A man walks past a barricade which blocked the road to Central at the occupied area outside government headquarters in Hong Kong Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Beijing is seeing the policy it crafted over 30 years ago to seduce Hong Kong and Taiwan into the arms of Mother China turn to dust.
In the mid-1980s, former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping posted the concept of “one country, two systems” by which the British colony of Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Allowing Hong Kong to keep its British administrative institutions for 50 years was supposed to ease the handover. But its prime purpose was to woo the 23 million people of Taiwan into agreeing to a political union with China under a similar arrangement.
Beijing acquired a willing handmaiden in this endeavour in 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou of the Koumintang (KMT) party was elected President of Taiwan. He won on pledges to boost the island’s economy by forging closer trade ties with China. Taiwan’s voters, however, think the 21 agreements Ma has made with Beijing have gone too far.
Close to 90 per cent of Taiwanese have said consistently for decades they value their independence and want no truck with ideas of political union with China. This week they restated that position when voters gave Ma’s KMT a drubbing in municipal elections. With presidential and parliamentary elections approaching in 2016, over 60 per cent of Taiwan’s population is now governed by mayors and local governments who belong to, or are allied with, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which fervently advocates keeping the country’s independence.
Beijing has been no more successful in persuading Hong Kong’s seven million people to rejoice in their return to the motherland. That’s Beijing’s own fault, of course. Soon after the 1997 handover, Beijing made it clear that it had lied in its agreement with the British.
First, it drew tight boundaries around Hong Kong’s cherished rule of law and independent judiciary. Then, Beijing reneged on its promise to allow Hong Kong to move swiftly to a democratic political system. This long-simmering dispute boiled over this summer when Beijing announced Hongkongers will not have the unfettered right to elect their own governor — known as the chief executive — when a new system is introduced in 2017. Beijing insists on allowing only candidates loyal to the Chinese Communist Party to run in the elections.
This blunt rejection of what Hongkongers believe they were promised has fed already substantial disenchantment in the territory with Beijing’s attentions. Two months ago, tens of thousands of protesters occupied three key centres in Hong Kong. They camped there until the last few days, when violent clashes with police and thugs in the pay of the Communist Party persuaded many demonstrators it was time to go home.
Die-hard demonstrators still have two encampments, but although this prolonged protest is largely over, the desire of Hong Kong’s people for representative and accountable government has not gone away. And resentment against Beijing is unlikely to lessen as the territory’s people identify themselves more and more as Hongkongers — and less and less as Chinese.
Nearly two-thirds of the territory’s people said they are Hongkongers first and Chinese second. Almost 27 per cent said they are only Hongkongers. That’s a recipe for continuing — and probably growing — unrest in Hong Kong.
In the burst of optimism that accompanied the handover, over 32 per cent of the territory’s people identified themselves solely as “Chinese.” In a recent poll, however, less than nine per cent of Hongkongers said they think of themselves only as being Chinese. That nine per cent corresponds roughly with the number of mainland Chinese who have been allowed to move to Hong Kong since the handover. Nearly two-thirds of the territory’s people said they are Hongkongers first and Chinese second. Almost 27 per cent said they are only Hongkongers. That’s a recipe for continuing — and probably growing — unrest in Hong Kong.
In Taiwan, President Ma’s popularity has been in free-fall almost from the moment he was re-elected in 2012. Taiwan used to be one of the most equitable societies in the world, but Ma’s pursuit of economic ties with China has introduced gross disparity between the rich and the rest. Taiwan’s young people are especially irate at seeing jobs exported to China while a few Taiwanese plutocrats, with strong connections to both the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party, accumulate vast fortunes.
That discontent boiled over earlier this year when Ma’s administration tried to ram through yet another economic agreement with China, one that would have given Chinese investors access to Taiwan’s service industries. Thousands of students occupied Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, and forced the government to agree to clause-by-clause scrutiny of the bill.
This latest putative agreement with China also was seen by many Taiwanese as getting dangerously close to negotiations with Beijing on some form of political union. Although Ma has always said publicly he will not engage in political discussions with Beijing, there is now a well-established relationship and dialogue between the Chinese Communists and the KMT. Many senior KMT members, including Ma himself, are from the Chinese families that fled to Taiwan after defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949. They have an emotional attachment to China not shared by the vast majority of Taiwanese people.
The results of last week’s municipal elections are a devastating verdict on the KMT’s record and a great fillip for the opposition DPP ahead of the 2016 elections. For Beijing, the results are a firm rejection of its attempt to charm Taiwan into a political union. The danger now is that China will adopt the kind of military assertiveness it has used to push its claims to the Japanese Senkaku Islands and the waters of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Beijing claims that Taiwan is merely a “rebel province” and should be under Chinese rule. The claim is without substance. The history of the relationship between Taiwan and China is complex, but the bottom line is that there has never been an administration that ruled both Taiwan and China.
Even so, Beijing has never abandoned the threat to invade Taiwan if the island does not open the way for political union.
If Taiwan’s voters in the 2016 elections reject China’s advances as clearly as they did last week, Beijing will doubtless review its options. And the United States, along with its Asian allies, will have to reassess their obligations to the defence of Taiwan.
Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” published by Palgrave-Macmillan. He has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. He was European bureau chief for the Toronto Star and then Southam News in the late 1970s and the 1980s. In 1989 he was appointed Africa correspondent by Southam News and in 1993 was posted to Hong Kong to cover Asia. For the last few years he has been based in Vancouver, writing international affairs columns for what is now the Postmedia Group. He left the group last year and now writes for a range of newspapers and websites.