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Jul 21, 2007

PRESS RELEASE

Sean King in the South China Morning Post (HK)

Insight, Jul 21, 2007

Ten years after Hong Kong’s return to China, many of us spent this July 1 toasting the future and rehashing Hong Kong’s eventful (to say the least) decade that was.

But, for Beijing, Hong Kong’s return to the fold was but a cinema trailer for the main feature of its much-hoped-for reunion with pesky Taiwan. So, with pivotal Taiwanese legislative and presidential elections in sight, people have been asking what Hong Kong’s experience might one day mean for Taiwan. The answer is: very little.

Let’s start with Hong Kong and admit that, so far, most of us were unnecessarily pessimistic about the former colony’s post-handover fate. Its economy, thanks in no small part to mainland growth, tourism and capital market listings, has proved amazingly resilient. The rule of law is intact, and the pithy press corps is feistier than ever.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome was a tough test, while the yuan’s peg to the US dollar helped insulate Hong Kong from the worst of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

The one area where Beijing has truly disappointed is in its interference in Hong Kong’s attempted moves towards universal suffrage.

I am unhappy with Beijing reining in Hong Kong’s desire for “one person, one vote”, but I went in with low expectations. Even though I admire Hong Kong’s final British governor, Chris Patten, let the record show that Britain implemented democratic reforms in the city only after agreeing to hand the free-market mecca back to China.

And, to be honest, whatever street protests there might have been in 2003 and 2004 over the proposed (and later shelved) anti-sedition law, Hongkongers were not exactly clamouring for representative government in the mid-1990s. Most of them just wanted to make money.

Unfortunately for Beijing, democratic virtues, or a lack thereof, are only the beginning of the end of Hong Kong’s parallels with Taiwan. History is the key differentiator.

Hong Kong was first incorporated into China under the Qin dynasty. Even Hong Kong’s most ardent pro-democracy Anglophiles would never dispute that it is a millennia-old, inalienable part of China. The same cannot be said for Taiwan.

The island was originally settled by Malay-Polynesians, thereafter “welcoming” centuries of Han Chinese migration. China’s Ming dynasty, and its eventual exiles, did exert considerable influence over Taiwan’s affairs. But the island was, in fact, home to Spanish and Dutch settlements before it was first formally made part of China in 1683, when it was annexed as a prefecture under the Qing dynasty. Taiwan was also later a Japanese colony, from 1895-1945.

So, while 98 per cent of Taiwan’s people are ethnically Chinese, they have only ever been under direct mainland rule for a grand total of 216 years, and for only four of the past 112 years. As Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan notes in her recent best-seller, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Beijing’s claim on Taiwan’s terrain is somewhat “dubious”. There is also, however, no precedent for a de jure independent Taiwanese state. What to do?

Despite the many punch-ups we see among its legislators, Taiwanese public opinion is thankfully very level-headed. In a Mainland Affairs Council poll, in April, only 8.2 per cent favoured immediate independence, while even fewer (2.1 per cent) wanted immediate unification.

The rest preferred some form of the status quo, cocktail-circuit speak for continued de facto operational sovereignty with a formal decision to be made later (whenever “later” is). Yet, when push comes to shove, citizens are fiercely protective of Taiwan’s dignity and territorial integrity.

For onlookers, particularly those of us in business and diplomacy, life would be a lot easier if Taiwan just went along with things in order to get along, and quietly nodded Beijing’s way. But that’s not going to happen any time soon, at least not as long as Taiwan’s government is subject to the will of its people.

Those same Mainland Affairs Council public opinion p1olls also indicate that 75 per cent of Taiwanese reject Hong Kong’s example of “one country, two systems” as a model for any cross-strait coexistence of their own. Those looking at Hong Kong as a template to get out of the Taiwan conundrum will thus have to look elsewhere.

It’s more than just a question of representative government. It’s a question of whether Taiwan’s people, ethnic Chinese or not, can see themselves within a greater Chinese state.

Only Taiwanese themselves can make that call, and they are likely to take their time. But the decision must be theirs, and theirs alone, to make.