Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 15

By Willy Lam

The future of “one country, two systems” has become even murkier after Beijing’s high profile endorsement of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa earlier this month. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s apparent refusal to allow democracy to proceed at a faster pace in the special administrative region (SAR) is a godsent opportunity for Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to better his chances in presidential polls next March.

On the surface, Tung seemed to have secured a new mandate after his one day visit to the Chinese capital on July 19. In an unprecedented move, eight senior cadres, including Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) members President Hu Jintao, Vice President Zeng Qinghong and Premier Wen Jiabao were on hand to greet the 66-year-old former shipping tycoon. Hu praised the beleaguered SAR chief for having made “major contributions” to the territory’s prosperity and stability–and to the progress of one country, two systems. That is the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s formula for reunifying Hong Kong and Taiwan.

While meeting Tung, Wen claimed that “the one country, two systems [model] still has a strong vitality that will not be shaken by any forces.” However, it is clear that the political crisis set off by three major demonstrations in Hong Kong in the first half of July–and Beijing’s inadequate response to it–has put the “one country, two systems” formula to its most severe test since the SAR’s foundation six years ago.

That is because, first of all, Tung’s position is so weakened that Beijing is obliged to prop up his administration using both economic and political means. And such efforts will inevitably tamper with the SAR’s autonomy.

As Democratic Party legislator Martin Lee pointed out, Tung should “feel shamed that after so many years, he still needs this heavy handed endorsement by the Beijing leadership.” The CCP leadership knows of course that the great majority of the 500,000 SAR residents who hit the streets on July 1 wanted Tung to go. And even after Tung had made concessions that included postponing the enactment of the draconian National Security Bill–and firing two unpopular policy secretaries–his poll ratings were still at an all time low.

It is, however, well-nigh impossible for the Hu-Wen leadership to get rid of Tung. For one thing, Tung was the appointee of ex-president Jiang Zemin, who still wields clout as head of the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, the Hu leadership does not want to set the precedent of succumbing to Hong Kong-style people power. Firing Tung to satisfy the demands of SAR residents could send the wrong signals to disaffected groupings within mainland China ranging from over-taxed peasants to unemployed workers.

And according to a Chinese source close to Beijing’s Hong Kong policy establishment, even if Hu wants to pick his own man to head the SAR, the selection process will take at least one year. “Neither Hu nor Wen is satisfied with Tung’s performance,” said the source. “But they have decided to stick with Tung because changing him now will upset political stability in Hong Kong–and in the mainland.”

Politically, the source said, the CCP leadership expected Tung to consult Beijing even more often than before so as to minimize mistakes that might provoke another massive demonstration. Immediately after the July 1 protest, cadres from up to ten different party, government, and PLA departments were dispatched from Beijing to Hong Kong to gauge local opinion on a range of political and economic issues. In order to maintain stability in the SAR, it is expected that Beijing will boost its control over Hong Kong in a variety of ways. They include the periodic dispatch of emissaries to the region to “consult with” heavyweight politicians and business leaders there.

A second major threat to “one country, two systems” lies in the test of wills that is shaping up between Beijing and the growing pro-democracy forces in the SAR. Since the demonstrations, Hong Kong’s activists have shifted their focus from attacking the National Security Bill to seeking universal suffrage by 2007. A poll in mid-July said about 80 percent of Hong Kong people favored directly electing their leader.

Sir S. Y. Chung, a former senior advisor to the government who is not known for his radical views, pointed out that the chief executive would have authority only if he was chosen via universal-suffrage polls. “The central government has to follow the democratic systems of the world,” Chung told local television on the same day that Tung went to Beijing. “Otherwise, the SAR’s political system will be neither fish nor fowl.” Indeed, popular sentiment has shifted so fast that even the leaders of the Beijing-affiliated party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, are saying general elections are a goal worth considering.

Beijing, however, has made known its opposition to early elections. While meeting Tung, President Hu said the SAR’s political system “must develop in an incremental and gradualist manner,” meaning democratization could not occur at an excessively fast pace. Hu also issued a tough warning against “foreign forces and external forces” interfering in SAR affairs. The term “foreign forces” is usually a reference to “anti-Chinese elements in the United States,” the term “external forces” refers generally to Taiwan. International affairs analysts believe the CCP leadership is convinced that pro-democratic elements in Hong Kong are colluding with both U.S.-based organizations and the Catholic Church in order to undermine Beijing’s authority.

These analysts say that Beijing will likely try its best to contain the influence of the pro-democracy camp by beefing up its representative office in Hong Kong–the Central Liaison Office (CLO). For example, the CLO will play an aggressive role in mobilizing support for pro-Beijing candidates in elections for the legislature next year. As the central government’s representative in the SAR, the CLO is in a position to provide substantial political and material support to “left-wing” groups, including trade unions and political parties.

This latest twist in the development of “one country, two systems” is having a big impact on Taiwan–and on the future of relations between the mainland and Taiwan. According to former legislator and popular TV commentator Allen Lee, “Tung is China’s best gift to Chen Shui-bian.” Indeed, the president of Taiwan has used the Hong Kong crisis to illustrate the hollowness of the “one country, two systems” formula, including its pledge of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong–and for Taiwan. Chen told the Asian Wall Street Journal that recent events in Hong Kong had meant that “fewer and fewer people…believe what the Beijing authorities say is for real.” He said that, “We couldn’t have imaged that in just six short years since Hong Kong’s return to China it would change so fast.” Chen added that the requirements of “one China” have eaten into the freedoms guaranteed by “two systems.”

On other occasions Chen has cited Hong Kong’s economic integration with the mainland to argue that cross-straits direct links could only lead to the “marginalization” of the Taiwan economy and the degeneration of the self-ruled island into a mere Chinese province. This point was apparently made to counter criticism from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and the People’s First Party (PFP) that Chen’s refusal to talk to Beijing had hurt the local economy. Most polls in Taiwan show that Chen is lagging behind his opponents, the KMT’s Lien Chan and the PFP’s James Soong, who are running on a joint ticket.

Political analysts in Taipei said that Chen was playing a generally astute game, and that the Hong Kong political crisis had enabled him to seize the initiative at least for the time being. Should Tung’s misrule–as well as Beijing’s opposition to democratic reforms in the SAR–continue, Chen might be given more ammunition to demonstrate to Taiwan’s predominantly native Taiwanese electorate that a vote for the Lien-Soong ticket would mean a vote for the “Hongkongization” of Taiwan.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.