JPRI Critique Vol. VII No. 8 (August 2000)
Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Challenge of Chinese Reunification
by Suzanne Pepper

The current impasse between Beijing and Taiwan over their possible reconciliation calls to mind the old maxim about politics being rooted first and foremost in the people governed. Its corollary, that distortion increases with distance, suggests why solutions drafted in Beijing-- using Hong Kong as a model and Washington as interlocutor-- need to be carefully disentangled from their various roots if the aim of returning Taiwan to China's embrace is ever to be achieved.

To anticipate the end of this story at the outset, Beijing's offer of a Hong Kong-style "one-country, two-systems" formula as it now stands will never be accepted by anyone in Taiwan, however sympathetic they might otherwise be to the cause of national unity. This is because the "high degree of autonomy" Beijing has granted its new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) through that formula is confined essentially to its economic and social life. Those dimensions of Hong Kong's existence do continue virtually unchanged.

The impasse is, instead, about politics since Hong Kong's political system is now bound root and branch to that of its new Chinese sovereign. No major political decision can be made in Hong Kong today over that sovereign's objection, nor can any governmental leader be appointed or changes made in Hong Kong's governing arrangements without that sovereign's approval. Officials never publicly contradict their sovereign, and the press cannot serve as a medium for unfettered political debate. Hong Kong's economy and its society thus function freely, but they do so within the political parameters determined by Beijing through the institutions it designed, the people it approves to lead them, and the checks it maintains on their behavior. Without guarantees of true political autonomy on all such counts, Taiwan will never agree to exchange its current de facto political independence for the one-country, two-systems solution now on offer.

Beijing's Non-Negotiable Demand: Reunify the Motherland

The origins of this imbroglio are perhaps its clearest aspect and were reiterated most recently at the annual March convocations of China's National People's Congress (NPC) and its advisory companion, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Coincidentally, the national meetings this year preceded Taiwan's March 18th presidential election by only a few days and the "Taiwan problem" was announced in advance as a major discussion topic. Also in the spotlight were the new representatives from Hong Kong and Macau. China resumed sovereignty over these former British and Portuguese colonies in July 1997, and December 1999, respectively, allowing their delegations to serve as a perfect backdrop for official pronouncements on national reunification.

With only Taiwan remaining outside the fold, President Jiang Zemin and other leaders targeted the issue as their chief talking point on several occasions. They spoke of the "enormous vicissitudes" experienced by China during the past hundred years and more, reminding listeners that only since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, had the nation's cherished 20th century goal of freedom from foreign intervention been achieved. It was especially China's new prosperity, built up during the past two decades of reform, that had guaranteed a smooth return for Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan now stood as the last remnant of China's troubled past. Separated from the mainland initially by Japanese colonial occupation (1895-1945), Taiwan had remained since 1949 an island of refuge for the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) after its armies were defeated in the 1945-1949 civil war. All Chinese thus looked forward to a future when the "sacred mission and great cause of reunifying the motherland" would be fully realized.

Rounding out this presentation on China's manifest destiny were the practical means of achieving it, all incorporated within the one-country, two-systems formula being applied in Hong Kong and Macau. During his March 8th meeting with Hong Kong's NPC delegates, President Jiang hailed the formula's success in granting Hong Kong people the high degree of autonomy necessary to govern themselves. Claiming, correctly, that this hard-won achievement had earned worldwide recognition, Jiang elaborated its core concept. It means, he said, that within the People's Republic of China, "the main body of the state persists in practicing the socialist system." By contrast, post-reversion Hong Kong and Macau, and in the future Taiwan as well, will retain their "existing capitalist systems."

Taiwan Says No to Washington's Yes

Beijing's solution was reiterated at a Hong Kong seminar in early April, 2000. The speaker was Tao Wenzhao from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies and his topic was "America's Taiwan Policy." Despite his expertise, Professor Tao seemed genuinely perplexed at the depth of Taiwan's aversion to the one-country, two-systems solution. "We understand that there are many different kinds of capitalism," he said, "and we are willing to accept any one of them for Taiwan." Yet its leaders remained unmoved by such tolerance. When someone suggested that power now lay with the Taiwanese people who also rejected that offer, he remained unconvinced, saying that leaders must take the initiative in showing people the correct way.

