A couple of days ago I commented on the potential for Sino-American conflict in the South China Seas to flare up into real combat. It is a potential, but, I think, an improbable threat to peace … cooler heads, on both sides, will prevail, I believe, and stop any escalations (which are likely) well short of war. There is, I think, a more serious problem in East Asia: the reunification of Taiwan into China, and one of the keys to that is Hong Kong and, especially, how China manages the “one country – two systems” regime it put in place back in 1987.
Hong Kong, from where this blog is being written this winter, is in the midst of an election. We, Canadians, might well be envious of the quality of candidate that Hong Kong’s chief executive post attracts. The two leaders are Carrie Lam, who was the most senior civil servant in Hong Kong ~ the equivalent of our Clerk of the Privy Council, and John Tsang who was something akin to our Deputy Minister of Finance. Ms Lam is the more qualified but she is also seen as being Beijing’s choice and that, in large measure, makes Mr Tsang the more popular.
But the real issue is not which of these two exceptionally able individuals will lead Hong Kong; it how they and, for the next 20 years, their successors will “manage” Beijing. And that matters because how Hong Kong “manages” Beijing may we mean the difference between war and peace in Taiwan.
“One country – two systems” is the key. Taiwan will accept reunification, eventually, if they have full confidence that “two systems” means that their system, which is more democratic than Hong Kong’s, will be the second system and that Beijing will honour its commitment. But “one country – two systems” is anathema to many Chinese, especially to the last surviving Maoists. It implies that there is something less than perfect with the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. (Those people are a bit like Team Trudeau who must ensure that anything and everything Justin Trudeau ever said about anything, including expressing his admiration for the Chinese dictatorship, always was and still is right.) But almost everyone in China, even the few remaining hardliners in the Zhongnanhai, the HQ of the CCP and the government in Beijing (right adjacent to the Forbidden City), wants Hong Kong to work, but some cannot abide “two systems.” Of course, no one should actually like “two systems,” but it is a simple fact that the Mainland Chinese system is not good enough for Hong Kong or Taiwan or for 21st century China, for that matter … not if they want to remain bastions of free market capitalism. Former Hong Kong First Secretary Anson Chan quipped, back in the 1980s, that Hong Kong didn’t want or need 50 years to “join” China, but China needed that time to join, to become much more like Hong Kong, to become more and more and more honest and open and law abiding … like Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The mystery is: why does Xi Jinping keep allowing the old hard-line, “party” men in his government to keep trying to crush the very things that make Hong Kong work so well and make “one country – two systems” acceptable to Taiwan? Does he need their support to continue with his programme to reform China? or does he actually agree with them and is he, therefore, willing to fight to regain Taiwan?
I hope it is the former, but I acknowledge that some Chinese think that they can attack and subdue Taiwan before America and its Asian allies can respond.
I believe that Taiwan wants and needs to reunite with China … under the right conditions. (I understand that some Chinese in Taiwan and many native Formosans disagree.) The right conditions include “one country – two systems” wherein the second system is a robust, Taiwan style, elected democracy coupled with Hong Kong style rule of law.
I also believe that waging war to regain Taiwan will run counter to China’s long term strategic interests and, therefore, I suspect (just hope?) that it is not part of Xi Jinping’s plan.