Vishal Ranjan And Sonu Trivedi

Hong Kong and Taiwan: A Chinese tale of two cities

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

How is China to deal with Taiwan and Hong Kong, the site of spurts of pro-democracy protests? One key approach is to put people, not politics, first

In the latter half of last year, the Communist Party of China, the assorted political elite and the wider strategic community could not have remained unperturbed by the turn of events in their own backyard.

In a way somewhat reminiscent of Tiananmen, Hong Kong's central business district fell siege to a wave of pro-democracy protests spearheaded by the student community - and joined by the local citizenry - paralysing daily business and non-business activities alike.

What would have surely set off the Chinese further were the polls outcomes of local bodies in Taiwan soon after in November, foreshadowing a more intensified anti-unification challenge from the island territory. For a country increasingly heralded as the emerging superpower, this has been a twin setback, casting doubts over the eventual fructification of the Greater China project.

Fundamentally, the Chinese are faced with three key questions.

One, what exactly was the trigger setting off such a chain of events?

Two, whether the Chinese political elite could have anticipated them and, if they had, could they have outpaced and forestalled such developments?

And three, what are the possible policy options that the Chinese are left with in order to be able to stem or even reverse this trend?

What triggered these incidents?

THE immediate spark was the demand for a genuine universal franchise seeking the direct election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in the 2017 election, against China's proposal for a handpicked electoral committee screening the candidates.

But this was not the first time the people of Hong Kong had shown signs of resistance. In 2003, protests erupted over attempted stringent anti-subversion laws and, in 2012, against propagandist patriotic education.

Despite its long-thriving financial hub status, the fruits of growth in Hong Kong seem to have bypassed the larger population - particularly in recent years - compounding the widening rich-poor divide and thereby stoking pro-democracy and, in effect, anti-China sentiments.

Adding fuel to this seething cauldron is a growing public perception that the government's policy preference is disproportionately more inclined towards the business community (financial services and real estate) and far from the ordinary people.

Similarly, the election results of Taiwanese local bodies overwhelmingly "voting out" the Kuomintang (KMT) have been attributed to the ineptitude of President Ma Ying Jeou's government in handling issues that the local populace are reeling from: sluggish wage growth, inflation, poor food safety and rising socio-economic inequality, among others.

The increasing realisation that the government was striking an overly pro-business posture exemplified in the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China, perhaps unfairly benefiting the business classes across the Strait, made the situation a combustible mixture of anti-business and anti-China sentiments. Questions over deficit in governance eventually turn into questions over legitimacy of government and that is where China needs to be most worried.

Could China have anticipated and forestalled them?

IN ALL likelihood, the Chinese would have had a sense of what was to come - also in view of the surge in popular "movements from below" around the world in recent years - but could either do nothing about it or chose to do nothing about it.

At best, the political elite in Beijing may have advised and helped the Hong Kong administration to astutely "wait out" the Occupy Central movement, which was seen through without much drama or violence.

In view of the earlier Sunflower movement, Taiwan would have been easier for the Chinese to predict but harder to prevent, since it is one thing to attract the political and business elite from above (with policy inducements and direct material benefits) and quite another to win over the hearts and minds of the hoi polloi.

Quite certainly, the Chinese could not have prevented or influenced how the locals voted one way or another in their own elections. The fact that a pro-unification KMT was in power would have been a double-edged sword for the Chinese - helping to foresee events better but, at the same time, injecting a sense of complacency in their approach.

What are China's policy options?

IN THE case of Hong Kong, Beijing suffers from a colonial hangover in the people's minds of appearing like an overbearing substitute for British imperial power.

Chinese policy strategists need to create a counter-narrative about the role and intent of the Chinese Communist Party. One policy stance it can take to win the goodwill of ordinary Hongkongers is to contain or regulate the inflows of mainlanders into Hong Kong.

This would help preserve the unique political, demographic and cultural heritage of Hong Kong. This will also reduce the scrambling for slots in schools and universities as well as hospital beds in maternity wards.

Another useful policy is to stop the practice of using mainland Mandarin to replace the Cantonese dialect as a medium of instruction and communication in the daily lives of the people.

It is significant that recent protest marches did not feature strong anti-Chinese people vitriol. Instead, public ire was directed mainly at the governments, of Hong Kong and China alike.

As the economic balance of power shifts towards China away from Hong Kong, Chinese policy planners have to ensure that ordinary Hongkongers get a reasonable "deal" out of any commercial agreement with the Hong Kong administration.

China's leaders also have to persuade the ordinary people of Hong Kong that the security benefits of staying within China's framework far outweigh the loss of any economic advantages that could arise if the relationship sours.

But most of all, the Chinese political class has to realise that only about a third of the agreed-upon period of 50 years has elapsed. Any attempt to force the pace of transition might just backfire in the long run.

Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British in 1997, following an agreement that the "one country, two systems" political structure would remain intact for 50 years.

As for Taiwan, China has to recognise that Taiwan today is different from the Taiwan that was.

It has evolved as a multi-party democratic polity, with a distinct cultural identity. Given that a major political party like the Democratic Progressive Party with a support base of almost half of Taiwan is avowedly anti-unification, Taiwanisation of Taiwan's democratic polity would be a bigger concern than democracy itself. Taiwanisation means that more and more people, in particular the younger generation, see themselves as Taiwanese first, and then as Chinese.

So one way forward is for China to introduce long-term programmes to induce ordinary Taiwanese to identify themselves psychologically and politically as Chinese first and Taiwanese second.

This requires Taiwanese national character needs to be deftly and subtly assimilated within and subordinated to the greater Chinese story. Maintenance of close reins by China on Taiwanese cultural imports until now - lest they "negatively" influence Chinese people - needs to be re-looked. The authorities need to contemplate the option of lifting restrictions on cultural flows, especially because the alternative hasn't succeeded.

China also has to ensure that the interests of ordinary Taiwanese people are not forsaken at the altar of trans-strait relations. This requires China to diversify its engagement with the Taiwanese political class in a spirit of bipartisanship, and not confined to engaging the KMT.

In sum, China needs a more finessed approach in handling both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Each is a distinct territory with its own history, legal status and needs. The one commonality in approaching both is to pay more heed to the concerns of ordinary people in the territories and assure them their interests will not be sacrificed to larger corporate, business or political interests.

Doing that, however, will not be easy for a Chinese state long unused to putting citizens' interests first.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Vishal Ranjan is a research scholar affiliated with Jawaharlal Nehru University and Sonu Trivedi teaches political science at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi.