Occupy Central has unnerved mainland authorities with threats to shut down the island's business district this fall.  Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Occupy Central has unnerved mainland authorities with threats to shut down the island's business district this fall.  Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How do you woo a renegade province? If you’re Yu Zhengsheng, a high-ranking Politburo member often described China’s top political advisor, you do so by assuring the renegades that you really, truly do understand why they might resist your embrace. Consider what Yu had to say at a recent forum to promote exchanges between the mainland and Taiwan, the independent-minded island that the Chinese government badly wants to call its own:

“We understand the mentality Taiwan compatriots have developed under special historical conditions; we respect their identification with the current social system, values and lifestyle; and we know that some friends still harbor misgivings on the development of the cross-Strait relations.”

The statement certainly sounds reasonable (though some may reasonably pause over the temporary-sounding phrase “current social system”), which suggests China has finally learnt the virtue of a soft touch after years of failed threats. But Taiwan isn't likely to heed Yu's honeyed words.

The reason why can be found 450 miles to the southwest in Hong Kong, where Beijing is taking exactly the opposite approach with a territory that has in fact returned to the Chinese fold. The 1984 agreement with the United Kingdom that restored Hong Kong to Chinese rule pledged that the island would be allowed a “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs,” which were ceded to China. Decisions about the local culture, economy, “life-style,” and local governance would be Hong Kong’s alone.

Most crucially, Hong Kong’s Basic Law (akin to a constitution), adopted in advance of the city’s return to China in 1997, set as a goal that the province’s chief executive be chosen by universal suffrage. In 2007, China’s national government set 2017 as the year in which this would happen. Unfortunately for Hong Kong’s voters, in 2013 China insisted that candidates who “confront” the national government would be ineligible to become chief executive, regardless of public will.

In recent months Occupy Central, a homegrown non-violent protest movement, has threatened to shut down central Hong Kong this July to force democratic concessions from Beijing. The movement, which has emerged amid rising anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong, has clearly unnerved the Chinese government. Last week authorities responded with a “white paper” clarifying its policy toward Hong Kong. It’s a blunt, hard-line document that fundamentally alters the meaning of China's promise of “one country, two systems" to both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“The ‘one country’ is the premise and basis of the ‘two systems,’” the authors declare. “And the ‘two systems’ is subordinate to and derived from ‘one country.’” Later they add, with a hint of menace, that “a socialist system by the mainland is the prerequisite and guarantee for Hong Kong's practicing capitalism and maintaining its stability and prosperity.” In other words, Hong Kong’s autonomy isn’t an inviolable principle. It’s a privilege that can be revoked at any time the central government feels its authoritarian rule is threatened.

This is not what Hong Kong was promised back in 1984, nor is it the offer Deng Xiopeng made to Taiwan back in 1979, when he suggested that “so long as Taiwan returns to the embrace of the motherland, we will respect the realities and the existing system there.” Rather, it’s a short-sighted policy change that will alienate both Hong Kongers and the students who occupied Taiwan’s legislature this spring. The latter protest movement, sparked by moves to establish closer economic ties with the mainland, took both Chinese and Taiwanese leaders by surprise. Despite China's recent attempts to charm the island through commerce and goodwill exchanges, clearly the next generation of Taiwanese remain jealous of their hard-won autonomy and much-freer political system.

A rigid line from China is almost certain to provoke more and stronger resistance in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. A better strategy would be for Beijing to get comfortable with the freedoms it's already promised to the people of Hong Kong. Its pledges to extend the same sort of flexibility and consideration to Taiwan might be a bit more believable then.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net