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.
Ma is highly unpopular in Taiwan but he enjoys Beijing’s backing. The trade pact threatens to blur the lines between what distinguishes Taiwan from China — especially in light of comments made by Ma and other officials in his Cabinet that an ECFA is only “transitory” and could lead to a “common market.”
As with Article 23, Beijing appears to be underestimating the level of opposition to the pact in Taiwan. Ma, like Tung, has set a timeline for signing the deal and negotiations have been conducted in a hurried fashion. Results of public consultations have been distorted and Taiwanese business tycoons have been summoned to express public support for an ECFA (some recently claimed they were forced to do so).
The Ma administration has launched its own propaganda drive in support of an ECFA and has also ridiculed those who oppose it. Critics such as the Democratic Progressive Party have not come out in full opposition to the trade pact, but have called for more time, some revisions and more public consultations, just as did many people in Hong Kong vis-a-vis Article 23.
Lastly, Beijing’s negotiating style in cross-strait matters has reflected that described by Loh: It has been perfunctory, peripheral and held behind closed doors, resulting in accusations of vagueness and secrecy. Just as with Hong Kong officials, the process has been run by the elite and has left the public out of the consultative process altogether.
That Beijing did not reinvent the wheel in how it approaches Taiwan is unsurprising. After all, despite the setback it suffered with Article 23, which undoubtedly expedited Tung’s resignation in 2005, China has for the most part successfully gained control of the political system in the HKSAR. As many of the party officials who played a role in the post-handover environment are still active in the CCP today, we should not be surprised if they adopted the same proven tactics on Taiwan (anyone who claims that the political system in Hong Kong has not shifted in Beijing’s favor since retrocession is in denial).
This is not to say that the two situations are identical. After all, Taiwan has its own distinctive characteristics and is not part of the “one country, two systems” of which Hong Kong became a part of on July 1, 1997. What this shows us, however, is that as Beijing attempts to replicate its successes in Hong Kong and uses the HKSAR as a template for its unification strategy on Taiwan, the reasons for its setbacks, such as the July 1, 2003, mass demonstration, can also be used in a Taiwanese context, possibly to a much greater effect. If a region like Hong Kong, which does not have a tradition of involvement in politics, could do it, there is no reason why the more politically aware Taiwanese cannot achieve similar results.
As for (chief executive) Ma, time will tell whether a fate similar to Tung’s awaits him.
J. Michael Cole is an editor at the Taipei Times.
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