Follow Hong Kong’s example? You must be kidding

January 25, 2019 17:01
Kuomintang supporters hold a campaign rally in last year's local elections. It is unrealistic to expect that even a KMT administration would scramble to embrace a form of governance similar to that which prevails in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Spare a thought for the grizzled propaganda hacks in Beijing and their echo chamber in Hong Kong who just can’t get their heads around what’s happening in Taiwan.

In November they were beside themselves with joy when the more mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) made stellar advances in local elections at the expense of the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) under the leadership of Tsai Ing-wen.

They used their ignorance of Taiwanese politics to declare that this was a sure sign of voters were rejecting President Tsai’s steadfast opposition to closer ties with the PRC. There may indeed have been an element of wariness over the consequences annoying the mainland but the overwhelming verdict of those who really understand the island’s political system was that the DPP’s defeat was largely caused by economic discontent and a feeling in its strongholds, notably the second city, Kaohsiung, that the party had become arrogant and out of touch.

However, this narrative did not fit Beijing’s claims that the people of Taiwan had demonstrated a desire for reunification with the mainland under the banner of "one country, two systems" – an offer once again flourished by President Xi Jinping this month when he added the threat of taking back the island by use of force.

The response from President Tsai was swift and unflinching – saying there was no question of accepting this retreat from democratic government. As a result, Tsai has seen a significant boost to her admittedly rather dismal popularity rating but even more significantly, no one of any significance in the KMT felt able to back Xi’s proposal.

The reason for this, in no small part, is Hong Kong. People in Taiwan are well aware of what is going on in the SAR which, alongside Macau, currently embodies the concept of one country, two systems. They understand that this process has led to a steady whittling away of freedoms and tighter control over the political system. And, should there be any doubt, they will have seen the increasing volume of assertions from leading mainland officials and their Hong Kong lackeys, insisting that the "one country" part of the equation is far more important than the "two systems".

Ironically, when Deng Xiaoping first started talking about this concept in the late 1970s, he conceived it as mainly being applicable to Taiwan. Hong Kong and Macau were to be used as the testing grounds to provide a shining example to the people of Taiwan who could be persuaded to give up their foolish thoughts of eternal independence.

To say that Deng’s expectations have been thwarted is to put things rather mildly. It is possible that in the early days after 1997, the idea of autonomy, which is crucial to the one country two systems concept, could have been feasible. Now, however, those advocating autonomy for Hong Kong are frequently lumped together with advocates of independence. The message to the people of Taiwan is clear.

Therefore, it is entirely unrealistic to expect that even a KMT administration would scramble to embrace a form of governance even slightly similar to that which prevails in Hong Kong, let alone Macau, where the concept of autonomy festers somewhere on a very dusty shelf.

The longstanding genius of the KMT has been its considerable pragmaticism. A compelling example of this comes from the Kuomintang’s unique position in history as the only governing party of a one-party state that volunteered to create a democracy.

It is staggering that so little credit is given to the late Chiang Ching-kuo for this achievement. Indeed, he has somewhat faded from history but it was under his watch that the KMT dictatorship was dissolved without a drop of blood being spilled, and perhaps even more impressive was the fact that when an open election was held following the opening up of the political system, the Kuomintang won.

Not only did voters freely back the reborn party but Chiang also managed to see off the hardliners who had supported the most brutal aspects of the old regime.

Chiang died in 1988, half a decade before Taiwan held its first open election for president in 1996 but the introduction of democracy would never have happened without the reforms he initiated.

Chiang’s plan came to fruition precisely a year before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule.

While Taiwan’s’ democracy has become entrenched, Hong Kong is busily spiraling backwards, so why on earth would anyone believe that the island’s people will volunteer for a return to a dictatorship?

Meanwhile, a change of government in Taiwan is quite likely – that’s how democratic systems work. What they do not allow is one party to rule forever.

In the face of all logic Hong Kong is held out as an example of a better alternative for Taiwan. Not only is this regarded as absurd on the island but, according to a recent poll by Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme, a growing number of people in the SAR itself believe that one country, two systems would not work in Taiwan, 59 percent of those polled thought it would not work as against 29 percent who said it would.

So, when people living inside the system express views of this kind, no wonder people in Taiwan say: Why on earth would we want to be like Hong Kong?"

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author