Nor had Professor Tao's difficulties been eased by his acknowledged familiarity with the views of several U.S. State Department officials and ranking White House advisors. They, too, had emerged as champions of one-county, two-systems and were equally nonplussed over Taiwan's rebuff. The Clinton administration's efforts peaked in mid-1999, as it scrambled to pacify a Chinese government furious over the May 8th American bombing of its embassy in Belgrade. U. S. officials hoped that helping to broker a solution for the Taiwan problem would remove one major source of friction in the trouble-prone U.S.-China relationship. "If not one-country, two-systems," a State Department official is quoted as saying hopefully, "how about one-country, three-systems?" (Ming Pao Daily News, Hong Kong, Sept. 7, 1999).

Taiwan's recent presidential election has, of course, unexpectedly produced a new set of leaders even more determined than their KMT predecessors to safeguard Taiwan's political autonomy and likely to drive a much harder bargain in order to secure it. Until very recently, President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) championed full independence for Taiwan. Their aim was to formalize the current de facto separation, which has existed for 50 years under an umbrella of American protection. During the election campaign, Chen's supporters toned down their independence rhetoric. Since March 18th, however, Chen has toured the island to thank them for their votes while promising repeatedly "not to let Taiwan become the second Hong Kong or the second Macau." Taiwan's answer is thus clear, even if Professor Tao and the U.S. State Department (as evidenced by its April, 2000 "Hong Kong Policy Act Report") remain perplexed about the reasons for Taiwan's intransigence.

Hong Kong's New Political System

That Beijing officialdom should articulate solutions solely in terms of differing economic systems is rooted in Beijing realities. That the U.S. State Department should treat its reporting duties as an exercise in diplomatic circumspection is rooted in the realities of Washington politics. These include the Clinton administration's preoccupation with economics, plus an end-of-term search for legacies and historic conflicts to resolve. The error lies in assuming such perspectives can be applied elsewhere without adjustment.

Leading Hong Kong democrat Martin Lee consequently dismissed the April, 2000 State Department report as a "whitewash." Meanwhile, Chen Shui-bian's election eve advertisement in Taibei's China Times epitomized the main issues at stake for Taiwan. The full-page March 17th ad mocked Hong Kong's political system with a photograph of its chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. "We are electing our president, not appointing a Special Administrative Region chief executive," read the caption above the photograph, which continued below: "The president is our own and so is the state. We have struggled all these years just to be able to decide who should be our president and this is why democracy is so highly valued."

Asked to compare democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan while visiting Canada two weeks later, Tung Chee-hwa emphasized Hong Kong's rule of law and accountable government. He declared further that 70% of the respondents in a recent Hong Kong opinion poll actually regarded Hong Kong as being more democratic than Taiwan. The poll was traced to a local university's survey research center, which hastened to distance itself from the way its findings had been used. The director explained that Hong Kongers were probably prejudiced by Taiwan's much publicized custom of vote-buying. He said also that they tended to confuse democracy with the rule of law, a local failing which people evidently have in common with their chief executive (Ming Pao Daily News, Hong Kong, April 5, 2000).

In fact, Hong Kong's political system only looks bad when contrasted with its potential, not its past. The British themselves referred to their colonial government as a benevolent autocracy. All governors from the colony's founding in the 1840s until 1997 were British and sent out from London without reference to or consultation with people in Hong Kong. The appointed governor appointed his cabinet or Executive Council, plus a Legislative Council to provide advice and consent for local laws, which were enforced by an appointed judiciary. Indirect elections for part of the Legislative Council were introduced only in 1985, and direct elections for one-third of its seats were delayed until 1991, with all appointed seats not phased out until 1995. The press was nevertheless free, most other civil liberties were respected, the economy prospered, and Hong Kong became after 1949 the refuge of choice for many generations of mainland migrants fleeing the excesses of China's communist-led revolution.

Today, all of Hong Kong's rights and freedoms are enshrined in a document known as the Basic Law, which was written by a Beijing-appointed committee of local and mainland drafters to serve as the Special Administrative Region's post-1997 constitution. It also promises that future governors, to be known as chief executives, as well as legislators, will all eventually be chosen by direct election and universal suffrage. The first SAR chief executive was selected by a Beijing-designed committee of 400 leading local citizens, but only after lengthy local consultation. The judiciary remains independent, albeit appointed, the rule of law prevails, Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption continues to keep grafters in check, and mainland officials with some exceptions have not overtly intervened in the day-to-day management of Hong Kong affairs. As a consequence, the outside world has breathed a sigh of relief and turned its attention to more pressing matters elsewhere.

To suggest that Taiwan should adopt Hong Kong as its model for national reunification, however, is to overlook the fissures that seem to widen daily separating Hong Kong's present from its promised future of fully-elected local self-government. The growing gap between potential and reality is the result of, (1) the cumbersome structures prescribed by the Basic Law, and (2) the partisan political interests working within them. The structures were designed ostensibly to provide checks and balances, but in post-1997 practice these are being used primarily to check Hong Kong's democrats while balancing in favor of its pro-China and business interests.

