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Hong Kong Tumult Derails ‘One China’ Dream Oct. 8, 2014
Hong Kong Tumult Derails ‘One China’ Dream
A Model to Bring Back Taiwan Into Beijing’s Fold Turns Into a Negative Example
Tear gas and pepper spray in Hong Kong recall pro-democracy turmoil in Taiwan in an earlier era that changed the political calculation across the Taiwan Strait. WSJ columnist Andrew Browne explains.
HONG KONG—For modern Chinese leaders, no mission carries more patriotic importance than realizing the dream of “One China.”
Deng Xiaoping saw Hong Kong as an opportunity to win over hearts and minds in Taiwan, the greatest and most elusive part of that vision. Freewheeling Hong Kong was the opportunity to show a model that could work: “One Country, Two Systems.”
If China could take over and preserve Hong Kong’s existing capitalist system and way of life, the thinking went, it would demonstrate to Taiwan “compatriots” that their future, too, would be secure under Communist rule.
President Xi Jinping is now watching as prospects of Taiwan returning to the embrace of the motherland recede into a far distant future, as parts of Hong Kong remain paralyzed by pro-democracy protests.
Although it isn’t apparent from the rhetoric coming out of Beijing, one of the most significant outcomes of the rallies in Hong Kong over the past weeks has been to further diminish whatever was left of the hope that China could achieve the reunification of Taiwan and its 23 million people.
Deng Xiaoping discusses Hong Kong with Margaret Thatcher in 1984.AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
The implications of this may not be felt immediately, but they could be far-reaching over time. Behind Beijing’s stated wish for “peaceful reunification” is the threat to use force if necessary. That keeps the Taiwan Strait as a potential flash point for conflict between China and the U.S., Taiwan’s main arms supplier and international supporter.
As prospects for political accommodation between China and Taiwan evaporate, expecttensions to increase.
By Beijing’s own calculation, Hong Kong was the key to bringing Taiwan back into the fold.
Its return was relatively straightforward: It fell back into China’s arms because a British lease over the main part of its territory expired in 1997. Taiwan, a self-governing island, would have to be persuaded through powerful example.
For a while it looked promising, but for many Taiwanese, Hong Kong is now a negative example—proof that China won’t tolerate genuine democracy, can’t be trusted to deliver on its promises of autonomy and lacks the flexibility needed to manage a sophisticated population and their political aspirations.
Taiwan has even more to lose since it is an independent country in all but name, with an already-flourishing democracy.
Taiwan students holding signs of supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in Taipei on Oct. 1.GETTY IMAGES
“Hong Kong Today, Taiwan Tomorrow,” has become a slogan of the student-led Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, which engulfed Taipei in protests earlier this year against a proposed free-trade agreement with Beijing. Opponents argue the arrangement would make the island dangerously vulnerable to economic coercion from the mainland.
Now, Mr. Xi confronts simultaneous challenges from two sets of students in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Worse, the groups are finding common cause: Leaders of the Sunflower Movement have been sharing street tactics and negotiating skills with those running the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong.
And all this has weakened already unpopular President Ma Ying-jeou, who has tried to lower tensions with Beijing and move Taiwan toward closer economic integration with the mainland, an agenda that offers at least some hope to Beijing of an eventual political settlement.
Mr. Ma has now come out in favor of the Hong Kong protests, saying that his Kuomintang party “fully understands and supports Hong Kong residents demand for universal suffrage.”
In reality, the decisive moment for Taiwan’s relations with the mainland came long ago in the late 1980s when the island’s democracy was forged. Faced with mass protests on the streets, which—as in Hong Kong last week—were only inflamed by tear gas and baton charges, then-President Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law. The son of GeneralissimoChiang Kai-shek, who led the defeated Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949 after the Chinese civil war, allowed a fragmented group of dissidents to create an opposition party and set the island on a course of political liberalization.
Democracy meant that the people of Taiwan, rather than a Kuomintang strongman, would have the last say on the issue of reunification. They’ve made their wishes abundantly clear: Since formal independence would provoke a war, they’ll settle for the status quo.
In Hong Kong, the battles for democracy have come too late. China is now in control, and the students demanding full democracy for the election of the next chief executive in 2017 have little leverage.
Furthermore, Mr. Xi has no intention of going down in history as a political reformer in the mold of Mr. Chiang.
But neither should he count on entering the history books as a Chinese leader who healed the country’s political divisions. That “sacred task” is now far beyond his reach.