Posted:  Aug. 12, 2009

 

Actually, this is not a new dilemma but an old one that was obscured for a time by the fractious state of Beijing-Taipei relations during the tenure of Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008).  Now, one year into the new administration of Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou, the China-Taiwan relationship has improved so markedly that Beijing can begin to plan once more for a final end to the state of war that has left the two sides of the Taiwan Strait under separate governments for the past 60 years.

The contradiction — between Hong Kong’s stalled demand for full universal suffrage elections and Beijing’s plans for full unification with Taiwan — came to the fore in late July when Hong Kong played host to an unusually high-profile Chinese Communist Party (CCP) representative.  The visitor, Du Qinglin, heads the party’s United Front Work Department and he came from Beijing in furtherance of what he called the “difficult and complex” task of national reunification.  His immediate assignment was to officiate at inaugural ceremonies for the Hong Kong branch of China’s Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, or Peaceful Reunification Council (He tong hui) for short.  The organization, established in 1988, now has chapters in over 80 countries and works primarily among ethnic Chinese communities to promote friendly relations across the Taiwan Strait.  Hong Kong’s neighbor, Macau, was allowed to set up its branch five years ago.

DESTINATION TAIWAN

The questions raised by Du Qinglin’s visit became apparent even before he arrived and were reinforced by his remarks at the grand ceremonial gathering of 1,400 people on July 30.  It was announced beforehand that he would not be meeting any members of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic political camp, nor were they included on the guest lists for any of the events held during his three-day stay.  Yet he claimed in his keynote speech that the new Hong Kong branch was an “all Hong Kong” organization and he called on Hong Kongers to publicize the success of their “one-country, two-systems” formula as a model for Taiwan-China unification (Wen Wei Po, July 31).

The speech sounded like it was written for another era and had lain forgotten in United Front Work Department files for a dozen years until someone mistakenly OK’d it for use without regard to present day political realities either in Hong Kong or Taiwan. But another speech at the July 30 ceremony was very much up-to-date.  Peng Qinghua heads the central government’s official liaison office in Hong Kong.  This office, set up in 2000, was not mentioned in any of the pre-1997 planning documents but it has become Beijing’s increasingly out-spoken local resident authority.  According to the Wen Wei Po account, Peng Qinghua “emphasized that national unification is the common aim of the leaders of both the KMT and the CCP.”

The questions raised by Du’s visit are twofold.  First, how can the new organization be considered “all-Hong Kong in nature” when local democrats are not represented, even though they are still winning 60% of the vote in Hong Kong’s direct elections for half the seats in its 60-member Legislative Council?   Second, on what political grounds does Beijing intend reunification to take place  —  given Hong Kong’s experience  —  since Taiwan and China are now governed by two very different political systems?

BEIJING’S HONG KONG PROBLEM

The two questions are, of course, closely related.  Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems formula has appeared successful until now because it is still in the early stage of implementation.  But the formula has only a 50-year lifespan (1997-2047) and should not be seen as a permanent solution.  It is being used instead as a means of easing the transition to one-country, one-system, meaning full integration within China’s political system.  This transition is now well advanced in Hong Kong and the most contentious issues are those in which Hong Kong, as represented by its pan-democratic leaders, is resisting the pressures to impose mainland Chinese-style political norms and institutions.

The most important of these pressures to date are:   Beijing’s insistence on introducing mainland-style national political security laws; Beijing’s refusal to allow a wholly elected local government, allegedly because too many voters still prefer democratic candidates; and the increasingly critical commentary in mainland sources about Hong Kong’s independent Western-influenced judiciary, which now stands as the court of last resort guaranteeing Hong Kong’s much-valued freedom of political expression in all its many manifestations.  Not only did Du Qinglin refuse to meet local democrats, he also declined to comment on any of these outstanding issues.

