Demonstrations not welcome, no matter how peaceful. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images
Demonstrations not welcome, no matter how peaceful. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Fear of China’s growing influence over Taiwan drove thousands of students to occupy Taiwan’s national legislature earlier this year. Such anxiety isn't theoretical. It’s real, embodied in the compromises made by Taiwan's unification-minded government and, more important, in Hong Kong, where, since 1997, Chinese influence and power has grown at the expense of the city’s unique laissez-faire culture. Especially for Taiwan’s younger generation, that’s something to fear. “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan,” they chanted as they stormed the legislature.

In another context, “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan” would be music to the ears of a China that continues to view Taiwan as a renegade province that must be returned to the mainland (by force, if necessary). But that’s not the current context: Rather, China -- and Taiwan -- are carefully watching as Hong Kong’s citizens vote in a nonbinding referendum run by a pro-democracy group (not the government) on how Hong Kong’s next chief executive should be elected. China still promises universal suffrage for the vote, scheduled for 2017 -- except it insists on nominating all the candidates. The referendum, meanwhile, asks voters to choose among three different methods for nominating candidates, all of which give the public, not China, the primary role in selecting them. Since the poll started on June 20 (it ends June 29), more than 700,000 Hong Kong people have voted.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government promptly decided to wave off opinions contrary to its own and declared the poll “illegal” via its state-owned newswire. (Even less surprising, discussion of the poll on mainland Chinese blogs and microblogs has been censored.)

Meanwhile, the country's most prominent editorial pages have been so busy overreacting to the referendum that it seems possible that nobody in their newsrooms understands the meaning of “nonbinding.” Take, for example, the state-owned Global Times newspaper, which wrote on Monday:

The opposition groups and their overseas supporters have overestimated the effect of an illegal farce. Neither China's central government nor the Hong Kong government will admit the results of the poll. It would be ridiculous to determine the direction of Hong Kong's political reform with this informal referendum.

Yet there are hints from Beijing, and passages in that editorial, that deserve to be taken seriously as statements of policy -- if not as stated threats. Under the 1984 agreement with the U.K. that led to Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, the city was to be ruled under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that provides the city with substantial autonomy in its internal affairs. In recent weeks, China has made clear that such autonomy is subject to China's whims. According to the Global Times, China’s current (unenforced) whim is that spontaneous expressions of democracy, such as Hong Kong’s referendum, will lead to mass disorder:

As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong can't launch any referendum without the authority of the central government. The country would fall into tumult if all regions conducted similar referendums.

It’s a telling statement, especially for Taiwanese who already fear that their island’s deepening relationship with the mainland is eroding what is unique about their culture and democracy. Would Taiwan, if it reunified with China, find its binding elections subject to China’s approval? Would its elections be seen as a source of “tumult"?

The person perhaps best placed to answer that question is Zhang Zhijun, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, who arrived in Taiwan on Wednesday for the first ministerial-level visit by a Chinese official since 1949. The purpose, Zhang said Thursday, is to acquire a grassroots-level view of cross-straits relations. Presumably, the protesters outside his hotel are helping. Zhang, meanwhile, has said nothing to indicate that his intentions are anything but friendly.

But for those Taiwanese wondering if his smile conceals something less sincere, they need only look to a menacing Global Times editorial timed to Zhang’s visit. "The mainland should hold firm to the belief that strength makes reality,” the paper instructed its readers on the topic of cross-straits ties. “To make Taiwan sense the strength of the mainland, the mainland should try to find a carrot-and-stick strategic pattern.”

For the moment, neither the carrot nor the stick have manifested themselves. But when they do, it’s assured that the Taiwan of tomorrow is going to start looking a lot more like the supposedly autonomous Hong Kong of today.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.