The protests in Hong Kong pit the forces of Xi Jinping’s China against Hong Kong’s implacable public opinion in favor of democracy and the rule of law. The tension between them has the world on a knife’s edge. Hong Kong is a major financial and media capital. Its movement symbolises resistance to advancing authoritarianism around the world. Whatever the eventual outcome, however, the protests already represent a major strategic failure for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Comparing the strategy delineated by Deng Xiaoping with the contemporary situation reveals this failure.
Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader amidst the upheavals of the late 1970s following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. His economic reforms unbound the Chinese economy, allowing it to reach global competitiveness. He also sought to “reunify” China with the colonies of Hong Kong and Macao, as well as the self-governing island of Taiwan. All had once been part of China during its imperial past, but never part of the People’s Republic of China. Deng’s strategy proposed to use the idea of a single country with two socio-economic systems to lure Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Coming as Deng reformed the Chinese economy, “One country, Two systems” as it was called, seemed like a useful compromise, a tacit acceptance of greater pluralism. As a strategy, it was initially effective. It helped convince the British government to return the entirety of its Hong Kong territories to China in 1997, and Portugal to return Macao in 1999. However, “One country, Two systems” was never intended to be for former European colonies alone. When Deng described the plan in June of 1984, he said “we have proposed to solve the Hong Kong and Taiwan problems by allowing two systems to coexist in one country”. Despite no agreement, or even formal negotiations, with Taiwan, Deng confidently predicted that Taiwan would follow the same path as Hong Kong. “The mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system”, he said.
As a central preoccupation of CCP propaganda since the 1949 revolution, incorporating Taiwan into the PRC would help legitimize the regime for many Chinese people. Deng repeatedly linked Hong Kong and Taiwan, mentioning Taiwan whenever he discussed the return of Hong Kong. “One country, Two systems” was a “a means of settling the Taiwan and Hong Kong questions” after decades of uncertainty, Deng said. He even entertained the idea of a looser unification with Taiwan. He said Taiwan might become a special administrative region that maintained its own army. Deng continued to connect the fates of Taiwan and Hong Kong into the 1990s.
Deng emphasized that the CCP was willing to allow separate systems to persist. The CCP would allow the political and economic freedoms of Hong Kong and Taiwan to “remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this”. The theory was that even if Taiwan would not immediately negotiate inception into the PRC, when it saw that Hong Kong’s political and economic freedoms were maintained, it would soften and accept. In 1987, Deng remarked that Hong Kong, under “One country, Two systems” and its constitution, the Basic Law, would “serve as a model for … Taiwan”. Deng’s successor as paramount leader, Jiang Zemin, used similar language in his message to the Taiwanese people. To this day, Xi Jinping and the CCP openly envision a unification with Taiwan based on “One country, Two systems”. Yet, Chinese leaders consistently attempt to undermine Hong Kong’s system, whether by “patriotic education”, kidnapping booksellers, denying the people of Hong Kong suffrage, or gutting Hong Kong’s independent judiciary via the current extradition bill. This summer’s protests, with their broad public support, aim to reverse the tide. They have been united by violent, clumsy attempts at suppression by the Hong Kong police.
Hong Kongers perceived the intensifying erosion of political rights over the last decade. The most recent survey shows the percentage of Hong Kong people identifying as “Chinese” and “Citizens of the PRC” at record lows, while Hong Kong identity is at its highest point since the 1997 handover. Research by Linda Li and Christoph Steinhardt published last year by the City University of Hong Kong showed that opinions of the Chinese central government are a highly significant factor in how Hong Kongers view their identity. The proposed extradition bill caused notable capital flight from Hong Kong to Singapore and elsewhere.
The extradition bill and protests clarified the issue in Taiwan. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen supports a more independent stance regarding China. Her political fortunes were in deep doubt earlier this year. She was challenged for her party’s nomination. Now her poll numbers have solidified and her re-election next year looks more likely. The protests have quieted those that sought to tighten relations with the mainland. The major candidates to replace Tsai have all expressed opposition to “One country, Two systems”. Taiwan’s legislature passed a resolution that expressed Taiwanese support for the Hong Kong protesters and chastised the Hong Kong authorities for their use of force. There have been multiple solidarity protests, including the largest pro-Hong Kong protest ever in Taiwan. Most notably, opposition to “One Country, Two Systems” in Taiwan has increased more than ten percent to 88% since March.
In October of 1984, shortly after signing the joint agreement with the UK that would return Hong Kong to China, Deng Xiaoping spoke to visitors from Hong Kong and Macao. He reiterated his support for “One country, Two systems” as a way of accepting Taiwan and Hong Kong into China without conflict. “In the agreement we stated that no change would be made for 50 years, and we mean it. There will be no changes in my generation or in the next”. Now that the CCP has broken that promise, the rupture with Taiwan that began seven decades ago seems nearly complete. Nor, as the protests make clear, are Hong Kongers willing to accept the robbery of their political rights. The unification strategy of “One country, Two systems” failed due to the CCP’s unwillingness to abide the dissent inherent in a second, non-authoritarian, system. The CCP’s only route to unification is violent conquest. As Wang Ting-yu, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee of Taiwan’s Legislature recently said, “Only two countries can have two systems”.
Michael Rowand is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in USA Today, War is Boring, and other publications. In 2015, after several years living in China and South Korea, he completed an MSc in the History of International Relations at LSE. He is a current graduate student in modern Chinese studies at Oxford University.