China’s Democratic Triangle

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 7

China’s behavior toward Hong Kong warrants the attention of those who wish to understand Chinese efforts toward reunification across the Taiwan Strait. Witness, for example, the limited input afforded Hong Kong during the protracted Sino-British negotiations on its retrocession, which concluded in 1984. Given that Hong Kong’s population is made up predominantly of refugees, there was a great deal of nervous anticipation regarding the situation of those who had once fled China, prompting some to suggest a referendum on the colony’s future. Beijing immediately stifled any such proposal, insisting that there could be no questioning of China’s sovereignty and that thoughts of independence or a continuation of the British administration could not be entertained. British officials capitulated, asserting that, of course, no referendum would be held. Instead, authorities organized a “consultation” to “assess” opinion in Hong Kong, which inevitably concluded that a return to the motherland was the wish of the majority and that the Joint Declaration was “approved.”

Beijing’s reaction has been virtually the same in the last few months with regard to Taiwan. The island has used the sovereign control of its territory, first, to pass a referendum law, and then to hold two initial referenda on March 20, simultaneously with the presidential election. Beijing vehemently objected to both the new referendum law and the two initiatives, insisting that there could be no questioning China’s sovereignty and that any moves towards Taiwan independence would be resolutely opposed.

Furthermore, Beijing continues to endeavor to cast the United States in a role similar to that of Britain vis-à-vis Hong Kong–with some degree of success. George W. Bush criticized Taiwan’s referendum posture when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the White House; Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage added their own criticisms of Taiwan’s initiatives. Taiwan has understandably stuck to its guns, and while the two referenda failed for lack of 50 percent support, Taiwan is now in a position to make its voice heard should any effort be made to force its capitulation to Chinese communist sovereignty. China responded by again insisting that any referendum on Taiwan’s future must include all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens in order to be valid. Support for such a proposal has recently been cited as a patriotic requirement by Beijing loyalists in their current political campaign against democratic reform in Hong Kong.

There is thus a clear cut consistency in the way in which China fiercely opposes any democratic self-determination for those territories that it views as part of One China. Moreover, China has at times explicitly recognized a triangular relationship between itself, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as it seeks to maneuver within this framework. When former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping made moves aimed at winning over Hong Kong compatriots and persuading the British to accept the colony’s transfer to communist control, he expected that relations between Beijing and Taiwan would improve as a consequence. Deng articulated the “one country, two systems” formula, under which Hong Kong would retain its capitalist system and lifestyle while still becoming part of one communist-led country. Deng expected that this policy would be so successful in Hong Kong that it would also become acceptable to Taiwan.

Such a vision seemed more reasonable in 1984 than it does in 2004. At that time, Taiwan’s democratic system had not yet developed. Still under the authoritarian control of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had not yet been legalized. Also, Hong Kong then enjoyed more freedom than Taiwan. On both sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as in Washington, DC, it was still considered possible that the two authoritarian regimes might one day reach a compromise on reunification (or at least coexistence) within “one country, two systems,” disregarding public opinion, of course.

With the advantage of hindsight, it can be seen that several developments prevented the realization of Deng’s triangular dream. The 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, followed by the Beijing Massacre, put back any reunification hopes by a generation. A “reversal of verdicts” is still required to set Taiwanese and Hong Kong hearts at ease. (Hong Kong remains the one part of China where the massacre is commemorated every year with a candle light vigil, though in 2004 this act was belatedly deemed “unpatriotic” by Chinese officials.) Partly in reaction to Chinese suppression, former Taiwan Presidents Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui took the initiative in developing a more vigorous form of democracy. When presidential elections were finally instituted, China tried to frustrate them with missiles in 1996, and verbal bombast in 2000. On both those occasions, and again in 2004, the candidate Beijing obviously opposed still managed to win.

The failure of the original triangular relationship was Beijing’s. Deng’s successors failed to make Hong Kong a more attractive model to Taiwan, instead conducting an old style communist political campaign when the last British governor, Christopher Patten, made a belated attempt to initiate some modest democratic reforms. China also initiated a Hong Kong mini-constitution, the Basic Law, postponing any such democratic reform until well into the future.

