Commentary

Beijing Smothers Hong Kong — and Drives Taiwan Farther Away

Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed tactics that undermine Hong Kong’s political autonomy are understandably causing discontent among Hong Kong residents. But those tactics are also having broader effects. In particular, they are alienating even the minority of Taiwanese who might be tempted to consider reunification with the mainland. They are strengthening the hand of pro-independence forces in Taiwan.

The PRC’s recent actions are especially disturbing. The April 26 decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to bar direct elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2007 and the full legislature in 2008 was bad enough. But when protests erupted in Hong Kong over the decision, Beijing’s response was less than subtle.

The communist regime dispatched eight warships to make a show of force in Victoria harbour. At about the same time, some prominent pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong reported threats of violence against themselves and their families. Then, in early May, Beijing escalated the pressure, warning pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that they were violating the law merely by proposing measures to criticize the decision of the Standing Committee.

All of this seemed to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the autonomy that Beijing promised when it regained sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997.

Watching with growing interest and alarm from the sidelines were the people of Taiwan. True, there never has been much enthusiasm in Taiwan for the “one state, two systems” formula on the Hong Kong model, even though Beijing has offered that option to the Taiwanese on numerous occasions. (Indeed, PRC leaders have offered Taiwan an “enhanced” version of that formula, in which the island would retain both its democratic form of government and its armed forces.)

Public opinion polls taken since the late 1990s have shown that a majority of Taiwanese is not inclined to trust Beijing’s assurances. There is a faction, though, that has expressed a willingness to consider the one-state, two-systems formula if it worked out well in Hong Kong. That faction is likely to conclude that the verdict is now in, and that Beijing’s promises cannot be trusted.

Beijing’s tactical blunder comes at a delicate time. Taiwanese opinion is closely divided between those who want to keep the option of reunification at a later date open and those who seek nothing less than the island’s formal independence. The narrow reelection of Chen Shui-bian of the officially pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party suggests that separatist sentiment is growing. Chen won his first term in 2000 with less than 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race. This time he captured more than 50 percent of the vote in a two-way race.

Chen’s victory is not all that surprising. True, the bulk of the Taiwanese business community favors close ties with the mainland and supported Chen’s Kuomintang Party (KMT) opponent. But other Taiwanese (especially younger age groups) regard the mainland as an alien country and have little interest in reunification, now or in the future.

Beijing’s bullying tactics toward Hong Kong are strengthening that faction. One prominent Taiwanese recently stated: “De jure independence makes sense, especially after what’s been happening in Hong Kong.” What was remarkable was that the individual making that bold statement is not a stalwart of the pro-independence DPP. The speaker was Szu-yin Ho, director of overseas affairs for the moderate, status quo-oriented KMT.

PRC leaders need to realize that the more they renege on their commitments regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy, the more they will drive Taiwan into the arms of pro-independence forces. Beijing’s tactics are, therefore, not only unfair with regard to Hong Kong, they are utterly counterproductive in terms of the objective of eventually regaining sovereignty over Taiwan. It is a lesson that PRC officials should ponder.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs.