Nearly forty years ago, emerging Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) coined a phrase and a policy, “one country, two systems” (1C2S). In the wake of President Carter’s decision to shift American diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, and as Deng was launching his dramatic economic reforms to open up China’s economy in the wake of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, the Chinese strongman’s new policy appeared to many as a softening of Beijing’s approach to Taiwan.
At the time, Deng also had his eye on the developing negotiations with London to resolve the fate of the 140 year old colony of Hong Kong. Great Britain’s latest 99 year lease on the territory was due to expire in 1997. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approached things as if the Chinese would agree to a new deal leaving the bustling trade port in English hands. Deng had other ideas.
Meanwhile, Taipei was staggering from the long feared break in formal diplomatic relations with Washington. Ever since Nixon’s stunning opening to China in 1972, the writing was on the wall. But as President Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) left the scene, and set his son late president Chiang Ching-kuo (CCK, 蔣經國) up as his successor, the ruling Kuomintang Party in Taipei seemed like a deer in the headlights, once the final shift occurred in late 1978. The US Congress stepped in by passing the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which offered economic and security assurances to its former alliance partner. Still, it was an unsettled time in both Taipei and Hong Kong.
As Deng proceeded with his economic reforms at home, many hoped that the dictatorial China of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) might gradually follow in the footsteps of many of its Asian neighbors, who were matching economic and political liberalization in the wake of the widespread decolonization of the region. Deng did not discourage these hopes, though he suggested that economic opening would have to proceed before any loosening of the political system might occur. More relevant to this essay, Deng made it clear early on that his application of “one country, two systems” would demonstrate to skeptics in Taiwan that Beijing could be trusted when it made such promises.
Focused on its own problems, Taiwan maintained a strong antipathy to closer ties with the mainland. Under CCK, the political system began to open up. His successor, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), accelerated the reform process that transformed authoritarian Taiwan into an emerging democracy in the course of his dozen years in power.
Meanwhile London took some very modest steps to open Hong Kong’s political system in the run-up to the 1997 turnover, terms of which had been formalized in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. The Legislative Council became semi-democratic, though conservative pro-Beijing elements ensured their ultimate control of decisions passed by the body. Selection of the top executive there, the Chief Executive, was left to a small group of largely conservative stakeholders in the colony’s business community, though a minority set of voters reflected local and even democratic constituencies.
Through the eighties and nineties, I found discussions with my Taiwan friends particularly interesting, when it came to Deng’s 1C2S pledge. I boiled down the overall sentiment I heard from them into the following interpretation: when things in Hong Kong were going well, Taiwan folks claimed 1C2S had nothing to do with them (which was true to an extent, as Taiwan had many more trappings of sovereignty than colonial Hong Kong ever enjoyed). But when things in Hong Kong, as was often the case, began to go sour, my friends in Taiwan would say “See! See!” Meaning you cannot trust communist promises.
Twenty years following Hong Kong’s return to PRC sovereignty, you can sympathize with the prevailing Taiwan position: Hong Kong has nothing to do with it, … AND China’s handling of the former British colony over the past two decades gives every reason to dismiss any commitments Beijing might make to the island. Most important, Taiwan enjoys 90 miles of water separating it from a very different state to the west.
As a close student of Chinese policy toward Hong Kong over the past forty years, I have observed various interpretations of Deng’s fifty year pledge of “a great deal of autonomy” on the part of the city’s population. Initially, many believed 1C2S meant Hong Kong could largely manage its economy and internal politics on its own until the year 2047, so long as it did not blatantly challenge Chinese sensitivities. Others, however, thought there might be a gradual slide toward direct Beijing control as the sand slowly ran out of the fifty year dial.
Modest steps to democratize Hong Kong’s ruling Legislative Council (Legco) and even move toward popular selection of the territory’s Chief Executive encouraged Hong Kongers to hope for the best. Back in the 1980s, there was also the sense that a modernizing China would move from economic liberalization toward a genuinely democratic political system.
Under this line of thinking, by 2047 the formal merging of Hong Kong with an economically modern and politically open China would be smooth and uneventful. Significantly, those who witnessed the transfer of sovereignty from Great Britain to China in 1997 would all be either gone from the scene or in their dotage by 2047.
How things have changed! Or not changed. China’s economic advances have not translated into a more open political system at home. Tiananmen’s carnage in 1989 was an early warning. But the prevailing trends in Asia offered greater hope among optimists that a more prosperous China would also be more open and would eventually move to transfer real sovereignty to its people.
Alas, those optimists have found little to sustain their hopes. China’s current strongman, President Xi Jinping (習近平), has if anything curtailed any modest steps toward a more open society, preferring to emulate Mao Zedong’s harsh authoritarianism. Now into his second term as leader of the PRC, Xi has just indicated plans to extend his rule beyond the two five-year terms of his most recent predecessors. Perhaps he — like his thuggish friend Vladimir Putin to the north — would like to become leader for life, emulating Mao and Stalin.
What Beijing had not reckoned with was the emergence several years ago of a new generation of Hong Kong activists willing to call the mainland out on its false promises of genuine democracy for the territory and its seven million citizens. Drawing inspiration from Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, the Hong Kong activists took to the streets in the “Umbrella Movement” when Beijing reneged on its promise to open up candidacy for the Chief Executive job to a broader selection of local residents.
Some of the leaders of this new movement were still in their teens as they took to the streets. They found themselves in the courts, charged with fuzzy crimes that boiled down to their objection to Mr. Xi’s reneging on promises of genuinely democratic elections for top leaders. Fortunately, Hong Kong’s UK-based court system still retains its autonomy from Beijing interference, as a recent ruling setting free youthful protesters indicated.
Unlike the older generation that seemed willing to trust long-term PRC promises, this new generation knows that what occurs in 2047 is no abstraction to them. Many of them born into the new century, these activists will be middle-aged when the fifty year transition period ends. So they, and their children, will be direct inheritors of the false freedoms glibly promised their parents and grandparents thirty years ago.
What all this signals to the younger generation of Taiwan citizens is that no promises offered by Beijing’s authoritarian leaders can be relied upon. Ironically, the linkage to Hong Kong that Mr. Deng trumpeted so long ago has become a warning sign that a) communist promises are not to be trusted and b) Taiwan can be very fortunate that it is not Hong Kong.
Possessing its own homegrown democratic institutions, its own competent defense, and its own very strong sense of national identity, the people of Taiwan and their elected government are wise to view with grave suspicion any promises thrown their way by Beijing. In all of this, Hong Kong has played a key role. Just not the one Deng and his generation thought they were setting up, when they launched their smile campaign toward Taiwan under “one country, two systems.” The lesson is that any Chinese promises to Taiwan — under one country, two systems or any other format — are not worth the paper they are written on!
Stephen M. Young was director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2006 to 2009 and served as US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and consul-general in Hong Kong.
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