have settled on the independent island, according to the Interior Ministry. There are also numerous students and businessmen from Hong Kong who are permitted to stay. This group of people may become a vital minority that both Han and Tsai want to woo.

But for Hongkongers despairing about a better future under Chinese rule and wanting to emigrate to the self-governed island, they will all have reasons to fear another takeover may be looming, should Han win the election in mid-January.

Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller from Hong Kong now seeking shelter in Taiwan, told reporters that the presidential election could be a showdown between pro- and anti-Beijing camps determining the island’s own survival. Lam was once detained by mainland national security agents for eight months for selling banned titles from his bookstore in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay district, but he later revealed the excesses of Chinese agents and the “long arm” grabbing people from Hong Kong, after a dramatic escape from his interrogators.

A Hong Kong emigrant living in Taipei also told a local paper that the presidential race would be a referendum about whether Taiwan should continue to defend its own sovereignty and democracy or surrender to China’s menacing and become another Special Administrative Region under Beijing’s control.

She said many Hongkongers in Taiwan could be forced to pull up stakes and leave again if Han wins, but the spate of protests and schism that have engulfed her home city in recent months may help Tsai muster more support.

An editorial in the Liberal Times, a Chinese-language paper in Taipei, said that recent events in Hong Kong serve as a potent reminder to Taiwan of everything it must avoid in its dealings with China.

“The regression of democracy, liberty and human rights in Hong Kong clearly shows Taiwan’s 23 million people what they will get once Taiwan is reduced to another Chinese SAR,” the op-ed said.

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