Structural Constraints

The government design prescribed by the Basic Law is actually a fair representation of Hong Kong itself-- perhaps best described as an old-fashioned British colonial edifice, redecorated with a mix of mainland Chinese features and modern Western-style extensions. Retained from the colonial era is a strong executive-led government and weak Legislative Council. The latter's ungainly divisions were inspired partly by China's own pre-1949 experiments in constitutional reform, and partly by Britain's imperial past, when all manner of ingenious electoral arrangements were devised to limit representation in gradually evolving colonial legislatures.

At present only one-third of the Council's 60 seats are directly elected by universal suffrage. Thirty seats are filled by "functional constituencies"-- members chosen by small-circle indirect elections and representing primarily various sectors of Hong Kong's business community. An additional 10 seats are essentially reserved for Hong Kong's pro-China partisans who are chosen by another complex formation of 800 electors. By 2007, this configuration will have been phased out and replaced by a chamber evenly divided between directly elected and functional constituency representatives. The Legislative Council nonetheless remains relatively powerless, little more than a glorified debating society. Among other things, the Basic Law specifically preempts the council's right to initiate legislation on virtually all substantive matters without executive consent, which has been regularly denied on a range of issues since 1997.

Partisan Divisions

Maneuvering within this system are the various people and interests it was designed to check and balance. Hong Kong's emergent political spectrum ranges from what is known locally as the pro-democracy camp to the pro-China partisans, plus conservative politicians from business and professional circles. The democratic movement grew out of popular pre-1997 concerns in an anti-communist town fearful of reunion with China and today champions a faster pace of democratic development than the Basic Law allows. By contrast, the pro-China camp derives from a long-standing "traditional left" minority, which harbors to this day an unacknowledged Chinese Communist Party branch within its midst. After 1949, this group was led by Chinese officials working under the all-purpose umbrella of the New China News Agency's Hong Kong branch, which served as China's unofficial representative in the colony. Agency directors were always appointed by Beijing and were concurrently secretaries of the local communist party organization. Conservatives tilt either right or left depending on perceived threats to economic stability, meaning they typically fear and resist populist reforms.

Since direct elections for the Legislative Council began in 1991, democrats have polled about 60% of the popular vote, while pro-China politicians and independents have split the remainder. However, since democrats can occupy no more than one-third of the legislature, their opponents predominate. This gives Tung Chee-hwa's government a reliable if often fractious majority that has, for example, united in overriding democratic objections to several key initiatives not anticipated by the Basic Law but all aimed at further containing democratic influence. Such initiatives have included: (1) the introduction of proportional representation; (2) the abolition of Hong Kong's two directly elected municipal councils, which were responsible for various urban maintenance chores; and (3) the reintroduction of colonial-style appointed seats to the 18 community-based Districts Councils.

Living Links

The over-lapping functions of Chinese-style democratic centralism are most evident in the new dual roles being assumed by leading members of the pro-China community who serve as living links between Hong Kong's Legislative Council and the National People's Congress in Beijing. Hong Kong's 36-member National People's Congress delegation was selected by the same committee of 400 that endorsed the appointment of Tung Chee-hwa. The exercise in late 1997 was accomplished with great fanfare and enough Hong Kong-style transparency to reveal the helpful role played by special voting lists, candidate rank orders, and New China News Agency staffers.

Once both Hong Kong's National People's Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress delegations were formed, they contained 19 delegates who held concurrent positions in Hong Kong's interim 1997-1998 legislature (which was responsible among other things for the new electoral law and proportional representation). In 1998, about 100 NPC and CPPCC delegates, mobilized by New China News Agency staffers in their new party whip role, found their way onto the 800-member election committee that filled the 10 appointive seats on Hong Kong's new post-reversion Legislative Council. Among the 60 new councilors, 10 were also NPC or CPPCC members, including Legislative Council president Rita Fan, whose election to that post the democrats also lacked sufficient votes to block.

