Home / Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese Irredentism: Is the “One Country, Two Systems” principle failing?

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese Irredentism: Is the “One Country, Two Systems” principle failing?

Noria Research

On the 14th of December, a flag was being flown at the centre of the last gathering of occupiers in Causeway Bay at the centre of Hong Kong: it was the flag of the Republic of China – the official name for Taiwan. Below, a sign said: “Hong Kong and Taiwan united, together in adversity”. The next day, the camp was cleared out by the police without resistance.

This expression of solidarity has not been isolated. It is representative of the convergence between the situations in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which were brought into focus by two major political crises in 2014: the “Sunflower Movement” in March in Taiwan, and the 75 day occupation of Hong Kong between October and December. The Taiwanese movement, which led to the prolonged occupation of the legislative Yuan (parliament) by the students, targeted a free-trade agreement with China which had been prepared in by the Kuomintang authorities conditions widely condemned as opaque. In Hong Kong, the political system was directly at stake. The election of the chief of the executive through universal suffrage was a long-standing promise from Beijing, but its implementation was always postponed and its modalities remained deliberately unclear. On the 31st of August 2014, the National People’s Congress made these modalities public: The Chief Executive would now be elected by all Hong Kongese; but amongst candidates preselected by a committee linked to the Communist Party of China. Following this announcement, university and high school students massively hit the streets, closely followed by young professionals, and outpacing the pre-existing protest movements such as Occupy Central led by the former generation.

They are direct links between the two events. The Sunflower movement undoubtedly encouraged the Hong Kongese occupiers, who also benefited from the Taiwanese experience through activist networks. The repertoires of protest actions, in particular the logistical and press communication know-hows, show some similarities which are partly due to direct inspiration. In Taiwan, many activists – often students – have expressed their solidarity with the Hong Kong movement, although Occupy Central has always dispelled any suspicions of collusion with the island’s separatists – which would make the organisation an “enemy of the State” according to the thinly veiled threats by the Global Times, one of Beijing’s organ.

Hong Kong and Taiwan: a Similar Trajectory?

This convergence has deep roots. Admittedly, the comparison is not flawless: Hong Kong has been part of the People’s Republic for 17 years, while Taiwan bears all the attributes of a sovereign nation, with the notable exception of international recognition. Hong Kong was liberalised (quite late), but never democratised by the British colonial power, while the elections in Taiwan have been free since the 1990s. However, the two territories have much in common. Both are part of the extraverted, maritime and liberal margins of a continental and authoritarian empire. Hong Kong, and Taiwan furthermore, enjoy public liberties which cannot be compared with those of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In Taiwan as in Hong Kong, the protesters of 2014 belong to the – widely defined – middle classes (liberal professions, teachers, small entrepreneurs…), led by the students, while the big businesses (particularly the industrial ones) would benefit from stronger bonds with the continent, and the working classes have somewhat remained outside the movement, particularly in Hong Kong where this apathy forms a continuity with the colonial period.

Last but not least, Hong Kong and Taiwan are two territories which were taken from China during the Imperialist era by the United Kingdom and Japan, and their recovery was (for Hong Kong), or is (for Taiwan) a national pride stake more than an economic or geopolitical interest. For Beijing, it is about claiming that the “century of humiliation”, which started with the “unequal treaties” of the 19th century, is now in the past and that China will no longer tolerate any intervention in its sovereignty and in its regional ambitions in Asia.

However, the Cold War had created a clear tension between Beijing’s irredentism on the one hand, and the gap that separated its regime and the ones of the coveted territories on the other. China’s response, formulated in the 1980s – and at first designed for Taiwan – has been the “one country, two systems’ solution: under a unique Chinese sovereignty, the coexistence of different “systems” (Capitalism and Communism at the time) would be tolerated, thus pushing back any convergence to a distant future. This flexible solution, which enacted the weakness of the PRC as well as the potential for political reform before 1989, was used as the framework for the retrocession of Hong Kong. In the post-Communist era, it now encompasses China’s tolerance of an island of rule of law within its borders, strongly autonomous and theoretically engaged in a democratic evolution.

The “one country, two systems’ principle must preside, for the Chinese government, over a future reunification with Taiwan, where its society has been observing the political life of Hong Kong closely and anxiously, as it is a common saying that “ Hong Kong’s present is Taiwan’s future”. On the island, the recent protests and the Chinese reaction have widely been interpreted as another proof that Beijing would not tolerate true political freedom under its domination.

Although this diagnosis is justified, it is important to note that the PRC reacted with a certain moderation in Hong Kong. Despite the fears voiced by numerous observers, haunted by the precedent in Tian’anmen, the student movement did not suffer a bloody repression, and order was maintained by the Hong Kongese police, which has been notoriously less brutal than its continental counterpart, and forms a striking contrast with the Western peripheries, Xinjiang and Tibet, where Beijing has used tougher methods (if not lethal force) – as demonstrated by the life imprisonment sentence for “separatism” of the Uighur academic Ilham Toti who’s comments where incomparably more prudent both in substance and in style  than those of the Hong Kong protesters.

Ethnicizing Political Debate in Han Peripheries

Since 1912, the Chinese government has been clinging on to the borders of the Qing Empire, redefined as those of a pluri-ethnic nation, but the inequality in treatment of its components has been blatant. It is partly linked to racism, as Tibetans and Uighurs are considered by a large part of the Chinese population as backwards people who can only understand the use of force.

