Developments in Hong Kong since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and further erosions of political liberties in the special administrative region this year culminating in the ongoing series of mass protests in the territory, have underscored the fact that, two decades after retrocession, the “one country, two systems” formula is a defunct policy that is not meeting the needs and expectations of the residents of the former British colony. The instability in Hong Kong has also sent shockwaves across Taiwan and appears to have been beneficial to President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who will seek re-election in January 2020. The situation in Hong Kong, and the authorities’ response to it, have consolidated the belief in Taiwan that “one country, two systems”—the same failing formula that Beijing has insisted upon for the eventual unification of Taiwan—could not work in democratic Taiwan.
After Chinese Communist Party Secretary-General Xi Jinping (習近平) made it clear in his address to Taiwanese “compatriots” on January 2, 2019 that “one China,” another Beijing precondition, enshrines “one country, two systems,” even the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), regarded as more friendly towards China, felt it necessary to state that the formula was unacceptable to the Taiwanese. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a potential third candidate in the January elections, who earlier this month formed a new “centrist” political party, has also stated his opposition to the formula for Taiwan. After initially ignoring the unrest in Hong Kong, the KMT’s presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), asserted that “one country, two systems” could only be implemented “over my dead body.” No doubt Han, who upon his victory in last November’s local elections in Kaohsiung embarked on a visit to Hong Kong, Macau, and Xiamen, where he interacted with officials from the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and met with Carrie Lam, and who is backed by various organizations, such as the Huang Fu-hsing faction and the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), that are known to be ideologically close to China, made those remarks tactically, knowing that campaigning on a platform, which promotes “one country, two systems” would be abortive.
Still, some parties, such as the aforementioned CUPP and the New Party (NP), which have stated their support for the KMT’s Han in the upcoming elections, continue to actively and openly promote “one country, two systems” as the only solution for Taiwan. Speaking at a function on the 26th anniversary of the founding of the NP earlier this month, party chairman Yok Mu-ming (郁慕明) unveiled an eight-point “one country, two systems” policy. This policy includes: (1) the “peaceful reunification” of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and respect for their political and economic systems and lifestyles; (2) inclusion of Taiwanese representatives as part of the Chinese delegation to the United Nations; (3) the maintenance of Taiwan’s multi-party competition in elections but not allowing “Taiwan independence” or “separatist activities”; (4) an end to hostilities by the two sides, accompanied by a reduction in the size of the Taiwanese military and an end to arms purchases from the United States; (5) the continued promotion of a shared cross-Strait history in books and through the sharing of historical materials; (6) the objective representation of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait; (7) contributions by both sides to the revival of the “glorious history” of the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation; and (8) restoration of the rights of retired military personnel.
In the same statement, Yok attributed growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait to the Tsai administration’s unwillingness to cooperate with Beijing, and did not offer one iota of criticism of the CCP or point out that Taiwan’s resistance to China’s excesses under Xi is part of a larger trend and not, as he claims, the fault of an unreasonable Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, President Tsai’s party). He also maintained that the “one China,” which would emerge after unification would be neither the Republic of China (Taiwan) or the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but rather, to paraphrase, the sum of its equal parts.
It is difficult to ascertain whether Yok, or other proponents of “one country, two systems” like the CUPP’s Chang An-le (張安樂), genuinely believe that the formula could apply to Taiwan or are instead providing a smokescreen for Beijing’s greater ambitions. It is also conceivable that the CUPP and the NP are simply reflecting Beijing’s wishes, despite the rapid erosion of the “one country, two systems” appeal amid the escalating protests. What is more certain is that the belief that Beijing would treat Taiwan, or the ROC, as an equal in this partnership is naive at best, and is bound to encounter resistance even within the KMT mainstream. Tensions between Yok’s vision and the KMT have already appeared. Last week, Yok deplored what he called the KMT’s aligning itself with President and Tsai in equating the “one country, two systems” proposed for Taiwan with that which has applied to Hong Kong and Macau. This war of words between Yok and the KMT chairman reflects an ongoing ideological battle within the blue camp. More pro-Beijing parties and factions, many of which operate on the peripheries of the core KMT, are actively trying to influence the party toward a more pro-Beijing stance, which the mainstream KMT knows would have little appeal in elections. (This also comes at a time when the KMT is seeking to reassure the United States that, should it return to power in 2020, the KMT would not bring Taiwan too close to China.)
