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HONG KONG WATCHES THE TAIWAN ELECTION -- AS THE FUTURE OF CHINA TAKES SHAPE

By Tom Plate

March 19, 2004

HONG KONG -- Evincing a modicum of sympathy for the government of China is ordinarily difficult. In the United States, to be sure, it would be easier to launch a campaign for, say, "Save the Killer Sharks." But in a can-do American intellectual spirit, let's see what we can do for Beijing on the matter of Taiwan and Hong Kong. Sometimes a little mind-stretching can further our understanding of complex issues and the other side's outlook.

For starters, China takes the historical view that Hong Kong and Taiwan are integral parts of China, just as California and Texas are parts of the United States. In fairness, it is scarcely alone in that view. In 1997, Great Britain, which for 150-plus years had been the colonial master and commander of Hong Kong, handed the keys to the territory over to China, in tacit peaceful recognition of the historical legitimacy of Chinese ownership. And that was that (or so Beijing thought).

The issue of Taiwan is a little more complicated. Only a handful of nations recognizes the offshore island of 22 million people as a separate and independent country. By contrast, all the others -– including the United States -– and the United Nations accept the principle of one China and don’t treat Taiwan as an official country. And that is that (or so Beijing thought).

However, this weekend (Editors: 20-21 March) China's leaders watched in agony as Taiwan (officially described by Beijing in such colorful and unfriendly terms as "a renegade, runaway province of the mainland") went through democratic elections for the presidency of this officially nonexistent country. But the hot subterranean issue was how independent-minded the island should be, on which issue the electorate in effect split.

No one watched this election more closely than the people of Hong Kong. Why can't we have elections for our own president? Will Taiwan someday have the courage to officially break away? If it does, will the People's Liberation Army then invade, as China's leaders have promised?

The good citizens of Hong Kong appear about as divided on the Beijing issue as the good voters of Taiwan. Some would welcome an independent territory, but others prefer inclusion in Mother China. Though no one here is a fan of the bumbling bureaucracies of the People's Republic of China, many regard the current government of Hu Jintao as a long way from Stalinesque and even less of a burlesque than Hong Kong's local government.

I chatted on the telephone briefly with Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive and one of the nicest leaders on the world political stage. Caught in a gigantic vise, he finds his approval rating among the people low, an opinion shared by China's leaders. When I sympathetically asked if the going had been rough during his last trip to Beijing earlier this month, he said, "Oh, no -- I'm not going to get into that!"

That's understandable -- this man in the middle has to keep his own peace. But Hong Kong is already "into that," deciding whether it can accept its fate as a state within China, with ultimate power residing in Beijing. The alternative is independence, the choice expressed by those in Taiwan who this weekend supported incumbent President Chen Shui-bian.

The latter scenario is Beijing's nightmare about Hong Kong, but China seems determined not to let the independence issue in Hong Kong to become that ripe.

To this end, Sir Donald Tsang, the territory's No. 2, has established a political process of deliberation and consultation that aims to contain the river of debate before it overflows the banks and floods Hong Kong with political instability.

Three parties have a veto power over the shape of Hong Kong's political future. One is Beijing, the other is Beijing's chief executive here, and the third is the local legislature. This troika-veto structure has the potential to keep Hong Kong locked in the political status quo well beyond 2007. That would frustrate pro-democracy forces, but preclude Beijing's nightmare scenario.

Over time, and with an improving economy, Beijing hopes, Hong Kong -- not to mention Taiwan -- can learn to love being an integral part of China. Notwithstanding the troika, in this age of instantaneous information, at a time when China desperately requires growing global economic integration to keep afloat, a fourth veto power may emerge: the people of Hong Kong.

That looks to be a formula for gridlock --- or revolution.

 
 

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