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China's crackdown on Hong Kong slams the door on peaceful unification with Taiwan

China's crackdown on Hong Kong slams the door on peaceful unification with Taiwan
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With another turn of the screw, China’s heavy-handed communist leaders are at it again, stubbornly fighting the tide of history. In the case of Hong Kong, they are trying to not only stop it but to reverse it. Yet, despite the evidence of the past three decades, they fail to see that their crackdown on Hong Kong is guaranteeing either a showdown or a backdown on Taiwan.

Last week, Hong Kong police took action to shut down a pro-independence party. In a letter to the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), the territory’s Security Bureau said the unprecedented move was “necessary in the interests of national security or public safety, public order or the protection of human rights.”   

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Yes, the Beijing-controlled authority actually invoked “human rights” to justify further suppression of Hong Kongers’ political and human rights. Black is white, white is black. By deepening political control over the territory, China’s communist leaders are continuing the stultification of democratic development in China, and permanently foreclosing any possibility of peaceful unification with Taiwan.

 

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 on the future of Hong Kong, the former British colony would become a semi-autonomous “Special Administrative Region” (SAR). Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping proclaimed it the the model for the One Country, Two Systems solution he devised to lure Taiwan into the Chinese orbit. He promised it would give Hong Kong (and eventually Taiwan) “a high degree of autonomy” from mainland China except in the area of national defense and foreign affairs:

“We should have faith in the Chinese of Hong Kong, who are quite capable of administering their own affairs. The notion that Chinese cannot manage Hong Kong affairs satisfactorily is a leftover from the old colonial mentality.”

Deng’s soothing words were intended to prepare Hong Kong and the world for the handover from Great Britain to China in 1997. The smiling, grandfatherly leader spoke them in 1984 (a year that in the literary world already had become pregnant with meaning about the relationship between truth and power). Five years later, he showed a different face to the students and workers gathered in Tiananmen Square. Many in Hong Kong watched with horror as the carnage unfolded on television screens and expressed their moral support with chants of “today Tiananmen, tomorrow Hong Kong.” Taiwan’s citizens also noticed.

China’s communist leaders in turn observed the Hong Kongers’ sympathy for the Tiananmen students. It was during this fraught period that Beijing enacted the Basic Law — essentially Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. But instead of providing for direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, it established an Election Committee that would be dominated by people chosen by the communist regime. So much for Deng’s “faith” in the people of Hong Kong to govern themselves.

Hong Kongers still maintain a level of autonomy the rest of China doesn’t have, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. But those rights are eroding, gradually and steadily, especially under the rule of Xi Jinping. Pro-independence campaigners have been barred from running for office and others disqualified from the legislature. Other independence activists have been imprisoned for years, and booksellers have been jailed. Beijing has even extended its long reach by harassing family members abroad to silence dissenters within Hong Kong.

Deng’s plan to have Hong Kong serve as a model for Taiwan has not worked out as planned, even though the promise of a “high degree of autonomy” for Taiwan was repeated in China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law — the same edict that threatened to use force if Taipei waited too long to accept Beijing’s rule. In the spring of 2014, young people on Taiwan conducted major protests and even sit-ins in government offices, known as the Sunflower Movement, to object to government policies making Taiwan economically dependent on China. Hong Kong students produced a video showing themselves singing “Don’t let Taiwan become the next Hong Kong,” to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

A few months later it was the turn of Hong Kong’s youth and other dissenters who took to the streets in what was called the Umbrella Movement to protest Beijing’s tightening political control over the electoral system. China’s mishandling of the situation in Hong Kong indeed has shown the Taiwanese people what One Country, Two Systems has to offer, and they want none of it.

On the contrary, Hong Kongers seek the full democratic rights and freedoms that Taiwan enjoys.  But China’s communist leaders refuse to see the handwriting on the wall, even when it was in the blood of Chinese in Tiananmen Square. They insist that to see the future of Taiwan, look to China. The democratic aspirations of Hong Kong, the democratic example of Taiwan, and history itself, offer a different reality: for the future of China, look to Taiwan.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.