FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Beijing's softly, softly approach to Taiwan, Hong Kong
, July 10, 2010
Recent events in relation to Taiwan and Hong Kong show that the Chinese Communist Party is showing increasing sophistication in dealing with ethnic Chinese societies overseas in a way which protects its interests.
After Mao Zedong seized control of China in October 1949, at the end of over 20 years of civil war, the defeated Nationalists retreated to the island of Taiwan, off the coast of China, where they established the government of the Republic of China.
From that time onwards, Beijing has engaged in political and military struggles to forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland. One result of Beijing's aggressive stance has been the development of a deep sense of national identity on Taiwan which has now been separated from the mainland for 60 years.
A further development which has enhanced this is the gradual democratisation of government in Taiwan, where the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) relinquished its monopoly on power in the 1980s, and is now one of a number of parties which compete for office at the local, regional and national level.
The KMT candidate was the first popularly-elected President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1996; but Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected President in 2000. Chen emphasised Taiwan's independence, provoking ferocious threats of invasion from Beijing, which undoubtedly contributed to Chen's re-election in 2004.
Rising unpopularity of the Democratic Progressive Party led to the party's defeat in parliamentary elections in 2008. The candidate of the KMT, Ma Ying-jeou, an American-educated lawyer and economist, was elected President on a policy of higher economic growth, and improved relations with China without accepting Chinese sovereignty.
Since Ma's election, Beijing has adopted a more conciliatory approach to Taiwan, including permitting its accession to the World Health Assembly (a UN agency which oversees the World Health Organisation); accepting direct flights, shipping links and tourism across the Taiwan Straits; and, most recently, the signing of an economic co-operation agreement with Taiwan.
Under the terms of the economic agreement, China agreed to reduce tariffs on 539 imports from Taiwan, while the Taiwanese negotiators agreed to reduced tariffs on about 270 items, pending further negotiation on a free trade agreement.
The agreement also gives greater access to each other's service industries, with Chinese investment permitted in movies and business services, while Taiwanese businesses would be permitted to invest in computer services, airline maintenance and the medical sector on the mainland.
While strongly supported by the KMT, the proposal is strongly opposed by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which believe that it will damage small businesses in Taiwan, and make Taiwan increasingly dependent on Beijing.
The Government argues that the move will strengthen Taiwan by locking Taiwan into the fast-growing Chinese economy, in which Taiwanese businesses have long been heavy investors.
A journalist described the imbalance in the number and type of items in favour of Taiwan as "a sweetener aimed at advancing China's charm offensive toward the island it hopes one day to incorporate" (Reuters
, June 24, 2010).
A second area where Chinese policy has shown surprising flexibility is in relation to Hong Kong, now a special administrative region of mainland China, but with a free press, separate Legislative Council, and independent financial and legal systems.
For years, Beijing has tried to erode Hong Kong's freedoms, but has met stiff resistance from the people of Hong Kong. The problem for the people of Hong Kong is that the former colonial power, Britain, never enacted legislative reform to entrench democracy in Hong Kong, before the handover to China in 1997.
The party which has led opposition to Beijing is the Democratic Party, the largest opposition party in Hong Kong.
This year, the government was required to amend the country's electoral law to move towards full democracy, ahead of elections to be held in 2012. The Legislative Council is currently dominated by representatives of functional groups which are loyal to Beijing, but they lack a two-thirds majority needed to get amendments to the Basic Law through the legislature.
The opposition's choice was invidious. Defeating any change and maintaining the status quo would certainly lead to a continuation of control by pro-Beijing appointees.
The Democratic Party, which has been ostracised by Beijing since its formation, offered to negotiate, and was able to secure Beijing's agreement to an additional 10 directly-elected representatives in the 70-member Legislative Council, while 30 remain appointed by the functional groups.
The move deeply divided the opposition, but ensured that Hong Kong is moving incrementally towards democratic government.