Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 19

While recent Pentagon and Congressional reports on Sino-American relations noted the military trends threatening war between China and Taiwan, too little attention is paid to the political underpinnings of China’s policies towards Taiwan, which make war in the Taiwan Straits more likely, even inevitable.

When Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian recently caused a furor by encouraging legislation to govern a future referendum in Taiwan, he specifically noted one contingency that would require a referendum: acceptance (or rejection) by Taiwan of China’s “One Country, Two System” formula (OCTS). He spoke after a period in which, following the fifth anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong and Chinese leaders had been patting each other on the back regarding the great success of OCTS, and hailed the policy as the basis for the future reunification of China. This contrast highlights the way in which Hong Kong’s example makes reunification in the foreseeable future even less likely, and conflict in the Taiwan Straits sadly conceivable.

The argument, to which China’s and Hong Kong’s current leaders appear to be dedicated, is based on two simple propositions. First, the OCTS formula has been a great success in Hong Kong. And, second, because of this, it is the path that Taiwan should follow. Both propositions, in a rational arena, are highly questionable, and are becoming even more so. In democratic Taiwan, the OCTS policy has never had much appeal. But in the communist-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong, and in the still tightly controlled mainland press, these basic propositions are endlessly repeated as a basic truth, and are not subject to any debate.

A fundamental dichotomy is that whereas China sees OCTS primarily in terms of extending control and uniformity along with China’s sovereignty, many in Hong Kong and the world at large would see it as a means of extending Chinese sovereignty, while at the same time tolerating autonomy and diversity. As always, the Chinese political system is the dog that wags the tail. Discussion of diversity would involve various points of view. But in a system governed by the party line, there can only be one viewpoint on key issues at any one time.

Hong Kong and foreign anticipation that OCTS might lead to greater Chinese communist tolerance of diverse views are akin, in this sense, to the unrealistic expectation that the tail will wag the dog. Another basic problem is that when Deng Xiaoping created OCTS, it was a very different Taiwan to the one that exists today, still ruled by an unreconstructed Chiang dynasty. Because both China and Taiwan were then authoritarian political systems, Deng probably hoped that some mutual “One China” deal might be arranged between them. Taiwan could retain its capitalist system but, barring a few cosmetic differences politically, China and Taiwan would be one.

Whether the leadership of Taiwan saw this tactic as a threat, they certainly moved to neutralize it. First President Chiang Ching-kuo, the last ruler of the dynasty, and then President Lee Teng-hui, set about changing Taiwan in such a way that any possible deal over a future one country would have to accommodate two different political, as well as economic, systems.

In the realpolitik game of trans-Taiwan Straits poker, Taipei raised the stakes: It became a democracy. Any future deal on reunification would have to take that new reality into account. So far China has not done so. It has quite simply refused to play politically, let alone raise the stakes, except through the military emplacement of short- and medium-range missiles.

Beijing got off to a bad start, as far as Taiwan was concerned, as it excoriated former Governor Chris Patten for his tentative democratic reforms in Hong Kong. What Patten attempted to do in Hong Kong by way of political reform was far less than what Taiwan had already done. But as China bitterly attacked Patten for his deviation, it refused to take Taiwan reality into account. It still does.

So much so, in the last five years the achievement of OCTS in Hong Kong has been such as to place the possibility of that policy being applied to Taiwan outside the realm of practical politics. To give only a few examples:

–Taiwanese are not going to surrender the universal franchise which they now enjoy in both presidential and parliamentary as well as local elections–in exchange for some vague promise that universal franchise may operate at some point in the distant future, which is all that China gave Hong Kong. No Taiwanese politician would stand a chance of getting re-elected if he advocated reunification at the price of giving up the Taiwanese right to vote.

–Taiwanese would laugh uproariously if anyone seriously suggested that future Taiwan presidents should be selected by an election committee of 800, chosen by a Beijing-selected electorate equal to 3 percent of the population. That is how Tung Chee-hwa was chosen for a second term as Hong Kong’s chief executive.

–Taiwanese would resist if told that they were required to abolish their democratic institutions in the same way that Hong Kong abolished its municipal and regional councils.

–A bill stipulating that a future Taiwan chief executive could be fired at Beijing’s whim–like the one already passed in Hong Kong–would simply not be presented to the Taiwan parliament, let alone passed by it.

No Chinese vice premier would be tolerated if he told Taiwan, as Qian Qichen recently told Hong Kong that “Just as you have your meal one mouthful after another, development of democracy will also have to be taken on as a gradual process, and cannot be achieved at one stroke”. Taiwanese already know that, on a Chinese scale of time, they achieved a meaningful degree of democracy with a few quick strokes.

In this way, it can be more clearly seen that Hong Kong’s return to the embrace of the motherland has not narrowed the political gap across the Taiwan Straits. Instead it has further widened it. In Hong Kong, China seeks control. Taiwan is used to controlling itself. So China is faced with three tough policy options.

First, it can simply drop OCTS as a paradigm for reunification outside Hong Kong and Macau. There is no sign of Beijing doing this. Conceivably, the fourth generation of Chinese communist leaders might offer a more relevant formula. However, they are unlikely to do so while the third generation hangs on to power.

Second, China could see to it that OCTS operates in Hong Kong so as to become far more attractive to Taiwan. There is no sign of Beijing doing this either.

Any such policy would require that Hong Kong begin emphasizing, in deeds as well as words, the development of its separate, and more democratic, system. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa seems unlikely to embrace this path. Briefing members of mainland media stationed in Hong Kong on July 2nd, Tung took the opposite tack. According to China Daily, Tung said that “respecting the overall interests of one country will make an even greater success of two systems.”
He has said nothing about democratic development.

Third, China continues to ignore Taiwan political reality and democratic development, as if it had never taken place. In this way, Beijing can go on pretending that Taiwan can be politically squeezed into the Hong Kong-style One Country Two Systems mould.

Ultimately, such an utterly unrealistic policy could only be achieved through the absolute calamity of war across the Taiwan Straits. War would bring about the ruination of economic progress in Greater China. It scarcely bears thinking about. Yet that is the direction in which China’s present postures lead. It is also the direction clearly indicated by the vehement rhetoric that has been directed at President Chen for daring to talk of a future referendum.

When a few tentative Hong Kong voices were raised suggesting that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of the colony should be put to a referendum, Beijing vehemently rejected that proposal, too. Plus ca change…

Harvey Stockwin is the East Asian correspondent for The Times of India, a regular contributor to The Japan Times and the announcer for the Hong Kong broadcast Reflections from Asia.