Mon, Mar 19, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: Hong Kong and Taiwan: How one country, two systems has fallen flat

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.

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