In its strategy for the unification of Taiwan and China, Beijing has not only been transparent about its intentions, it has also relied upon tactics that proved effective in the past.
After a lull in such efforts for the greater part of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration, Beijing reignited its drive following the election of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) as Taiwanese president.
Despite a series of agreements signed since Ma came into office in May 2008, by far the most consequential item in Beijing’s instruments of unification is the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), which could be signed as early as late next month or in June.
In its approach for the trade deal, Beijing has acted in ways that are strikingly reminiscent of the process surrounding attempts to pass Article 23 of the Basic Law in Hong Kong. Both the content and the manner in which Beijing and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) authorities attempted to pass the bill were controversial. Among others, the bill contained provisions on national security that threatened to blur the lines between Hong Kong’s special semiautonomous status and that of China, and Beijing’s Liaison Office in the territory seriously underestimated the level of opposition to the proposed legislation.
Writing about the mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong on July 1, 2003, during which about 500,000 people turned up to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed security law, Carole Petersen, a professor of public law at the University of Hong Kong, said: “In a rush to enact the bill by July 2003, the local government ignored many legitimate public concerns, distorted the results of public consultation, and at times even ridiculed those who objected to the proposals.”
Pro-Beijing media launched a propaganda campaign to denounce opponents of the Article as traitors, while business tycoons were compelled into expressing public support for passage of the new law.
Opponents of the Article, for their part, called for more time for public consultation and sought amendments to certain provisions.
Despite his difficulties administrating the HKSAR, then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) received full backing by Beijing, even when 61 percent of respondents in a 2001 poll said they opposed the unpopular Tung serving a second term.
Soon after the July 1 protests forced the administration to delay passage of the Article, Tung was dispatched to Beijing to meet senior party cadres. As Christine Loh (陸恭蕙) wrote in Underground Front, her history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Hong Kong, one imperative after the setback was for Beijing “to provide economic benefits to Hong Kong to sooth [sic] local feelings, such as expediting [yuan] services in Hong Kong and enabling many more Mainlanders to visit Hong Kong for tourism” (italics added).
Describing Beijing’s approach to consultation, Loh wrote: “Consultations are often perfunctory and peripheral; and deliberations are managed and held behind closed doors against the backdrop of democratic centralism … Discussion would remain within set boundaries [and] subsequent consultations could then rule out consideration of public views that fell outside the set parameters.”
As we can see, the situation in Hong Kong in 2003 contains many similarities with Taiwan today with regards to the Ma administration’s efforts to sign an ECFA with Beijing.