HONG KONG/TAIPEI -- The governing principle of Hong Kong, summed up in the phrase "one country, two systems," was originally proposed by China to persuade Taiwan to accept rule by the mainland. Hong Kong was supposed to show how this creative principle would work in practice.
But after two decades, the experiment has effectively been called off. And as Beijing tightens its grip on the former British colony, people in Taiwan increasingly see themselves as separate from the Chinese. Now like-minded people in Hong Kong are feeling similarly alienated.
Friends in need
Beijing's heavy-handed approach is forging an alliance between Hong Kong and Taiwan against it. Less than a month before the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, lawmakers from Taiwan's ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and its small coalition partner, the New Power Party formed a caucus to deepen exchanges with their pro-democracy counterparts in the Chinese territory.
Hong Kong lawmakers Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, as well as pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, showed up at the start of the event in Taipei on June 12. New Power Party lawmaker Hsu Yung-ming told the Nikkei Asian Review that many Taiwanese members of parliament who are labeled as pro-independent cannot obtain visas to visit Hong Kong, as Beijing asserts influence over the territory's immigration policy.
"Both Taiwan and Hong Kong face external challenges posed by China, and they also encounter similar socioeconomic issues. ... We may be able to work on some social issues together," Hsu said, adding same-sex marriage and environmental protection are some of the issues the two sides can discuss. Chu, representing Hong Kong, echoed his point. "Next to you is a mega superpower with more than 1 billion [people]. We cannot restrict our battlefield to Hong Kong," he said.
Beijing is not amused. Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the government's Taiwan Affairs Office said the meeting amounts to "collusion of Taiwan and Hong Kong independence forces." At a June 14 news conference, he said the event would "interfere in the implementation of the 'one country, two systems' principle in Hong Kong and destroy the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong."
The political formula that was eventually implemented to govern Hong Kong was presented by Beijing on New Year's Day in 1979 in a manifesto addressed to the people of Taiwan. It came soon after Deng Xiaoping made a final comeback as China's paramount leader and put the country on the path of "reform and opening up" in a landmark Communist Party meeting in December 1978. The following year, Deng promised that Taiwan could retain its social system, capitalist economy and even its military if it would only accept status as local self-government under the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China.
Deng officially proposed this formula for Hong Kong to then-U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a September 1982 summit in Beijing. In December 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, realizing his design.
Taiwan at the time was also under one-party rule by the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. But the island has since evolved into a democracy, ending 38 years of martial law in July 1987 and electing its top leader for the first time in March 1996.
China, meanwhile, was moving the other way, bloodily suppressing unarmed citizens in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and firing missiles into the sea near Taiwan during the island's first presidential election campaign in an attempt to sway the outcome. With Beijing having broken a series of promises to Hong Kong since 1997, Taiwanese suspicion of its motives only deepened.
We are what we are
Taiwanese are increasingly detached from their neighbors across the strait. The latest annual poll by National Chengchi University on Taiwanese identity indicate that only 3.4% consider themselves Chinese, while 58.2% see themselves as "Taiwanese." The majority of respondents began expressing their Taiwanese identity in 1995, and the gap widened after 1997.
Syaru Shirley Lin, professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and herself Taiwanese, said Hong Kong after the handover "should have been a shining city on a hill. But that all has gone away. 'One country, two systems' has no appeal to Taiwan," she said.
The changes in Hong Kong under Chinese rule are an issue that many young Taiwanese care about as well. Michael Liao, a 26 year-old graduate student at National Taiwan University, expressed fears over Hong Kong's political future. "Over the past few years, we saw how China has tightened its grip, and how Hong Kong people are treated by China. ... China really wants to control Hong Kong in a stricter way, politically," Liao said. "I think what Hong Kong people have experienced in the past few years really could give a lesson to Taiwan."
Taiwanese Premier Lin Chuan told the Nikkei Asian Review in an exclusive interview on June 23: "Hong Kong will only have a bright future if China allows Hong Kong to keep its society democratic and open."
His boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, was instrumental in formulating the current law that governs Taiwan's relationship with Hong Kong and Macau when she was an academic in the mid-1990s. The law stipulates that Taiwan provide "necessary assistance" to residents of the two Chinese territories, when their security and freedom are under imminent threat for "political reasons."
Nikkei staff writer Debby Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.