Written by Alex Calvo.

The ideological foundations of China’s 1911 Revolution and previous attempts to overthrow the Qing rested, among other things, on three pillars: modernization, recovery of full sovereignty, and setting up a modern nation-state. All of these were connected to a great extent, historically and ideologically, to Hong Kong and Taiwan. When the Communist regime decided to move away from Mao’s legacy and shift to a more balanced economic model and a return to the world stage, once again Hong Kong and Taiwan loomed large in Beijing’s radar.

The ideological instrument designed to bring about the reintegration of both territories, the “One Country, Two Systems” concept, succeeded at first in providing ideological cover for the transfer of Hong Kong and with a pro-Chinese government in Taipei seemed, for a while, a realistic prospect across the Strait. However, Beijing’s impatience in Hong Kong, the city’s growing democratic maturity, and the realization in Taiwan (ironically to some extent thanks to growing economic and personal exchanges following the normalization of relations) that the island’s hard-won democratization would not survive annexation, have cast a shadow over the concept. Right now, to all practical purposes, we can say that “One Country, Two Systems” is dead as a template for the future of Greater China.

Hong Kong and Taiwan both played a significant, and to some extent contradictory role in the emergence of the modern Chinese nation-state. On the one hand, they showed the way ahead. It was in Hong Kong that Sun Yat-sen realized the potential of the Chinese nation, under the rule of law and stable, moderate government. Later, under a less liberal but equally stable and modernizing foreign domination, Taiwan would equally shine in comparison with a chaos in China. This point was quickly stressed by Japanese commentators wishing to gain international acceptance for Tokyo’s expansion and this diplomatic effort was to a great extent successful, although later similar efforts with regard to Manchuria will be met with rejection. Japan’s defeat opened the way to the unification of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland under a single regime, but this proved to be short-lived, and the Communist victory in the Civil War meant that, once again, the Strait of Taiwan would become the border between two very different realities. Yet again, however, the impact on China’s national project was much more nuanced than it may have seemed at a first sight. While both the CCP and the KMT decried the resulting division, “exile” in Taiwan finally gave the latter the chance to carry out its modernizing project.

Secure from external threats thanks to the American security umbrella after the outbreak of the Korean War, and safe from domestic challenges after the “white terror” decapitated potential indigenous opposition, the KMT was finally able to launch a major economic modernization program, which proved successful. Ruling over a much smaller, more compact, territory facilitated its task, while the departure of the Japanese meant that policies such as agrarian reform, which the KMT had failed to enact in China, could now be implemented without the need to confront powerful lobbies. For the CCP, once the decision to move away from Mao’s radical policies had been taken, both Hong Kong and Taiwan provided templates on how to move forward on the economic front without losing political control. It thus came as no surprise that the earliest special economic zones were located across Hong Kong and opposite Taiwan. It was not just a matter of attracting human and financial capital, but of using cross-border economic integration as the first step from which to progress toward political unification. Prussia had played a similar game with her Zollverein, which together with limited war and prudent diplomacy (the third leg is missing in Beijing’s strategy, Bismarck always ensured the diplomatic isolation of his targets before striking) would result in the Second German Reich.

Bringing back Hong Kong into the Chinese fold was achieved through negotiation. While this seemed to give Beijing what she wanted, there was a price to pay, both in form and contents. In terms of form, a bilateral treaty, known as the “Joint Declaration”. Let us repeat the name, since the first words seems to have been forgotten by many: “Joint Declaration”. With regard to content, a limited and gradual, yet very real, democratization. Ironically, the continuation and consolidation of a process that Beijing itself, with the 1967 riots and the resulting British reaction widening the social, economic, and political appeal of London’s rule, had prompted. At that time this may have seemed to Chinese nationalists an acceptable price to pay, at least for the time being, but the seed was planted of what is now the ultimate issue at heart of the disputes over Hong Kong’s future: whether she is a political subject, or just another portion of the Chinese nation and thus unable to determine her future on her own.

This year’s Chinese white paper on Hong Kong makes it clear that for the CCP, the latter is the correct view, and that any degree of autonomy is nothing more than a unilateral concession, liable to be withdrawn or amended at will. Meanwhile, the relative decline in the weight of Hong Kong’s economy means that Beijing is less likely to be persuaded to moderate her position out of financial considerations. What this illustrates is that the “One Country, Two Systems” approach was not seen by the CCP as embodying some sort of Federal China, with a guarantee of autonomy for Hong Kong and wide scope for the territory to follow her own social and cultural policies, under a largely democratic system. Rather, it was simply a pragmatic way to first replace the British without London losing too much face, second integrate more closely Hong Kong’s and China’s economy and thereby boost the latter’s modernization, and finally start to gradually absorb the territory, putting to rest what for Beijing was largely a temporal anomaly.

The problem with Beijing’s ideal path is that it is being increasingly contested in Hong Kong, and not just by her vocal students, and that this in turn is feeding pre-existing suspicions in Taiwan. If the former was supposed to be a template for the latter, then the change of rules by Beijing, the sidestepping of the “joint” in the “Joint Declaration” and the naked formal assertion that any autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong is merely a unilateral concession, liable to amendment or termination, amount to a torpedo against any hopes that this could be the ultimate key to a settlement in the Taiwan Strait. Even those Taiwanese who may welcome some sort of integration with China are likely to baulk at the prospect of its shape and depth being unilaterally determined by Beijing.

Union and unity are two very different concepts, and favouring the former does not necessarily mean accepting the latter. In the Straits of Taiwan, union would mean two equals deciding to share power in a single internationally-recognized state, without renouncing the possibility of later withdrawing, in accordance with the principle of self-determination. Unity, on the other hand, would mean stating that Taiwan is not a nation on her own, just part of a bigger Chinese nation, and that therefore once under Beijing the Island would no longer be able to take any further decisions on her future. This may after all have always been part of the “One Country, Two Systems” concept, but there was no need to stress it so explicitly. By playing her hand too early in Hong Kong, before a pro-unification consensus could be reached in Taiwan, Beijing has significantly damaged the prospects for any such consensus. While this does not necessarily spell the end of her dreams of taking over, or at least the Finlandization of Taiwan, it means that military, as opposed to political, means will loom larger in her planning.

From a Taiwanese perspective, this prompts the question whether the necessary bipartisan and wider social consensus can be reached on which to build a strong defence policy. From a Chinese perspective, the ultimate question is whether China’s painful move from empire to nation state and the recovery of her lost status and development of her own brand of democracy can take place without, or even against, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The answer to this question, and to related ones such as whether China is a political or a cultural nation or civilization, may be one of the key defining issues in 21st Century Asia.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: CC by alveaux/Flickr.