A year before Britain handed Hong Kong to China, then-President Jiang Zemin hailed the “one country, two systems” plan for the city as a model for the country to one day unify with Taiwan.
Taiwan would get “a high degree of autonomy” — the same pledge China used for Hong Kong — while keeping legislative and independent judicial power, and its own armed forces, according to Jiang’s speech, copies of which were distributed at Hong Kong’s handover center in 1997.
For Taiwan though, the proposal has never been an option. Even the Kuomintang — a vestige of the losing side in China’s civil war and the main force backing eventual unification with the mainland, has rejected the model. Making Xi’s task even more daunting is a drastic shift in the consensus in Taiwan against any form of integration with China, thanks to the island’s growing sense of nationhood and to the Chinese Communist Party’s sweeping crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
China’s handling of Hong Kong shows “all promises of autonomy and respect for local conditions will be violated,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, who has written books on Hong Kong and Taiwan. “It becomes very difficult even for advocates for greater engagement with the mainland in Taiwan itself to be able to sustain that argument.”
On July 1, China celebrated the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, the halfway mark in the 50 years of autonomy enshrined in a treaty cementing China’s deal with Britain. The UK has said China breached commitments made under the deal, but Xi called “one country, two systems” a success and has personally endorsed it as the model under which he intends to take over Taiwan — by force, if necessary.
The dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty is the main issue that risks one day leading to war between the US and China, with calls growing among American politicians for a commitment to get involved if Beijing invades the island. China has steadily ramped up its military pressure in recent years, regularly sending warplanes near Taiwan and warning the U.S. that the strait separating the island from Fujian province isn’t international waters.
Last November, the Communist Party affirmed the framework for “resolving the Taiwan question” in a landmark historical resolution. Xi may further articulate his goals for Taiwan during a once-in-five-year Communist Party Congress later this year, when he’s expected to secure a third term as president.
Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests has underscored key differences with Taiwan, where the 2014 “Sunflower Movement” demonstrations successfully stopped legislation to closely integrate the economy with China. The island has since strengthened its image as a liberal bastion with a female leader where gay marriage is legal, just as China’s relations with the West have deteriorated over everything from its support for Russia to its treatment of the LGBTQ community and Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
There is little support in Taiwan for a political union with China, according to the Election Study Center at Taipei’s National Chengchi University. Since 1997, the percentage of the population that backs formal independence has doubled to more than 30%, while support for unification has more than halved to single digits.
“The idea that the PRC will evolve into something more free and democratic seems increasingly unlikely to a larger and larger share of the population,” said Nathan Batto, an academic who helps administer the Election Study Center poll, referring to the People’s Republic of China. “Taiwan is fiercely democratic, and the repression of Hong Kong and Xi Jinping’s concentration of power over the last decade have made it clear that limited government, much less full democracy, is fundamentally incompatible with the PRC.”