Taiwan and Hong Kong Look Back

  Previous  |  Next  

Sunday February 5, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The start of a New Year is often a time of introspection followed by New Year's resolutions aimed at hopeful progress. However, while this happens at the beginning of each new year, this year has special notoriety in Asia, and more so for those in nearby Hong Kong. On July 1, 1997 that the British handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China took place. The handover came with clear expectations for the next 20 years.

Designated a special administrative region (SAR) of China, Hong Kong was the flagship model of "one country, two systems." And--at least in the minds of Chinese leaders--such a designation and demonstrated administrative flexibility would point the way by which a democratic Taiwan might justify unification with China. However, as things played out, nothing could be further from the truth.

What was the expectation that came with Hong Kong's handover? For Hong Kongers, it was that their city, which had been ruled by Britain for 156 years, would in 20 years time have the distinction of having both open nominations and universal suffrage in the selection of its chief executive. That did not seem too difficult to accomplish in 20 years and certainly what better way for China to show how "one country, two systems" could work.

Today, as Taiwanese look across the Strait, they more and more realize how much has both happened in Taiwan in the past two decades as well as how wide the gap between Taiwanese and disillusioned Hong Kongers is becoming.

In July 1997, Lee Teng-hui was president. Lee had become president in 1988 when he succeeded then-president Chiang Ching-kuo after Chiang's death. In 1990 the now defunct National Assembly elected Lee to a second six-year term as president. However, it was Lee's final term selection (1996-2000) that was different.

In 1996, Lee became the first Taiwanese president elected by the people in a multi-party election. He served that term and retired in 2000. Since then, Taiwan has had five successive presidential elections and three transitions of power between Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Lee's 1996 election was accomplished less than a decade after the Martial Law era1 and the KMT's one-party state ended. Taiwan has come a long way in developing its democracy, and last year, President Tsai Ing-wen was the first woman to be elected president.

In Hong Kong things have gone differently. Hong Kong had never under martial law, but was a British colony. It prospered and was nicknamed the "Pearl of the Orient." However, it did not have that much freedom until the late 1980s when democratic reforms were slowly introduced; thus by 1997, the mood was festive.

There was a sense that British colonialism was ending and that Hong Kongers enjoying the privilege of a special administrative region would discover a new freedom and direction. It was thought that free democratic elections would come quickly and pose no threat to the overall authority and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in China.

Former Hong Kong chief executive, Tung Chee-wah, ran in the first election unopposed and was approved by appointed election committee members. He ran unopposed for a 2nd five-year term in 2002 and was approved but stepped down in 2005 amid a scandal.

Then chief secretary, Donald Tsang, finished Tung's term with committee approval and then ran unopposed for chief executive in 2007. He again won the election committee's approval. Two other people had wanted to run but they did not get the number of committee signatures required to run.

By the year 2010 that election committee--approved by Beijing--expanded to 1,200 members; still a small number when compared with a territory of 7 million people. Scandal followed Tsang's administration and he did not run again.

In 2012 Leung Chun-ying was selected from a list of 3 candidates approved by Beijing and a majority of election committee members approved his appointment.

2014 was a year of protest in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In Taiwan, the Sunflower movement objected to the "black box" method by which the KMT dominated government sought to pass the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) trade package with China. Protesters won, out and the agreement must now be approved item by item in the Legislative Yuan. In the aftermath, the KMT lost seats in the nine-in-one local elections of 2014 and in last year's presidential and legislative elections.

Hong Kong's 2014 protest was different. The "Umbrella Movement," turned attention toward the promise of universal suffrage in electing the chief executive. If China could accomplish so many massive infrastructure projects including the hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, why could it not allow the promised free election of Hong Kong's chief executive? What was the root of the problem?

The protest made a mark, but the election committee will still decide the 2017 elections. However, other happenings have taken place that make Hong Kongers sense that freedoms are being lost, such as the curtailment of the media and the arrest and the imprisonment of book sellers who did not comply with directives from Beijing. Where is progress?

This is the status of affairs as this year begins and ironically some Hong Kong legislators have now come to Taiwan to attend a conference hosted by Taiwan's New Power Party. The topic of democracy is sure to come up.

Much has changed especially in Taiwan. Taiwan has seen much progress, but Hong Kong has not. And for those who attended the handover in 1997 that period seems like a bygone era--a different time and a different place. A new and more worrisome mood pervades Hong Kong. "One country, two systems" has become the byword for a sham; Beijing must approve everything. The special administrative region has proved not to be special after all. Taiwan now knows its path but Hong Kong is in a quandary.