One Country, Two Elections

Hong Kong demonstration
A Hong Kong woman participates in a march to demand a swift transition to full democracy, Jan. 1, 2004 (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP-Getty Images).

One country, two systems. That was the grand unifying theory China trotted out in the 1980s in a bid to entice Taiwan—its capitalist, democratic problem child—back into the motherland’s embrace. Although reunification (or annexation, as some Taiwanese prefer) didn’t happen, that policy and its political implications have come back to haunt Chinese leaders now grappling with “separatist” electoral moves in both Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In the special administrative region of Hong Kong, a record 44 percent of the electorate came out to vote in the district council elections on Nov. 23, handing the pro-Beijing party a stunning defeat and giving the pro-democracy camp a major boost. “People in Hong Kong want more political rights,” said newly elected councilman Cyd Ho in The Standard (Nov. 24). In the aftermath, the head of the pro-Beijing party resigned, partly blaming the results on voter anger over a repressive internal security law that Beijing wanted to impose earlier in the year.

Last July, half a million people rallied in the summer heat against the law, a showing that took Beijing by surprise. Demonstrators also called for the ouster of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and the right to elect his replacement when he steps down in 2007, among other reforms.

The pro-China press was quick to point out that the pace and scope of political reforms are limited by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution drafted when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997.  “A lot of places in the world that copy Western elections en bloc are constantly in turmoil,” cautioned the communist daily Wen Wei Po (Dec. 4).

In Taiwan, which has a vibrant democracy, voters head to the polls on March 20 with China very much on their minds.

President Chen Shui-bian, who is up for re-election, has promised to bring a controversial “no-missiles, no-war” referendum before the voters, calling for China to stop threatening Taiwan with its 500 ballistic missiles currently aimed across the Taiwan Straits. An editorial in the Taipei Times (Nov. 25) made this comparison: “Suppose that a man, upon breaking up with his wife, threatens her by saying, ‘If you divorce me, I’m going to kill you.’ Most likely, the woman would divorce him and run as far away as she could.”

China sees this referendum as the first step toward a vote for “formal” independence, something Chinese leaders say they will “pay any price” to prevent.

Even if the referendum is withdrawn, voters must still decide whether to re-elect Chen, who has taken a huge gamble with his aggressive pro-independence stance. Chen’s popularity took a blow in December when the United States, which has a defense pact with Taiwan, rebuked the Chen administration for trying unilaterally to “change the status quo,” the virtual truce known as the “one China” principle.  According to local polls, most Taiwanese don’t want to risk war or flirt with economic collapse if China takes its business elsewhere.  As historian Yu Pei warned in the Beijing daily Guangming Ribao (Nov. 28): “Chen Shui-bian’s perverse, separatist activities are gravely endangering the fundamental interests of our fellow countrymen in Taiwan.”

In Hong Kong, pragmatic views prevailed. A Dec. 3 editorial in the economic journal Hsin Pao warned against the “Taiwanization of Hong Kong,” referring to the chronic tensions between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China. In the    centrist South China Morning Post, commentator Lau Nai-keung argued: “Unpleasant as it may be, under ‘one country, two systems,’ Hong Kong can enjoy a high degree of autonomy, but not complete independence....This is a fact of life, something our democrats should be well aware of—and so should some of our Taiwan friends.”