Veteran journalist Frank Ching noted the contradiction in his South China Morning Post (SCMP) column (Aug. 4).  Ching’s pro-unification stance has won him little applause from Taiwan independence supporters in recent years.  But until recently, he accepted the one-country, two-systems formula at face value assuming that its promised “high degree of autonomy” would be genuine.  Now he sees the promise eroding and wrote that “Taiwan will see Hong Kong as more of a negative example than anything else” if Beijing does not allow universal suffrage to be “properly implemented” here.

Frank Ching nevertheless failed to spell out the full extent of Beijing’s dilemma. He noted correctly that most Hong Kongers including democrats are not supporters of Taiwan independence.  On this point Du Qinglin was also correct to say the aim of reunification was “all Hong Kong in nature.”  But that begs the question as to why he avoided all contact with local democrats.  In fact, since the mid-1980s, Taiwan’s government has evolved into a wholly and directly elected democracy, which is the aim of local democrats for Hong Kong as well.

Yet Beijing still insists, as it has since the mid-1980s, that the demand of Hong Kong democrats for Western-style directly elected representative government is tantamount to demands for independence from the governing institutions of China’s party-led system.  This is why mainland sources routinely refer to Hong Kong democrats as anti-party dissidents and why Chinese polemics excoriate them as traitors or worse.  Loyalist supporters are guided by this logic, which seems calculated to provoke behavior that they claim is the inevitable disruptive consequence of Western-style adversarial politics.

The latest and most extreme example of such behavior is the plot to assassinate Hong Kong democratic leader Martin Lee and his friend, Jimmy Lai, publisher of both the Hong Kong and Taiwan editions of Apple Daily.  According to Chinese court documents from the Shenzhen trial of some of the conspirators, this project was funded by a Hong Kong businessman living in Taiwan and orchestrated by others who allegedly justified the plot on patriotic grounds.  Lee and Lai were to be punished for their “anti-China and anti-Communist Party” political stance (SCMP, Aug. 9).

Hence Beijing needs to explain exactly how Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems formula can be made politically viable for Taiwan when the formula has already produced a political impasse in Hong Kong itself.  To date, however, no such explanation has been forthcoming nor has Beijing shown any inclination to ease its demand for unqualified acceptance of one-party mainland-style rule.  On the contrary, an authoritative article by Beijing writer Cheng Jie recently reiterated and reaffirmed Beijing’s thinking in this regard.

SUBDUING DISSIDENTS

Professor Cheng’s article, in the July issue of the online Hong Kong Journal, was written to explain what she calls Beijing’s “new policy” of active involvement in Hong Kong’s political evolution.  This shift, she explains, followed the huge July 1, 2003 protest demonstration against proposed national security legislation.  Until then, Beijing had viewed Hong Kong as a “politically-subdued territory” and was surprised to discover it was not.

Using official terminology, Prof. Cheng writes that since Beijing is not ready to risk a “dissident-run” Hong Kong, the central government itself must control the pace of political reform.  Beijing is also troubled by foreign influences and the pre-1997 legal or Basic Law provisions whereby foreign nationals are still being allowed to work as civil servants and judges.  Foreigners can also vote in local elections.  Beijing regards all this as “sharing governance” with foreigners.  Prof. Cheng suggests that the provisions may have been a “great mistake” and that they will certainly complicate Hong Kong’s demands for universal suffrage elections (www.hkjournal.org).

Under the circumstances, Du Qinglin and his colleagues should probably prepare some new talking points for use in promoting Taiwan-China unification.  One-country, two-systems may have seemed like a good idea back in pre-2003 days when Beijing thought Hong Kong was “politically-subdued.”   But if Beijing still fears a dissident takeover of Hong Kong, how will party leaders secure safe governing arrangements for Taiwan within the two-systems model?    Eliminating Hong Kong’s dissident risk factor seemingly pales in comparison to the task of subduing Taiwan  —  unless, of course, CCP and KMT leaders think they have already hit upon a political solution as well.  The ultimate questions then are whether Beijing is misreading Taiwan as it did Hong Kong, and what else might have been agreed on besides the ultimate aim of national unification. (August 12, 2009)

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