Written by Alex Calvo.

After reporting from East Asia dominated by clashes at sea for weeks, the trip to Taiwan by Zhang Zhijun seemed to offer a glimpse of hope for the peaceful resolution of the myriad disputes haunting the region. The minister for the PRC’s State Council-level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) is not only the highest-ranking communist official to visit the Island to date, but met with Chen Chu, a member of the DPP and current mayor of Kaohsiung, while focusing on Southern Taiwan, where support for formal independence has traditionally been highest. Thus, in addition to deploying a new and powerful brand of public diplomacy, Zhang seemed to go straight to the heart of the matter, bypassing an administration seen by many as too close to Beijing for comfort, and engaging those segments of the population and political organizations more reluctant to closer ties to the People’s Republic.

It would be unfair to deny that, in doing so, Zhang is indeed breaking new ground. The question is, however, are we talking only about form or also about substance? Does Beijing’s willingness to directly engage those in favour of formal independence signal a new approach to Taiwan, or is it just a public-relations exercise behind which no real policy change can be observed? While it may be too soon to answer this question, and to be fair Zhang deservers the benefit of the doubt, events in Hong Kong are casting a long shadow on Chinese policy towards Taiwan. In a badly-timed move, Beijing’s publication of a white paper on ‘One Country, Two Systems’ (designed for Taiwan and applied in Hong Kong) and Chinese harsh words on HK’s unofficial ‘Occupy Central’ referendum (plus the seizing of voting materials at the border) could be seen by the Taiwanese as proof that, should they accept renouncing formal independence and somehow coming to be under Beijing’s umbrella there would be no real guarantee for whatever degree of autonomy the Island was promised.

This is actually one of the main problems for Beijing in dealing with Taiwan. Having tasted democracy, the people of the Island are unlikely to settle for a return to the old days, when somebody else (be it the Qing, the Japanese, or the KMT) decided for them. This does not, in and by itself, rule out unification with China, but it means that such unification would have to be democratically decided by voters and that one of the conditions would likely be the preservation of a democratic political system in the Island. We must note, in this regard, that we can observe a growing trend to support democracy and the Island’s right to decide her own future among those most closely attached to a pan-Chinese cultural identity. This brings a number of questions. First, would Beijing be open to accepting Taiwan as an actor and her population as in charge of deciding whether to join China? Second, if an agreement was reached, what guarantees would Taiwan have that it would be respected? Third, would recognizing Taiwan’s self-determination in exchange for the Island joining China mean that such right would survive and be open to future exercise, or would it be a one-off instance of a population voting on her future once and for all?

These may all be interesting questions for lawyers and political scientists, but Hong Kong’s existence and in particular her ‘One Country, Two Systems’ status mean that they are not just theoretical questions. Whatever Beijing may offer Taiwan, the people of the Island are going to look across to Hong Kong for a glimpse of what life in China may be. Unless the former British territory is seen as enjoying democracy and a high degree of autonomy, it is unlikely that people in Taiwan will settle for a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ solution, leaving Beijing no choice but to either use force to terminate the island’s de facto independence or renounce claims to it.

It is here that the white paper on ‘The Practice of the “One Country, Two Systems” Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’ seems to have torpedoed Zhang Zhijun’s best efforts. Coming hot on the heels of the assertion by Fan Liqing (spokesman for the TAO) that Taiwan’s future would be decided by all Chinese, and not just the 24 million people on the island, the paper contains a number of statements that seem to confirm suspicions that the PRC sees Hong Kong’s (and thus Taiwan’s, under a hypothetical future settlement) autonomy as founded on a unilateral grant, not a bilateral agreement, and furthermore subject to unilateral revision by Beijing. The following excerpts make this clear: ‘”One country, two systems” is the basic state policy the Chinese government has adopted’ (p. 1) [no mention of the people of Hong Kong or of Her Majesty’s Government], the PRC is ‘a unitary state’ (p. 41), and ‘The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership’, being ‘subject to the level of the central leadership’s authorization’ with ‘no such thing called “residual power”’ (p. 41). We could add the reminder that ‘The Basic Law provides that the power of interpretation of the Basic Law shall be vested in the NPC Standing Committee, and the power of amendment shall be vested in the NPC’. Finally, we have the injunction on ‘Hong Kong People Who Govern Hong Kong’ to be ‘Above All … Patriotic’ and the listing among them of ‘judges of the courts at different levels and other judicial personnel’ (p. 46), widely interpreted as questioning judicial independence and which prompted a 1,800-strong silent march by lawyers on 27 June.

While such assertions may seem natural and acceptable in Beijing, they are unlikely to go very far in attracting Taiwanese public opinion. By questioning the foundations of HK’s status and attacking the concept of the people of Hong Kong as ultimate arbiters of their own future, Beijing has cast a long shadow on Zhang Zhijun’s otherwise innovative and probably well-meaning trip to Taiwan. The connection between the Island and Hong Kong does not go unnoticed to any informed observer. No matter what Beijing says, and how she says it, her actions in the former British territory are likely to be taken much more seriously by the people of Taiwan as an indication of what may await them if they agree to or are forced into PRC sovereignty than any gesture or statement.

To conclude, while Beijing’s decision to send a top official to Taiwan to engage with the public in traditionally pro-independence areas and to meet the mayor of Kaohsiung marks, without a doubt, a break from past practices, the simultaneous questioning of the foundations of Hong Kong’s status and the aggressive attitude toward the unofficial ‘Occupy Central’ referendum cast a long shadow on the possibility of convincing the Taiwanese to accept PRC sovereignty under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula. More than ever, Chinese policy towards Hong Kong and towards Taiwan are intertwined, and no amount of spin and public diplomacy can change that.

Alex Calvo is Guest Professor at the Law Department of Nagoya University (Japan), specializing in security and defence in Asia.  He tweets @Alex__Calvo.