I remember well when Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) unveiled “one country, two systems” nearly 40 years ago. His country was just emerging from decades of turmoil, and he recognized the need to turn inward and restore some predictability to Chinese economic and social life. In order to succeed, he needed to restore China’s credibility abroad. Deng wanted to reassure a skeptical world that his country could be trusted.
He also wanted to establish a path toward regaining Hong Kong and Taiwan as parts of a greater China that had not existed for nearly a hundred years.
Deng had two factors helping him: The shift in American recognition from Taiwan to China on Jan. 1, 1979, and the pending expiration of Great Britain’s 99-year lease on the trading center of Hong Kong, offering the opportunity to champion the Sinic restoration that had thwarted his predecessors in power.
So when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought an extension of her country’s lease on Hong Kong, Deng rolled out his slogan, “one country, two systems.” This was a polite opening bid, indicating while the territory must return to Chinese sovereignty, it could do with credible assurances that the economic and political freedoms Hong Kong had enjoyed under the British would be preserved, even perhaps enhanced, as part of its return to a China determined to regain its former glory.
Mrs. Thatcher was skeptical, but realized she had little choice in the matter. A lease was a lease, and unless both parties agreed to extend its timeline, then London must return Hong Kong to the motherland’s bosom. The Brits saw this as an opportunity to test China’s good faith. It demanded negotiations to set the framework for Hong Kong’s return in 1997.
Taiwan was more reluctant, but it was still reeling from Washington’s severing of diplomatic relations in 1979, triggering a steady stream of similar decisions by other longtime partners in the West. The flames of local patriotism signaled the democratization movement that was to end the Chiang (蔣) family’s domination of local politics. Meanwhile the Taiwan economy was thriving, even as the pie was being more equitably distributed.
After some serious shocks, the Hong Kong economy also began to recover. Chinese reform was good for the traders and financiers of the territory, though many wealthy families began planning their escape to the West, should Hong Kong’s return not play out smoothly.
Tiananmen was a harbinger of troubled times, but China’s rapid economic rise even despite that tragedy offered economic prosperity to people there, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Hopes remained high when the formal return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty was celebrated in 1997. This was also a high water mark in Taiwan economic growth, and it was accompanied by an astoundingly smooth shift to democracy there.
So what has happened since then? The political system in China has regressed to even more authoritarian practices at home, and to greater belligerence abroad. Beijing has reneged on its pledges to introduce local autonomy and democracy to the people of Hong Kong, and has ratcheted up military and political pressure across the Taiwan Strait.
President Xi Jinping (習近平), with strikingly authoritarian instincts, has shown utter contempt for the efforts at more open political practices in both Hong Kong and Taipei. No doubt he is frightened that this disease might be contagious. So he has increased his bullying of Taiwan, and now has inflamed democratic passions in Hong Kong.
It may be too late for the people of Hong Kong to salvage something from their push for a more open political system there. But the lesson for Taiwan’s 23 million citizens is different. Build your defenses, solidify your relations with your essential security partner, America, and make it clear you will fight for your freedom. Would that the people of Hong Kong had that option!
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served at the AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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