Political Containment

In such a climate, democratic motions to hasten the pace of reform are routinely defeated. Michael Suen, one of pre-1997 Hong Kong's most conservative civil servants, now heads the Constitutional Affairs Bureau. He has grown ever more adept at denigrating Hong Kong's democratic parties and deflecting their demands for political reform. Enterprising journalists have long since learned the futility of asking where his decisions originate, although his assignment includes SAR-Beijing consultation on matters related to the bureau's mandate. Public criticism now follows a standard pattern of blaming local decision-makers for trying too hard to "second-guess" Beijing. Meanwhile, the democratic camp finds itself in a Catch-22 dilemma. With the scope of their electoral prospects reduced and their legislative power curtailed, democrats are increasingly vulnerable to conservative taunts of inexperience and disarray. In fact, demoralization has set in as democrats, lacking adequate funds even to maintain their district offices and community work, feud openly over the merits of political accommodation versus confrontation, and watch their public support begin to erode.

Demoralization has also taken hold within Hong Kong's newspaper industry. It continues to thrive and the public devours its contents, which have nevertheless changed almost beyond recognition over the past decade. The reasons are not entirely political, but the combination of economic recession and a new sovereign has turned the popular Chinese-language dailies into purveyors of trivia, trash, and little else. Even the staid South China Morning Post has succumbed to the info-tainment trend with a surprise new format, introduced on May 3rd, that left Hong Kong minus even the pretense of an English-language newspaper-of-record. Its revamp emulates the much-criticized Beijing paper China Daily, best known for its wide margins and minimal content. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's second English-language paper really did succumb, with a new tabloid Hong Kong iMail rising phoenix-like, on May 29th, from the fifty-year-old Hong Kong Standard's ashes. Tung Chee-hwa makes much of his accountable government, but governments cannot be held accountable for what the public does not know and Hong Kongers now know less and less. Had the political authorities conspired to find ways of taming the press short of direct intervention, they could have found no better means than the current daily diet of television-style headline news plus business reports and soft-feature fillers.

Tung Chee-hwa may, of course, have something else in mind when he speaks of accountability since the pro-China press has not switched to the new formats. Remaining on high alert, these publications feature periodic diatribes against the democrats and sharp reminders for Tung's administration as well when its actions fall short of partisan demands. Here, too, the general public is left to wonder whether such demands originate locally or in Beijing. But once published in the Beijing-owned Wen Wei Po (Wenhui bao), they carry the weight of authority and serve to heighten political vigilance accordingly.

The most recent and extreme example of intervention with the press actually did involve a Hong Kong-based Beijing official, although it concerned a matter seen by Beijing as being directly related to national sovereignty. After half-a-century of "undercover" existence, the New China News Agency has just undergone a rectification-of-names to become the central government's Hong Kong liaison office. This change seems to contravene the Basic Law, which stipulates that only the People's Liberation Army and Foreign Ministry shall maintain direct representation in Hong Kong. The new Central Liaison Office has inherited the old NCNA staff and functions and continues to serve as headquarters for Hong Kong's pro-China community. On April 12, Deputy Director Wang Fengchao issued a tough public warning to the news media against publishing news stories that dealt with Taiwan independence. His statement was provoked by a Hong Kong cable television interview with Taiwan's just elected Vice-president Annette Lu, who had ventured some explicit comments on Taiwan's differences with the mainland. Despite an upsurge of local protest against so clear an interference with press freedom, the warning served its intended purpose. No local news organization dared risk a follow-up interview with the outspoken Ms. Lu, who was being excoriated in equal measure by the Beijing press and its Hong Kong counterparts.

Birdcage Democracy

Before 1997, local fears alternated with great bravado. Exhilarated by their place in the international spotlight and Hong Kong's new activist political culture, some even envisioned Hong Kong as a future bridgehead for China's democratization. Today, the dynamic is all in the opposite direction. Hong Kong may still represent the cutting edge of China's political reform, but with the SAR's press increasingly neutralized and its democrats marginalized, little wonder that critics now refer to the political system as a "birdcage democracy."

Why Taiwan is so adamant in rejecting Hong Kong's experience should also be clear. At issue is not just Beijing's influence on a few highly publicized court decisions or even the recent revelation that Beijing apparently reserves to itself the right to interpret the many ambiguous sections of Hong Kong's Basic Law. At issue instead is Hong Kong's political structure as a whole, with its myriad of checks and balances. These stand in direct contradiction to Taiwan's genuinely autonomous and fully elected alternative, which has now even succeeded in ending the KMT's 70-year monopoly of power. Some dramatic changes must therefore be made in the terms of the one-country, two-systems proposal. Otherwise, Beijing is doomed to persist with an offer Taiwan cannot but refuse.

SUZANNE PEPPER is a Hong Kong-based American writer. She is the author of, among other works, Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 (University of California Press, 1978, 1980; second edition, Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). For more on Hong Kong's political evolution, see her "Hong Kong in Search of a Political Form," The China Quarterly, June 2000.


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