Mon, Nov 19, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Stephen Young On Taiwan: The demise of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong: Lessons for Taiwan

Nearly forty years ago Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), China’s last great statesman/leader, unveiled a new concept: “one country, two systems.” He did this in the context of pending talks between Beijing and London on the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, after one and a half centuries of British rule. Deng, who returned to power in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) disastrous policies, then embarked upon a remarkable economic and political program designed to catapult China into the modern world economically, if not politically. He drew inspiration from the achievements of several Asian “tigers” of the era, including South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, which had been experiencing double digit GDP growth under their own authoritarian leaders throughout the sixties and seventies.

Great Britain’s forceful new leader, Margaret Thatcher, aware of the 1898 treaty governing Hong Kong’s status, wanted to begin talks on some sort of arrangement that would permit extension of British sovereignty over the economic and business center there. Deng had other plans. He made it clear China intended to bring Hong Kong under the mainland’s control, something that had really never existed before.

When London seized control of Hong Kong in 1842, it was little more than a fishing village on a rocky island off the southeastern shore of Qing Dynasty China. The British turned the place into a thriving trading center by the end of the 19th century, and continued to transform the territory, buttressed by purchase of additional land, into one of the most dynamic commercial centers in Asia.

The “Iron Lady,” as Mrs. Thatcher was known, quickly recognized she held few cards in the negotiation. The Treaty governing Hong Kong’s status lapsed in 1997, and Deng was insistent that he wanted Hong Kong back. The pragmatic Deng recognized that a poorly managed deal on the business hub would damage not only the city and its people, but also China’s shaky new reputation as a dependable partner in the world community, following the Maoist era.

By 1984 an arrangement had been worked out whereby Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, but would enjoy a special status, known as “one country, two systems,” for at least fifty years, or until 2047. At the time, Deng held out the promise that this system would be sufficiently successful to serve as a model for resolution of the much thornier Taiwan question. As he framed the issue, China would do such a marvelous job in preserving Hong Kong’s preeminent status, that the people of Taiwan would overcome their doubts and sign on to a deal returning that island to PRC sovereignty at some future date.

From the very beginning, Taiwan’s leaders consistently rejected any such linkage. As it developed, many Taiwan friends quietly hoped that that China would never pull the Hong Kong plan off, making their case for no settlement with Beijing all the stronger over time.

I was a regular visitor to both Hong Kong and Taiwan during these years, and found myself fascinated by the dynamics in both places. Most Hong Kongers decided to give things a chance, though many of them hedged their bets by obtaining citizenship status in friendly states like Canada, Australia and the US, just in case. The idea was that they would continue living and working in Hong Kong, but with the escape hatch of a foreign passport to fall back upon if things went south following 1997.

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