When the late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping floated the concept of “one country, two systems” in the early 1980s to resolve the issue of the post-1997 fate of Hong Kong, he had his eyes on Taiwan. A successful experiment of the untried idea in the city, under British colonial rule since the mid-19th century, could help smooth the way for the peaceful reunification of the country.
But Deng could not have foreseen the events that unfolded in Hong Kong and across the Taiwan Strait after the sealing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, the introduction of the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution) in 1990 and the sovereignty changeover on July 1, 1997. Deng died in 1997.
The turbulence of the political waters across the strait is reflected in the student-led occupation of the Legislative Yuan building in Taipei, which entered its fifth day Friday.
At the center of the standoff is the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, which was signed by Beijing and Taipei in June last year but has not been ratified by Taiwan’s legislature.
The agreement is regarded as a centerpiece of President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of closer economic ties with the mainland, and is an important step as he tiptoes towards warmer political ties with Beijing.
But the attempt to quicken the pace of economic integration across the strait has caused a split among the populace. Ma’s government is adamant the future of Taiwan’s economy is tied with the mainland, now the second-largest in the world and the island’s biggest export market. The agreement with Beijing, it says, will encourage more countries in the region to enter similar pacts with Taiwan, thus boosting the island’s integration with the regional economy.
Taiwan is keen to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Ma said Wednesday that the mainland trade deal would boost the chance of separate agreements with New Zealand and Japan. If that happens, he said, it would mark a major breakthrough in Taiwan’s drive to beat isolation and broaden its international ties.
A paper submitted by the Economic Affairs Ministry to the Legislative Yuan last week predicted the trade deal would create 12,000 jobs and increase total revenue from services by US$400 million.
Opponents think otherwise. They fear growing dependence on the mainland economy would hollow out Taiwan’s economy and, worse, erode the island’s democracy.
Enter the Hong Kong factor. Hopes that the post-1997 special administrative region could set a good example of integration with the mainland have faltered. Instead, it has stoked jitters among the people of Taiwan about embracing the mainland.
Some Hong Kong political scientists who have regular contacts with Taiwan researchers say academia on the island has showed renewed interest in Hong Kong in recent years – for the wrong reasons.
Even though the one country, two systems policy was originally designed for reunification with Taiwan, the Hong Kong experiment has not been seen as a serious option in Taiwan. Surveys of public opinion show support for the Hong Kong model has been consistently low in Taiwan. And both the KMT and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party have ruled out the option for reunification.
The renewed Taiwan interest in the Hong Kong model comes as the city under goes profound changes in the wake of its speedier and broader economic integration with the mainland. This is because of the growing sense that today’s Hong Kong may become tomorrow’s Taiwan.
The growing sociopolitical strains between Hong Kong and the mainland from the conflict over the influx of mainland visitors have deepened the China fears on the island. Taiwan people are worried the mainland’s growing influence over the Hong Kong economy is spreading to the political sphere.
There are also concerns that opening up the service sector to mainland firms will severely undermine the livelihood of the working class in Taiwan. This Week, one of the most popular business magazines on the island, said the trade deal would directly affect the 4.07 million working people in Taiwan. “It means that, in the future, Chinese can enter Taiwan as managers. Your boss and your colleague could be mainlanders. You do not need to cross the strait – the wolves are coming here!”
In a rare development in the history of political protests in Taiwan, Hong Kong students in the island’s universities have joined their Taiwan counterparts in this week’s demonstrations. Media reports quoted some as saying they took part because “Hong Kong people have already lost their home”, referring to the alleged mainland penetration of the city’s daily life.
Adding to the irony, some pan-democratic figures in Hong Kong said similar scenes could play out the city’s Legislative Council chamber if Beijing imposes an undemocratic universal suffrage blueprint on Hong Kong.
It’s only been three decades but the dynamics between the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan as demonstrated in Taipei this week could hardly have been anticipated by Deng when he invented the idea of “one country, two systems” to reunify the nation.
Chris Yeung is the deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.
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