Is there any legitimacy to Yok’s claim that “one country, two systems” as applied to Taiwan would be different from Hong Kong and Macau? Yok’s very first point undoubtedly whitewashes what has occurred in Hong Kong since 1997, which leaves no doubt that “two systems” will inevitably be accompanied by a gradual erosion of political rights and freedoms—possibly a more sudden one, as Beijing likely will have concluded from its troubles in Hong Kong that freedoms are a headache and will need to crack down more severely on a society, which has been proudly democratic for three decades and ruled independently from “the mainland” for more than a century. Efforts to pacify Taiwan would inevitably undermine any commitment to Yok’s first point.
Compounding all this is the strident ultranationalism that has buttressed the CCP’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese since the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. After Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) launched China on the road to economic growth, the CCP felt compelled to replace communist ideology with the cultivation of nationalism, starting in schools. We are experiencing decades of that nationalism now. With the exception of a handful of intellectuals and dissidents, many of them imprisoned, most of Chinese society’s disregard for the treatment of minorities in China—from Xinjiang’s Uyghurs to Tibet’s buddhists to underground Christians and many others—has been alimented and been channeling a vitriolic form of Han chauvinism that does not brook criticism or opposition. With critics silenced or detained, this wave has been exacerbated by the internet and is now being unleashed with full force on a global scale, as demonstrated by the mobilization of Chinese students and civil societies to intimidate, and on occasion physically assault, critics of the CCP.
While the CCP and its supporters maintain the claim that Hong Kong, or Xinjiang, or Tibet, are indivisible parts of China, they have had no compunction in allowing the regime to detain them by the thousands, or to use indiscriminate violence against the worst offenders. In other words, while the claims are territorial, the inhabitants of those supposedly Chinese territories are, when necessary, regarded as less than “Han” Chinese—a racialization that invites abuse. Comments by pro-CCP demonstrators during ostensibly coordinated mobilizations in capitals worldwide recently, including a young Chinese student telling a Hong Kong counterpart during rallies in Melbourne, Australia, that “You deserve the freedom we [China] give you [Hong Kong]” amid chants of “Traitors to the Han race!” or, in London, a Chinese waving a placard, which read “Kneel down and lick you master’s ass,” and the occasional attacks on pro-Hong Kong protesters in countries outside China, have taken China’s concept of Han hegemony to a global level.
With all these examples of excess and abuse, it is difficult to imagine how the CCP could treat Taiwan any differently. Through the lens of China’s ultranationalism, Taiwan is no different than Hong Kong or Xinjiang, a piece of real estate, which ought to belong to China. Its inhabitants and minorities will be accepted into the “Han” super race as long as they bow to Beijing’s will; those who refuse to do so are dispensable, traitors, and therefore subject to various controls. The idea that somehow Beijing would give more preferential treatment to Taiwan, allowing it, as Yok’s confabulations suggest, full retention of political freedoms and way of life, flies in the face of the CCP’s ideology. Giving more to the difficult Taiwanese would risk emboldening other minorities in other parts of China and thereby cause more trouble for the CCP. Thus, even if it wanted to, the CCP could not make Taiwan a better offer than it has for, say, Hong Kong. Consequently, erosion, and amid resistance, pacification, are the only logical outcomes to “peaceful unification” under “one country, two systems” or any other arrangement, for that matter, as long as China continues to be ruled by an authoritarian, Han chauvinist ideology.
In the coming months, the Taiwanese will have to pay particular attention to what their politicians—and not just the fringe ones like Yok and Chang—tell them, and to make sure that their China policy truly reflects their avowed refusal to accept “one country, two systems.” With Beijing showing no indication that it is willing to compromise on the issue, Taiwanese politicians who flirt with the idea of more closeness with China will need to be closely scrutinized and held to account. Represented by a candidate whose suspected ties with the CCP have raised concerns, the KMT is now once again flirting with the idea of reaching a “peace agreement” or engaging in supposedly inevitable “peace talks” with China—presumably after the holding of a referendum on the matter—the kind of proposal that, as per Beijing’s playbook, could very well be part of a slippery-slope strategy that lands Taiwan into “one country, two systems” dead-end.
The main point: Beijing’s “one country, two systems” offer for Taiwan is a terrible one, made all the more unappealing by rising Han ultranationalism and the example set in Hong Kong. Still, there are forces afoot in Taiwan which are trying to drag the country toward that destination—some openly, and others covertly.