The unrest in Hong Kong over the past two months has attracted much international attention. However, the protests that have now erupted can ultimately be traced back to a tension between two models, the one-party authoritarian model of mainland China, and the British-style democratic model which many in Hong Kong aspire too.
Labelled as ‘brainwashing’ by opponents, a textbook named ‘The China Model’ was distributed to Hong Kong schools in 2012. The textbook stirred extreme controversy for the way it portrayed multi-party democracies as inherently chaotic and unstable, while promoting China’s one-party system as a beacon of stability and prosperity.
In the time since Britain returned Hong Kong to China, there has been increasing anxiety among Hongkongers who feel that the One Country-Two Systems model is failing to protect their democratic rights. In the last month, Hong Kong has become embroiled in protests, with up to two million citizens taking to the streets to protest against a proposed extradition law which would allow prisoners to be extradited to the mainland. Many were concerned that the law would undermine Hong Kong’s relatively independent legal system and could be used by China as a tool to stifle dissent.
While the protesters seem to have won the battle to stop the law from proceeding, the war between supporters of democracy and the Hong Kong authorities – who are heavily influenced by Beijing – is far from over. Although Hong Kong enjoys more democratic freedoms than mainland China, it is not the China Model that the protestors want to follow, but the Taiwan model.
Taiwan, while only officially recognised by a handful of nations, has essentially functioned as an independent state since the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) fled to the island in 1950 after losing the Chinese Civil War. While initially an authoritarian state, in the 80’s and 90’s Taiwan began to reform politically, holding democratic elections in 1996. The nation now enjoys a healthy multi-party democracy, with the two main parties being the ‘Blue’ KMT and the ‘Green’ Democratic People’s Party (DPP).
Taiwan’s current leader, Tsai Ing-wen, belongs to the politically liberal DPP, which has remained committed to independence from the mainland. The existence of Taiwan as a functioning independent state with a liberal democracy and thriving economy presents a major headache for Beijing. The shrill anger caused by Donald Trump’s phone call to Taiwan’s president in 2016 is an example of Beijing’s frustration at being unable to control Taiwan, the final part of its vision of a unified China.
With the great surge of nationalism that occurred after the ‘reunification’ of Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China in 1997, it was hoped by many that Taiwan would soon follow in Hong Kong’s footsteps. The One Country Two Systems model was meant to provide reassurance, not just to Hong Kong but also to Taiwan, that China would respect their democratic system and autonomy. Today, Beijing vociferously proclaims its hopes of 'national rejuvenation,’ with President Xi in January delivering a speech calling for Taiwan to join with China to end the ‘political division across the strait’.
Taiwan, however, remains resolute in its desire for independence. Many argue that One Country, Two Systems has failed to protect Hong Kong ‘s democratic characteristics which only makes Taiwan more circumspect regarding any sort of unification with Beijing. Tsai Ing- Wen’s response to Xi’s January call was an emphatic ‘No.’
Although Xi has spoke of the possibility of invasion, in reality this seems somewhat improbable. Even if the US decided not to support Taiwan, many argue that China, despite its far superior military, would still be unable to successfully conquer Taiwan. Thus, for all of China’s economic and military strength, Taiwan remains tantalisingly out of its control.
The defiance of Taiwan in the face of such adversity no doubt provides inspiration for the Hongkongers calling for change. The China Model textbook claimed that multi-party systems cause instability, but Taiwan shows that this is not necessarily true. What is more, Taiwan demonstrates that democracy can work not only in the West but also in Asian nations. If Taiwan can function as a stable democracy with a healthy economy completely independent from Chinese rule, why could Hong Kong not do the same?
The frustration with the political situation in Hong Kong shows no signs of dissipating any time soon. July 1 was the twenty-second anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, which protestors marked by storming the city’s parliament house. Graffiti in the Hong Kong Parliament defiantly proclaimed that ‘HK is not China’ in the Hong Kong Parliament.
One Country, Two Systems is supposed to remain in place for another twenty-eight years, but in the current climate it is uncertain what this will look like for the people of Hong Kong. As the tension between Beijing’s growing influence and the increasing demands for democracy seem unlikely to be resolved any time soon, the rest of the world will be watching to see how these seemingly irreconcilable tensions play out.
Callum Irving is an International Relations student at Macquarie University who has travelled extensively throughout mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.