Chinese vs. Big China: Hong Kong’s lessons are being studied in Taiwan

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Hong Kong has always been a city of contrasts. Wealth, a free economy, a feisty media, and the rule of law, have always contrasted with poverty, crowding and claustrophobia.

Still, Hong Kong remains a refuge for millions of Chinese who choose freedom despite its doorstep proximity to Mainland China. Yet, in the past seventeen years, the narrative has somewhat changed as China has tasted the fruits of economic prosperity but has remained politically authoritarian.

When the former British Crown Colony was returned to China in July 1997, many people assumed that the glory days were over. After all, this thriving bastion of capitalism and free enterprise was now coming under the wing of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Though the Beijing communists were treaty bound to ensure and guarantee Hong’s Kong’s social, economic and political freedoms for fifty years, few believed this deal, inked in 1984 between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher, would last for very long.

HongKongLessonsHong Kong’s freedoms, and may I say freewheeling pace and lifestyle, contrast with most of Mainland China save for a few places like Shanghai.

Hong Kong became the template for Beijing’s reunification formula, “One Country, Two Systems,” in other words the People’s Republic would showcase Hong Kong as an example of political autonomy and peaceful coexistence. The formula was particularly aimed at the Republic of China on Taiwan whose economic prosperity and democratic political institutions glaringly contrast with the PRC model.

Related: Power grab: Xi Jinping has not hesitated to seize power in China and on the world stage, Oct. 9]

Having been in Hong Kong at the time of the 1997 handover, the lingering fear was would Beijing’s Marxist mandarins kill the golden goose represented by this spunky Crown Colony? The Chinese allegory emerged that if you kill the Golden Goose, you have one splendid meal, but it you keep it alive, the goose keeps laying golden eggs.

Having returned to Hong Kong a few years ago, it was more than obvious the golden goose was still alive and well. This Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic had morphed into the capital of freewheeling Bling-bling with high-end shops rivaling New York or London.

Press freedoms were eroding but heavy -handed Mainland censorship was not the norm either; just “patriotic journalism” in other words, writing either positive accounts of Big Brother or saying nothing at all.

Now of course the political narrative has changed as Hong Kong’s well educated students and young people are chafing over PRC’s political plan whereby pre-selected and regime-approved candidates will be the only choice in elections for the region’s Chief Executive in 2017. True democratic reforms are clearly not on Beijing’s agenda. Authoritarian “stability” endorsed both by the communist politicians and the capitalist business tycoons remain the order of the day.

Mass pro-democracy demonstrations, dubbed the Umbrella revolution, have rocked Hong Kong and have equally jolted both the Communist Party rulers in Beijing. As significantly, the events have warned and reminded onlookers in democratic Taiwan that the “One Country, Two Systems” scheme has imposed a tight political cookie mold on Hong Kong as it would most certainly would do so on democratic Taiwan.

Yet, the shimmering dream of the reunification of China, that of Taiwan rejoining the PRC , either by choice, coercion, or through force, remains unchanged.

Though the timing was particularly awkward, PRC leader Xi Jinping recently told some Taiwan legislators that, “Peaceful unification and one country two systems are our guiding principles in solving the Taiwan issue.” This old Deng Xiaoping era model was dusted off both to woo the Chinese on Taiwan as much as to warn the island’s 23 million people that any plans “to splinter the country” or for the political lightning rod of Taiwan independence would court disaster. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to “bring Taiwan back to embrace of the motherland.”

ROC President Ma Ying-jeou has openly decried Xi Jinping’s offer to Taiwan as “unacceptable.”

As Taipei’s respected China Post newspaper commented editorially, “The pro-democracy Occupy Central students movement in the former British colony are actually as much about Taiwan’s future as about Hong Kong’s present predicament.”

The editorial added, “Xi is a bad salesman trying hard to sell Taiwan a product that has already proven stale somewhere else. He hasn’t even tried to sugar-coat the offering for Taiwan.”

Hong Kong’s restless protesters are demanding the rule of law not the rule by law.

But beyond the glittering skyscrapers and vistas of this entrepreneurial city by the bay, there’ a wider lesson emerging for the island of Taiwan, an increasingly unwitting and unwilling suitor to Mr. Xi’s charms.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for He is the author of “Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany; Korea, China”, 2014

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