The demise in Hong Kong of “one country, two systems” – Beijing’s constitutional arrangement with London that guaranteed its restoration of sovereignty over the British colony – should serve as a lesson for Taiwan.

This somewhat undiplomatic observation came from veteran US diplomat Stephen Young, who served as Consul General to Hong Kong while holding the rank of “ambassador” between 2010 and 2013 as well as director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de-facto embassy on the self-ruled island.

Communist Party patriarch Deng Xiaoping first mooted the “one country, two systems” concept for the return of Hong Kong as well as the future reunification of Taiwan.

By Deng’s design, “one country, two systems” would be sufficiently successful to serve as a model for resolution of the much thornier Taiwan question. That is, when they witnessed the marvelous job done of preserving Hong Kong’s preeminent status, the Taiwanese would be convinced and their doubts dispelled so that they might embrace Beijing’s sovereignty at a future date.

“From the very beginning, Taiwan’s leaders consistently rejected any such linkage. As it developed, many Taiwan friends quietly hoped that China would never pull the Hong Kong plan off, making their case for no settlement with Beijing all the stronger over time,” writes Young in the Taipei Times.

The fact back then was that most Hong Kong people decided to give things a chance, though many of them hedged their bets by obtaining citizenship status in Canada, Australia, Britain and the US. With the escape hatch of a foreign passport to fall back upon, they continued to live and work in Hong Kong after the city’s 1997 handover. Rudimentary democracy was installed in the initial years of the new Special Administrative Region.

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The US Consulate-General in Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times
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The American Institute in Taiwan. Photo: Handout

“Some felt that Hong Kong’s return to Beijing sovereignty had been so successful that its gradual transition into a fully Chinese political entity by 2047 – the year of expiry of Beijing’s guarantee of “two systems” – would become anticlimactic,” notes Young.

Young was so much of a thorn in Beijing’s side that the Chinese foreign ministry once condemned him for meddling in Hong Kong’s internal affairs when he was still posted in the city. Nor has he minced words in his comments on Beijing’s recent headstrong policy shifts regarding Hong Kong, in particular after Xi Jinping came into power in 2012.

Young laments that Xi doesn’t seem able to leave a good thing alone: Xi’s aggressive policies have drawn into question whether any promise China makes there [for Hong Kong and in the future for Taiwan] is worth the paper it is written on.

Xi fears that if he does not rein in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the influence of more liberal practices and thoughts from two locations on the doorstep of China proper will endanger the party’s authoritarian rule on the mainland.

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A file photo shows Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam taking her oath of office in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 1, 2017. Photo: Xinhua
A protester raises his umbrellas after riot police fire tear gas to disperse protesters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014. Large-scale protests calling for a fully democratic vote to choose Hong Kong's next leader rocked the city for 79 days in 2014. The so-called Occupy Central campaign was the most serious challenge to China's authority since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Umbrellas became a symbol of the 2014 campaign as protesters used them to fend off police pepper spray attacks. Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
A protester raises his umbrellas after riot police in Hong Kong fire tear gas to disperse protesters on September 28, 2014. The so-called ‘Umbrella Movement’ inspired large-scale protests calling for a fully democratic vote to choose Hong Kong’s next leader and rocked the city for 79 days in 2014. Photo: Reuters

Young is of the view that the slew of not-so-heartening developments in Hong Kong under Xi’s watch has made Hong Kong people, especially the youngsters, despair for their future.

Major controversies in Hong Kong include Beijing’s sham universal suffrage proposal in 2014 to water down its previous pledge to allow the people of Hong Kong to select their own leaders, as well as the recent crackdown on freedom of speech and association by banning a pro-independence political outfit and expelling a Financial Times editor who hosted a talk for a separatist.

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A Taiwanese citizen holds the US and Taiwan flags in a rally in Washington DC. Photo: Reuters

All but the most naive observers there can now dismiss the illusion that China’s treatment of Hong Kong offers anything useful to the people of Taiwan, writes Young.

He says the world will probably shake their heads but then turn away if Hong Kong reverts to becoming simply another part of authoritarian China, but Taiwan has an alternative to drifting further into Beijing’s orbit, with American political support and defense commitments.

Read more:

Dreaming of a vibrant past and fearful of an uncertain future

HK bans separatist party that pushed for independence

Hongkongers head to Taiwan despite threats of another takeover

How Xi aims to take Taiwan without pulling a trigger

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