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Beijing's Errant Children

by Strategic Forecasting, Inc. Friday, Apr. 16, 2004 at 9:47 AM

Now that Hong Kong is anxious for self-rule and Taiwan is serious about nationhood, China is awakening from a dream of a peaceful reunification with its democratic territories -- another round of terror is likely.


The facade of China's "one country, two systems" formula abruptly crumbled when Beijing announced it would assert its authority regarding when, how -- and even if -- Hong Kong can implement democratic reforms. The failure to maintain a long-standing political compromise is sending bad signals to Taiwan at an inopportune time.


The Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress (NPC) announced April 6 that it will have final say over how Hong Kong's next leaders are elected. The decision by China's parliament effectively marks the death of Beijing's "one country, two systems" formula for its recovered territories.

The formula -- a tacit agreement, really -- stated that there is one Chinese nation, but multiple political systems. In effect, it granted autonomy to the former European colonies of Hong Kong and Macao in exchange for allegiance. The purpose of this live-and- let-live system was to ease the transition from colonial rule for the two territories, and also make the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland appear an attractive and viable offer for the wayward island.

Hong Kong, however, is anxious to run its own house -- something Beijing just won't let happen. At the same time, with each passing presidential election, Taiwan is placing higher value on gaining sovereignty. Hong Kong's fear of falling under Chinese jurisdiction and Taiwan's persistent pursuit of nationhood are forcing Beijing to awaken from its dream of a peaceful reunification with its territories.

A delegation of top Chinese government officials led by Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the Standing Committee, arrived in Hong Kong on April 7 to meet with Special Administrative Region (SAR) leaders and try to allay concerns that Beijing plans to quash democratic reforms in the former British colony. The efforts are not likely to succeed. The delegation was met with small demonstrations by pro-democracy activists, cries of injustice from local lawmakers and scathing editorials in a handful of Hong Kong newspapers deriding Beijing's attempt to undermine the SAR's autonomy. The activists are planning another demonstration in Hong Kong on April 11, estimating as many as 10,000 people will attend.

The Chinese government's reassertion of legal authority over Hong Kong is not surprising. China's constitution and Hong Kong's Basic Law (or mini-constitution) both state that the NPC has final say about the SAR's laws. Until now, Beijing has opted for light-handed control, preferring instead to work through its handpicked chief executive, Tung Chee-Hwa. That has all changed now.

The first major blow to the arrangement occurred July 1, 2003, when up to a half-million Hong Kong residents protested the proposed Article 23 as an addition to the Basic Law. Protesters feared the package of anti-subversion regulations would stifle civil liberties in the territory. The demonstration was as much a protest against Tung's rule as it was a rejection of the proposed legislation.

The second blow came a few months later when the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) -- the Beijing- backed political party in the region -- suffered a stinging loss at the hands of the Democratic Party in district council elections. The November 2003 low-level elections resulted in a record turnout and proved that if Hong Kong residents had their way, Tung and other Beijing-backed politicians would be sent packing.

In the months since, pro-democracy advocates have pressured Tung to introduce reforms to allow the direct election of the SAR's next chief executive in 2007 and Legislative Council members in 2008. The Chinese government has made it perfectly clear that any election-reform decision would come directly from Beijing -- although it hasn't gone so far as to completely reject the idea.

The NPC has left itself room to maneuver by not definitively ruling out the possibility of desired reforms, stating only that if and when they happen, they would be on Beijing's terms. The Chinese government will allow direct elections in Hong Kong only when it is sure the majority of elected candidates will follow its orders; while that remains in doubt, Beijing will not take the risk.

The "one country, two systems" idea has always been an illusion. Beijing and Hong Kong favor opposite sides of the equation, and no amount of spin will change that. The notion that this forced wedding eventually would lead to marital bliss is over. Hong Kong is testing its bounds, and Beijing is reining it in tightly, preferring to err on the side of caution rather than lose control of the SAR.

From its perspective, the Chinese government had little choice but to take a heavier hand in the SAR's affairs; Tung is no longer effective, and opposition in Hong Kong is growing bolder. Unfortunately for Beijing, it sends the wrong message across the Taiwan Strait just when it is hoping to arrest Taipei's creeping independence campaign.

Before the failed assassination attempt against Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian, the ensuing mystery behind the shooting and the controversy over the election results, the most salient issue in the presidential race was the status of the island's sovereignty. Taiwan's third free election since the end of martial law capped a disturbing trend for China.

Taiwan's first election in 1996 incensed Beijing simply by occurring -- because a democratically elected government that gained international credibility would be much more difficult to assimilate in the future.

The 2000 election was a further blow: The Communist Party's archrival -- the Nationalist Party (KMT) -- lost to Chen, a Taiwan native whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has no historical claim on the mainland. The victory of the indigenous Taiwanese political party undermines the agreement between the Communist Party and KMT that there is only one China -- and Taiwan is part of it. Even more dangerous for Beijing is that Chen made it clear that he sees Taiwan as independent from China.

The most recent presidential election, which included a plebiscite on the island's security measures and relations with the mainland, proved to be the zenith of Taiwan's independence movement. Chen's victory in 2000 can be written off as something of a fluke. He won the race with only 39 percent of the vote, while candidates Lien Chan and James Soong -- whose parties formed the opposition Pan Blue Alliance for the 2004 election -- split the remaining votes, 23 percent and 37 percent respectively.

In the March 20 election, Chen and his pro-independence platform secured about 50 percent of the vote. If the present trend continues, the majority of Taiwanese voters could become decidedly pro-independent, and future elections could become a contest between candidates trying to demonstrate who is more anti-Beijing.

The present set of circumstances bodes ill for Beijing's attempts to placate its returned territory and woo back its estranged province. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is discovering just who is lord and who is vassal under the "one country, two systems" formula -- while Taiwan is watching with growing apprehension over the prospect of falling under a similar set of rules.

Now that Beijing's charm offensive is over, it has less incentive to practice restraint -- should either Hong Kong demonstrators or Taiwanese "rebels" try to push too far. China could easily decide that it is better to be feared than to be respected.


Decision-makers around the world rely on Stratfor for daily intelligence briefs and in-depth analyses and forecasts on a wide range of international security, political and economic affairs -- Stratfor was rated by Time as the "Best Intelligence Website" in 2003 -- Barron's has called Stratfor a "quasi-CIA".
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