One way to evaluate the “One Country, Two Systems” approach that Beijing is insisting on for Taiwan is to look at the relationship between Hong Kong and China. The “special administrative region” (SAR) of Hong Kong has been operating under this political arrangement for over 20 years.
Hong Kong civilians in defiance of the PRC’s One-China policy
The UK and the People’s Republic of China (mainland China, PRC) signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong in July 1997, marking the official return of Hong Kong to China after a century of British rule. As a condition of that return, the treaty specifies that the island’s governmental systems will remain unchanged until 2047.
The PRC first proposed this “one country, two systems” approach in the 1950s as a way to manage its relations with Tibet. Under the policy today, regions such as Macau and Hong Kong are able to maintain their own legal, economic and other administrative systems – at least in theory. However, the territories are ultimately under mainland Chinese rule.
Recurrent social unrest in Hong Kong since 1997 has highlighted the many problems with the “one country, two systems” approach. Chinese leaders are aware that even after over two decades of living under mainland rule, Hong Kongers’ “…hearts have not returned,” says Joseph Chen, a Hong Kong political analyst.
In recent years, Hong Kong residents have publicly expressed concerns over Chinese meddling in city affairs, further escalating tensions between the island and the mainland.
One significant incident that remains at the back of Hong Kongers’ minds is the 2015 abduction of five local booksellers. The staff members of Causeway Bay Books, which sold content describing salacious activities of mainland Chinese politicians, were held in captivity for months. One abductee, Gui Minhai, was forced to sign a confession saying that his colleague had orchestrated the unlawful sale of books that harmed Chinese society.
In response, mainland China stated that “…the Sino-British Joint Declaration – as a historical document – no longer has any practical significance” for the relationship between Hong Kong and China. In other words, Beijing views the international contract as essentially expired, in spite of its guarantee of Hong Kong’s autonomy through 2047.
2018 – A fight to preserve Hong Kong culture and language
Since 2015, several other incidents have highlighted Hong Kong’s resistance to mainland China’s influence. In mid-2018, Hong Kong residents engaged in a number of protests over the rising use of the Mandarin language in the island’s streets, businesses and schools. Most Hong Kong residents are native speakers of Cantonese.
The majority of Hong Kong educational institutions now use Mandarin as their primary language. Some institutions even demonize Cantonese and deny its status as an official language, even though the two dialects have equal status under Basic Hong Kong law.
2019 – Protests over the new Hong Kong and China extradition treaty.
In early June of 2019, Hong Kong was brought to a standstill when nearly 2 million citizens took to the streets to rally against China’s new extradition treaty. The treaty identifies mainland China as an additional jurisdiction for all Hong Kong legal proceedings. This expansion of power would allow any individual in Hong Kong, including foreigners, to be sent to China to face trial.
Many feared that the treaty would completely undermine Hong Kong’s current legal system, with fair trials no longer guaranteed. In response to the treaty, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, slammed the bill:
“People have known exactly why there shouldn’t be an extradition agreement with China for years… The argument that it’s better to have an extradition treaty than to abduct people illegally from Hong Kong – are people really supposed to believe that?”
After a month of protests and the worst violence in decades on Hong Kong’s streets, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary, stated that the extradition bill is “dead” and described it as a “total failure.” However, Hong Kong protesters kept marching, with deeper issues surrounding the feasibility of the island’s semi-autonomous system continuing to surface.
Among other actions, protesters are demanding Lam’s resignation. Many claim that she is a “liar” and the mainland’s “puppet”, acting without the SAR’s best interests at heart. Following the initial outbreak of demonstrations, Lam made a public apology that only sparked further fury, as Hong Kongers deemed it insufficient and insincere.
During the lead up to the recent G20 conference in Japan, protesters hoped to pressure other nations into confronting China over Hong Kong’s eroding freedom. US President Trump stated his intention to raise the issue of the protests with PRC President Xi. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that “China will never agree to the G20 discussing the Hong Kong issue. This is completely China’s internal affairs.“
However, it appears that Trump’s concern for the human rights of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents took a backseat to other items on his G20 agenda. He might, for example, have intended to use the issue as leverage if the US-China trade war did not shift in America’s favor.
With the revival of trade talks between the two economic powerhouses since the G20, Trump has become more evasive when speaking about the Hong Kong demonstrations. Instead of reiterating his concern for human rights, he expresses his “sadness” about the demonstrations, along with his confidence that mainland China and Hong Kong will “…work it out”.
What have the people of Hong Kong and the PRC been saying?
Within Hong Kong, outlooks on the current mass demonstrations vary. Many young Hong Kongers have stated that all they want is adherence to the autonomy that Hong Kong was contractually promised, along with respect for the unique culture and society of the island.
Since independent polling is prohibited on the mainland and local media is heavily censored, obtaining mainland residents’ opinions about the Hong Kong protests is difficult.
However, as the New York Times reports, it would be wrong to assume that mainland China residents would support the Hong Kong protests if they knew the whole story. For example, Celia Zhang is a mainlander who attended college in the US and has been working for four years in the Hong Kong financial sector. She favors ending the protests, doubting their value.
Since Zhang has no intention of returning to the mainland, she is in a position to voice her opinions freely. “Hong Kong’s economy is going to be ugly this year after all the strikes,” she told the Times reporter. “Why would you do something that’s not going to benefit you? What can you get out of it?”
Implications of the Hong Kong-China conflict for Taiwan
Mainland China points to Macau, a former Portuguese colony returned to the PRC in 1999, as proof of how well “one country, two systems” can work. Overall, Macau has been compliant with the PRC government’s demands.
However, Macau’s status as the only greater China territory with legalized casino gambling puts it in a unique economic position in relation to the mainland. Tourism is the backbone of Macau’s economy, with nearly 70% of those tourists coming from mainland China. Gambling taxes accounted for 76% of Macau’s government revenue in 2018.
In one generation, the city has become the world’s largest gambling center, with the casino industry bringing an abundance of well-paid jobs. Macau’s GDP per person in 2016 was 554,619 patacas (US $73,187), among the highest in the world and 68% higher than Hong Kong’s. Wages are supplemented by the government, which gives each resident 9,000 patacas every year.
In light of both its lack of resistance to mainland meddling and the revenue it adds to Chinese coffers, it is easy to see why Macau is viewed by Chinese officials as a model of “one country, two systems” success. Certainly, Beijing would prefer for Taiwan residents turn their eyes to Macau instead of to Hong Kong.
However, with its more diverse economy, Hong Kong is almost certainly more relevant to Taiwan’s prospects. The continuing dilution of Hong Kong’s independence, along with the mainland’s dismissiveness toward its cultural identity, will likely fuel ever greater resistance to reunification among Taiwan’s citizens.
In recent weeks, the focus of Hong Kong’s protests shifted. What was initially a fight against a single extradition bill now represents something much more profound – the unavoidable contradictions between democratic and authoritarian ideologies. That does not bode well for the future of “one country, two systems” in Taiwan.
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