Hong Kong and Taiwan, on the other hand, are in majority populated by Han people, the largest ethnic group, representing 92% of the continent’s population. Nevertheless, political conflicts have readily crystallised on the issue of “chineseness”. In Taiwan, the “return to the embrace of the motherland” of 1945 followed by the exile of the Kuomintang in 1949, have created, between the dominated “islanders” and the “continentals” who monopolise the power and accumulation positions, a hierarchy which still has effects in spite of the many intermarriages. Since its democratisation, the political life has been structured by the opposition between those who claim a Taiwanese national identity and those who, claiming Chinese roots, wish to be closer to the continent.

In Hong Kong, the reference to the Chinese homeland was at the centre of the contestation of British colonialism, which partly explains why Deng Xiaoping could contemplate conceding a strong autonomy to Hong Kong: The people’s patriotism was to thrive under Chinese sovereignty, and neutralise the centrifugal effects of the special regime. However, the exact opposite has happened since 1997: the devotion to the idea of Hong Kong as a distinct entity from China has grown, not only if the polls can be trusted, but mainly in light of the multiplication of political movements centred upon identity issues. In 2007, the movement against the demolition of the Queen’s Pier made this example of colonial architecture a symbol of Hong Kong’s heritage. Moreover, in 2012, a large high school and university student movement obtained the withdrawal of the emollient patriotic education classes which Beijing wished to impose. From this victory stemmed the entry into politics of very young activists – which mobilised again in 2014 – such as Joshua Wong (born in 1996).

These several movements have found a particularly strong audience with a youth generally more skilled than their parents (often economic migrants from the continent or from the Chinese diaspora), and with different expectations. The generational gap is patent: for many Hong Kongese educated after the retrocession, China is no longer a mythical reference and has been replaced by a hegemony with influence perceived as maleficent – eroding of the freedom of press, intimidation and aggression of journalists, real estate speculation, tourist and continental migrant “invasion”, etc.

As for Taiwan, this defiance is meddled with contempt. In regards to Tibet or Xinjiang, the situation is reversed: here the peripheries accuse the centre of barbarism. According to this discourse, continental China is civilised than its South-Eastern margins, although holding the brutal force (army, capital, numbers), it would nevertheless remain an authoritarian and archaic power incapable of offering a path to progress. Consequently, this progress would rather be incarnated by the people of Hong Kong, members in their full right to a global – Western – society of which they speak the language and share the values, or at least of a modern and liberal Asia more represented by Japan and South Korea than by China. At times, this discourse has taken unpleasant turns: in 2012 some Hong Kongese activists bought an entire sheet of the highly popular Apple Daily to denounce the glow of Chinese migrants which were represented as a giant grasshopper.

Postcolonial Complex and Chinese nationalism

These attacks on China’s legitimacy come with, in Hong Kong as well as in Taiwan, a tendency to rehabilitate the colonial past. The evolving Hong Kongese identity has positioned the British legacy at its core, and many would rather mention the liberal heritage of the metropolis rather than the persistent refusal by London to concede democracy – let alone self-determination. As for the supporters Taiwanese independence, the Kuomintang as well as the Communist Party of China bitterly accuse them of looking back with indulgence at the Japanese colonisation era (1895-1945), a genuine phenomenon even though it is not as strong as in Hong Kong. These colonial nostalgias are in large part due to the retrospective illusion, a fortiori when they stem from the younger generations. Nevertheless, many Hong Kongese and Taiwanese see China as less able than their former masters to incarnate a civilised power; and this argument is unbearable for a Chinese nationalism which feeds on memories of European and Japanese imperialism.

This situation explains some of the very violent reactions on the continent. In 2012, Kong Qingdong, a professor from the prestigious Beijing University, declared on television that the Hong Kongese, because they refused to identify with China, were for most of them “dogs” rather than men, by using a disturbing mix of anti-imperialist lexicon (“running dogs”) and an animalising identity discourse. The Chinese nationalists have used a barely softer vocabulary to denounce the “Japanese complex” of the Taiwanese separatists, which was long held by the Kuomintang as a consequence of the “poisoning” of minds by the former coloniser.

However, the violence of the discourse itself suggests that the problem could very well come from China, for it was the Chinese nationalists, on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, who turned political fealty into a national identity issue, and identified patriotism with submission to Beijing’s regime. This authoritarian culturalism was at the origin of notions such as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, the euphemism designating the immutable presence of the Communist Party dictatorship after the switch to Capitalism. It has flourished more than ever since the repression of the Tian’anmen movement and when the prospects for political emancipation vanished, replaced by a somewhat revanchist nationalism. In the 1990s, the authorities then imposed, in all of the country’s schools, “patriotic education” classes which were squarely refused in Hong Kong in 2012.

The contradictions within the “one country, two systems” principle are those of modern China: a nation-state claiming the borders of an empire, diverse but authoritarian and aiming at unity (federalism being out of the question). It sways from the imperial – and thus differentiated – management of its complexity to calls to national fealty which do not allow discussion. However, in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, as Han peripheries, this patriotic blackmail turned out to be a double-edge sword: the democrats and liberal who refuse to call themselves Chinese are only answering Beijing in its own language, that of identity.