NEW YORK—Jenny Wang knew time was tight. She rushed from work, driving an hour to get to her older sister’s apartment in Jersey City. Then, without missing a beat, Wang took the light rail to Manhattan, just in time for a Times Square mass protest on a Thursday at 8 p.m.
So far, Wang, a 23-year-old Taiwanese-American who lives and works in New Jersey, has attended four such rallies and protests for New Yorkers in support of the Hong Kong protests, despite the incredible commute.
The grassroots organizers don’t make it easy on her either. The flash of a text or a Facebook message is all the notice Wang receives just days or even hours before a protest happens.
But Wang has been making the trip more often in recent weeks. On weekends she lugs her suitcase to her older sister’s apartment, and practically moves in, on stand by for a sudden notification of a protest.
Wang and other Taiwanese in the United States, both foreign born and second generation, watch the ongoing Hong Kong protests closely, taking them to be a personal concern.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests erupted on Sept. 28.
Hongkongers got fired up after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released a White Paper on June 10 that implied full authority over all of Hong Kong, ignoring its former promises of autonomy to the special administrative region that was once a British colony.
Plans to occupy the streets became serious after Aug. 31, when the (CCP) declared that in the 2017 elections for the region’s chief executive, Hong Kongers would vote on nominees chosen by a pro-Beijing committee. Protesters call this “fake democracy.”
Students and older generations of Hongkongers are calling for universal suffrage and the removal of the current chief executive Leung Chun-ying who was involved in a corruption scandal and has heavy ties to Beijing.
The protests have been dubbed “the Umbrella Movement” for the umbrellas people brought out when facing drenching downpours and then kept out to ward off tear gas, pepper spray, and police batons.
The sight of Hong Kongers fighting for democracy has inspired people in New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, London, and other cities to hold their own protests in solidarity.
Red Pill or Blue
Amidst the crowds of overseas Hongkongers, small groups of Taiwanese in New York have consistently showed up to support Hong Kong—with an eye on their own small island’s well-being.
Taiwan has a number of similarities with Hong Kong: they are both under the threat of the CCP. China has over a thousand missiles pointed at Taiwan. And the CCP is trying to sink its jaws into both the Taiwanese and Hong Kong economies.
But while Hong Kong is already a special administrative region of China, Taiwan still precariously remains its own country, maintaining formal diplomatic relations with a handful of nations.
“Taiwanese people do have a choice [between independence and merging with China.] Our democracy is not perfect; we have many problems. But we are still a country,” said Hsu Hsin-hui, 31, a member of Overseas Taiwanese for Democracy, a coalition that spans much of North America.
The difference between Hong Kong and Taiwan stems from diverging histories. In 1949, when the CCP seized control of China, individuals escaping communism fled to Taiwan for refuge.
Taiwan received entry into the United Nations, and recognition from the United States and Europe, only to be pushed out of the UN by communist China two decades later. At the same time, individual countries began recognizing the People’s Republic of China and withdrawing recognition from Taiwan.
Hong Kong had been a British colony for over a century, and it only merged back into China in 1997.
“Hong Kong didn’t have a choice,” Hsu Hsin-hui said, “They were forced into ‘one country, two systems.'”
Prior to the handover in 1997, China had agreed to rule Hong Kong according to the policy of one country, two systems, which guaranteed the Special Administrative Region would preserve its institutions and way of life and enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy for 50 years. The White Paper eliminated these guarantees.
A Fork in the Road
A saying “Hong Kong today is Taiwan’s tomorrow” floats around the New York rallies, meant as a warning and as an incentive for Taiwanese to support Hongkongers in their plight.
With the CCP grasping at Taiwan and demanding the same deal it promised Hong Kong—one country, two systems—the point where Hong Kong ends and Taiwan begins is starting to blur.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Eric Tsai, 24, co-leader with Jenny Wang of Outreach for Taiwan, a non-profit group based in New York and New Jersey. At the two New York protests he attended, he and Wang represented themselves and not the group.
“Hong Kong is going down a certain path and we see the results of it,” said Tsai. “Before these protests, people were saying that Taiwan can be like Hong Kong; a special administrative region. But now people realize that this is not practical.”
Author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” Gordon Chang agreed, saying the Hong Kong protests will deter Taiwanese from joining up with China. He called the violence of the Hong Kong police “Beijing’s unattractive response.”
“People in Taiwan will look at this and say, ‘Why would I want this? What is China giving me, that I don’t already have?'” said Chang, adding, “‘And what are they taking away?'”
