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
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.