China’s Xi Jinping has embraced a more assertive approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan, writes Steve Tsang. But this approach will likely prove counterproductive.

By Steve Tsang, Jan. 4, 2017

China’s government is concerned that Hong Kong and Taiwan are moving further away from its orbit.  With its power and influence reaching a new height globally, the Xi Jinping administration has made it clear that it requires both Hong Kong and Taiwan to embrace “mother China.”  Taking an assertive approach demanding them to comply is counter-productive, however.

Beijing is worried about Hong Kong because of the appearance of a demand among its young people for self-determination, which is regarded as a nascent independence movement.  Any such movement is deemed by the Chinese Communist Party as an assault on the “core national interest” and therefore unacceptable.

The Chinese objective is to nip this in the bud and pre-empt the young people of Hong Kong from developing a real independence movement.  Therefore, even before the 19th Party Congress top leaders like Zhang Dejiang openly warn them against using the Chinese promise of a “high degree of autonomy” as a basis to “confront” the Chinese state.

Hardly any Chinese official in Hong Kong who has his finger on the pulse now dares to question the wisdom of the top leaders.

Beijing works on the assumption that the young activists can be intimidated into submission, or their parents can be frightened to restrain them.  This is meant to be supplemented by a scheme of “patriotic education” or brainwashing, probably reinforced by a new national security law that defines what are unacceptable.

The Chinese government cannot be more wrong.  It is making its Hong Kong policy regardless of the reality on the ground.  This failure reflects in part a tightening of control under Xi Jinping, as Chinese officials became less and less willing to contradict senior leaders on important policy matters.  Hardly any Chinese official in Hong Kong who has his finger on the pulse now dares to question the wisdom of the top leaders.

While a local sense of identity has long been in the making in Hong Kong, the advent of a clarion call for self-determination is a new development.  It did not exist five years ago.  It came about when the local desire for choosing their Chief Executive through a democratic electoral process was extinguished by the Chinese government, and the Hong Kong government departed from the norm and used excessive force against demonstrators in the Occupy Central protests of 2014.

In an important sense the young people’s call for self-determination is an unintended consequence of an earlier Chinese policy to tighten control over Hong Kong.

Unlike their parents’ generation who witnessed the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, the young people of Hong Kong do not really understand what the Chinese government would do to its own citizens in order to stay in power. Educated to think for and believe in themselves, they do not respond to intimidation in the way the Chinese state expects.

By ignoring the unintended effect of their own policy and putting the blame on the young people of Hong Kong, the increasingly forceful Chinese policy will only put Hong Kong-Mainland relations in a vicious circle. Chinese intimidation breeds resistance in Hong Kong, which causes heightened concern in Beijing and a perceived need to tighten control further. As this goes on, tragedy looms closer.

Unlike their parents’ generation who witnessed the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, the young people of Hong Kong do not really understand what the Chinese government would do to its own citizens in order to stay in power.

Chinese leaders can break this vicious circle by working with the Hong Kong people to reinstate a mutually tolerable framework, under the original conception of “one country, two systems,” and allowing Hong Kong to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy.”  The political reality is that Hong Kong’s survival as a Special Administrative Region will be put at risk should it elect a Chief Executive unacceptable to Beijing.  Hong Kong citizens understand this.  Allowing them to elect their own Chief Executive is therefore no more likely to return a politician hostile to Beijing than the current convoluted selection process that carries little credibility and repeatedly puts in office Chief Executives who fall short.

The best way to take the wind out of the sail of Hong Kong’s nascent movement for self-determination is to make it unnecessary.  Proscribing it will not make it disappear.

What underpins China’s approach towards Hong Kong is also driving its policy towards Taiwan. The Chinese government chooses to see the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei as inherently unfriendly and untrustworthy.  It consequently demands Tsai publicly accept China’s terms for good relations.

There are Chinese officials who understand this is unwise and unnecessary.  At her inauguration as President over a year ago, Tsai went out of her way to acknowledge the historical events of 1992 which provided a basis for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to fudge their differences and avoid confrontation.  This in essence is what former Taiwan official Su Chi called “the 1992 consensus.” Tsai did not use the magic phrase but she said she would respect this history and what it implies. The carefully calibrated immediate responses from the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office showed that her effort was understood and appreciated.

However, once the Chinese leadership decided to require Tsai to accept the Chinese definition of “the 1992 consensus” as a precondition for keeping cross-Strait relations on an even kneel, working-level Chinese officials all fell in line. Beijing then punished Taiwan for electing Tsai, by dramatically reducing the number of Chinese tourists to Taiwan and by mounting pressure on third states to humiliate Taiwan internationally.

In so doing the Chinese have ignored the reality on the ground.  To begin with, Tsai has not actually departed in a significant way from her Kuomintang predecessor’s mainland policy or taken actions to provoke Beijing.  “The 1992 consensus,” which President Ma Ying-jeou embraced, was an agreement to disagree.  The “one China principle” he supported was the Kuomintang version, which does not include accepting PRC jurisdiction over Taiwan.  He never accepted the PRC version by which Taiwan is part of China under the Communist Party; nor did Beijing ask this of him.  Tsai respects the realities of the 1992 arrangement and embraces her position as President of the Republic of China as much as Ma. But Beijing is not satisfied. It requires Tsai to accept publicly its version of “the 1992 consensus.”

“The 1992 consensus,” which President Ma Ying-jeou embraced, was an agreement to disagree.

In democratic Taiwan any leader who openly accepts the Chinese definition of “the 1992 consensus” and “one China principle” commits electoral suicide.  Tsai cannot do so.  This does not imply her administration is hostile to Beijing.  Indeed, a DPP administration in Taipei is not inherently anti-China, as it cannot risk a rupture in cross-Strait relations, which will have catastrophic consequences.

By making an impossible demand of the Tsai administration, the Chinese government achieves the opposite of what it desires. Instead of persuading the Tsai administration to work closely with itself, as happened under President Ma, its strident policy pushes the current government further away.

While the Tsai administration will continue to respond in a restrained way in order to limit the damage on Taiwanese interest, the young people of Hong Kong are likely to push back.  Beijing holds the initiative in both cases.  It has the scope to ease pressure on Hong Kong and thus avoid a slow-motion train crash, and ease pressure on Tsai and avoid a cross-strait confrontation.  It is indeed in the interest of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the rest of the world that it would do so. But there is no sign that President Xi will act accordingly.

Steve Tsang is Director of the China Institute, SOAS University of London, UK.