Empathy and Pride
“They’re my neighbors,” Hsu Hsin-hui said of Hongkongers. She grew up in Taiwan watching Hong Kong films and TV shows and came to New Jersey for grad school.
Hsu’s impression of Hong Kong, shared by many Taiwanese, is that of an advanced, international city.
“When police launched tear gas into the crowds, it was frightening to me,” she added.
Watching Hong Kong in the news was also a shock for Eric Tsai, who grew up in Taiwan and moved back to the United States for college.
It resembled videos of wars in developing countries, Tsai said.
“I thought, ‘This can’t be Hong Kong. There’s something very wrong here,'” he said.
Yang Yueching, an activist who is part of the China Youth Anti-communist National Salvation Corps in Taiwan who lived in Hong Kong for years, made a trip back to Hong Kong to attend the protests.
What she saw there moved her, she said at a New York rally in Union Square.
People of all ages were there, from elementary school kids to a 92-year-old lady Yang worried over.
The old lady occupied the streets every day with the rest of the protesters, which Yang felt might be too much exertion at her age.
But the lady replied, “I’m already 92, what do I have to be afraid of? I’m willing to sacrifice my life to this cause.”
Seeing Hongkongers take to the streets impressed Mark Kao, president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), which tries to push pro-Taiwan issues in Congress.
“I said, Yes! Finally, somebody stood up for themselves,” said Kao, who lives in New Jersey.
Eric Tsai agreed, saying, “Hong Kong’s position is 100 percent back to China now, so for them to stand up was bold and very, very admirable of them.”
Some Hongkongers share the same feeling of intimacy towards the Taiwanese that the latter have with Hong Kong affairs.
During pro-democracy protests in Taiwan earlier this year known as the Sunflower Movement, one man visiting from Hong Kong held up a sign that read, “People of Taiwan, please step on our corpses as you think about what path you will take forward.”
In other words, the Hongkonger pointed to the fate of his city at the hands of the Chinese regime as a warning for Taiwan that would tell them what path they should take.
“We share the same goal of democracy,” said Hongkonger Anna Yeung-cheung, 49, a professor at Manhattanville College and one of the main organizers of the New York Hong Kong protests, adding that the Sunflower Movement had been really inspiring to see.
Yeung-Cheung said she welcomes Taiwanese to the protests and is happy to see them. She has an open-door policy that also includes Tibetans who show up in support.
After walking around Hong Kong and seeing the protests, Yang Yueching, who also participated in the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, spoke at a recent rally in New York about China’s future.
“Chinese society should no longer be closed off, because this world is open,” Yang said. She plans to return to Hong Kong after visiting Taiwan.
She said that the CCP will reach a dead end if it continues trying to strong-arm other regions and countries, including the United States. Her husband, Lin Baohua, is a commentator for Epoch Times and NTD Television.
“The communist regime is going to overthrow itself,” said Gordon Chang, who cited the Hong Kong protests as only one of many symptoms of an ailing Communist Party, including a slumping economy and political turbulence.
“It’ll be the biggest story of our time,” he said.
As the Hong Kong protests drag on into their fifth week and the standoff with the regime continues, many raise concerns about just how long the situation can last.
Gordon Chang said he saw a lot of resilience in Hongkongers. When the crowds shrank, the protesters would call for more people, and even more would arrive.
He gave the example of when a group of Triads, Hong Kong gangsters, attacked a crowd of about a hundred protesters in Mong Kok at the beginning of October.
“After the Triad attacks, the crowd swelled to over a hundred thousand, because people were reacting to the use of violence,” said Chang, calling the police’s use of force counterproductive.
The longer the protests drag on, said Chang, the more chance news has of slipping through the heavy censorship the CCP employs to keep mainland Chinese from learning of the pro-democracy movement.
Mark Kao of the Formosan Association predicted that if the news spread, people will say “If Hong Kong can, how come Shanghai cannot?”
The awakening of a people is exactly what Taiwanese rallying for international recognition hope for.
Theirs has been a 27-year fight, but they press on regardless.
With the same dedication she shows the Hong Kong protests, Jenny Wang passionately hosts the annual Keep Taiwan Free rally in Times Square where she yells on a podium for freedom.
Her purse bears the yellow ribbon that symbolizes solidarity with Hong Kong, and on her nail art is Instagram@teamjenny_nails, she snapped a shot of her yellow and black manicured nails with miniature umbrellas painted on.
Wang’s family, especially her grandparents who grew up under martial rule in Taiwan, worry about her being too visible in her political activities.
She said that despite her family’s concerns, “I feel that I can’t stop though, because if I don’t fight, who will?”
Additional reporting by Hannah Cai.