There are those who now argue that since Taiwan is democratic and Hong Kong lags behind, nothing that Beijing can do vis-à-vis Hong Kong will have resonance in Taipei. In other words, the triangular relationship is dead. But this view ignores the fact that China will not abandon the ideal of reunification across the Taiwan Straits, while Taiwanese investors would be unwilling to lose their US$50-100 billion worth of investments on the mainland. China has a very real interest in sustaining those investments, and in not endlessly frustrating the democratic ambitions of the Hong Kong and Taiwanese majorities. Therefore, the triangular relationship will remain in play, though possibly in ways not imagined by Deng Xiaoping, with events in Taiwan serving as the driving force for change in Hong Kong and China rather than the reverse.

China’s recent missed opportunity to nudge the triangle in the direction envisaged by Deng exemplifies this new dynamic. As the 2004 Taiwan presidential election approached, one positive scenario beckoned. Hong Kong was moving towards a consultation process on democratic reform, as promised under the Basic Law. Beijing could have encouraged Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his administration to hasten the process so that Taiwanese voters would go to the polls knowing that “one country, two systems” could include democratic developments. This would have given KMT Chairman and presidential candidate Lien Chan some wiggle room as he sought to sustain a policy of ultimate reunification while accommodating the growing sense of separate Taiwanese identity. Such a move would also have prevented the Tung Administration from declining further in public esteem, limiting the losses of pro-Beijing candidates in Hong Kong’s upcoming Legislative Council (Legco) election in September. Additionally, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen would have strengthened the reformist inclinations they were widely but naively believed to favor.

The alternative scenario, a Beijing crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations in the hope of intimidating Taiwanese voters into not voting for President Chen Shui-bian’s reelection, seemed counterproductive. This scenario ran the risk of hardening Taiwan’s position no matter who won the presidential election, further discrediting the “one country, two systems” policy. Regardless of the situation in Hong Kong, a narrowing of the parameters of “one country, two systems” by Beijing would only serve to widen the political gulf across the Taiwan Straits. (See “China Vetoes Hong Kong’s Democratic Hopes” by this writer, China Brief, Volume IV Issue 4.)

Despite these obvious drawbacks, however, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has in fact adopted scenario two. Once again, an old style communist political campaign has been busily at work in Hong Kong, denouncing both democracy and democrats, putting everyone under an ill-defined patriotic microscope in a manner that reminds many in Hong Kong of the excesses of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Communist “legal experts” have even suggested that universal suffrage and direct elections might have to wait until 2037 or 2047, when the guarantees in the Sino-British Joint Declaration are in any case due to expire. Communist cadres have asserted that last July’s peaceful demonstration of 500,000 Hong Kongers against a Beijing-required national security bill may have been unpatriotic and that a state of emergency may have to be declared if Hong Kong continues to pursue reform and votes in a democratic majority in Legco in September.

Amid the deteriorating situation brought about by this Beijing-inspired barrage, could it be that China has finally abandoned calculations of possible triangular advantage? Is the emerging hardline toward Hong Kong a prelude to a separate, but equally hardline, approach toward Taiwan? Or could it be that, to the contrary, the triangular relationship is operating in a way never previously anticipated? Top Chinese leaders seem so dismayed and disturbed by the way in which democracy has developed in Taiwan they fear that any democratic reform will have the same effect on Hong Kong. The denial of reform is meant to be a defense against Hong Kong being “infected” by the Taiwanese sins of “splittism,” “separatism” and thoughts of independence.

Certainly in the wake of the Taiwan presidential election, Beijing has been quick to condemn both the result and the ensuing “turmoil” as socially and politically disruptive, and as an example that Hong Kong must not copy. On March 26, Beijing unilaterally announced that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress would soon issue a “reinterpretation” of Hong Kong’s Basic Law regarding political reform. This further stimulates negative movement in the triangular relationship, as Taiwan’s media report that Beijing seeks to “crush” democracy in Hong Kong.

After twenty-five years of opening up to the outside world, it seems that China has more clearly focused on democracy as its enemy, thereby showing that it has itself failed to learn a positive triangular lesson from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Beijing has failed to recognize that no country with a fast developing economy based in international trade, foreign investment, technological innovation and international goodwill has any interest in hitching its politics to a single party line from which there can be no patriotic deviation. As a result, it may be Taiwan, not China, that leads the way within this tripartite relationship.