Under Xi Jinping, China has stepped up its efforts to strip Hong Kong of its autonomous status and stamp out dissent in the territory, culminating in its moves to impose a new national security law in 2020. At the same time, Beijing has ratcheted up its pressure on Taiwan, demanding that it agree to reunification with the mainland. Chinese pressures on both fronts have provoked local resistance. Taiwan may now become a haven for pro-democracy exiles from Hong Kong.
On July 1, 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a major address in Hong Kong to mark the twentieth anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule after 156 years as a British colony. “In the early 1840s, Britain sent an expeditionary force of a mere 10,000 troops to invade China and got its way in forcing the Qing government, which had an 800,000-strong army, to pay reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong,” Xi said, referring to the First Opium War. “That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow.” Xi’s emphasis on China’s past shame at the hands of Western powers was not tempered by the reality that Hong Kong had been transformed from little more than a fishing village into a glittering global financial center under Britain’s stewardship.
Xi had shown his true colors within days of becoming the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader in November 2012, when he visited an exhibition called “The Road toward Renewal,” which highlighted the Opium Wars, at the National Museum in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. There, he unveiled his “China Dream” of national rejuvenation. Xi aims to return the country to its imperial greatness.
A key ambition of the China Dream is restoring control over all areas that were part of the Chinese empire. These include Hong Kong and Macao, both former European colonies that are now special administrative regions of China. They also include Taiwan, which is still outside Beijing’s sway. Both the tightening of control over Hong Kong, despite its supposedly autonomous status, and the pressure put on Taiwan to reunify with the mainland have resulted in strong resistance to Beijing.
In his Hong Kong speech, Xi hailed the “one country, two systems” policy initiated in the early 1980s by then–paramount leader Deng Xiaoping as a “great vision” that had led to the successful resolution of the Hong Kong question. “This ended past humiliation and marked a major step forward toward the complete reunification of China,” Xi said. He vowed that the central government “will unswervingly implement the policy of ‘one country, two systems’ and make sure that it is fully applied in Hong Kong without being bent or distorted.” However, this policy has undergone dramatic change under Xi. Whereas in earlier years the emphasis was on “two systems,” in the Xi era it has switched to “one country.”
While in Hong Kong, Xi also officiated at the inauguration of the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. Although the 1,200-member Election Committee tasked with choosing Hong Kong’s leader was packed with pro-Beijing members, Chinese officials still had insisted that the central government would only appoint someone it trusted, even if another candidate won more votes. Lam was duly elected.
On that day in July 2017, no one could have predicted that Hong Kong would be plunged into an existential crisis less than three years later.
A Law unto Themselves
When street protests and violence that began in June 2019 restarted in the spring of 2020, after the largely successful containment of the COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong, Beijing’s efforts to tighten its control over the territory increased dramatically. The opening session of the National People’s Congress on May 22, 2020, approved a decision to unilaterally draft national security legislation that would be imposed on Hong Kong.
This came as a shock because under its Basic Law, Hong Kong is meant to draft its own legislation, specifically including national security measures. The details of the law were not unveiled until late on June 30, when it took effect. It defined four new crimes: secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. It also created a Committee for Safeguarding National Security—headed by the chief executive, with a national security adviser appointed by the central government—that held its first meeting July 6. Luo Huining, director of the central government’s Liaison Office, was appointed the national security adviser. The committee is to operate in secret; its actions are exempt from judicial review.
The new law also created an Office for Safeguarding National Security. It has the authority to decide which cases it will handle, and to send suspects to the mainland for trial, without the protections of Hong Kong’s judicial procedures. According to the law, staff of this office “shall not be subject to inspection, search, or detention by law enforcement officers of the region.” They will be a law unto themselves. On July 3, Zheng Yanxiong, secretary-general of the Guangdong Communist Party Committee, was appointed head of the new office. He had earned a reputation as a hard-liner by cracking down on anticorruption protesters in Guangdong’s Wukan village in 2011.
People in Taiwan were watching as China tightened its grip on Hong Kong.
The impact of the national security law was immediate. As soon as the law was enacted by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, even before its promulgation, localist groups in Hong Kong started to disband. The prominent young activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow, co-founders of Demosisto, announced their withdrawal from the organization, which was followed by its disbandment. Other groups followed suit.
Activists who had posted pro-independence sentiments on social media deleted their postings and shut down their accounts. Not only the young stepped back. The previous week, Anson Chan, who had been Hong Kong’s chief secretary both before and after the 1997 handover, had announced her retirement from public life, citing the recent death of her daughter and the fact that she had turned 80 in January.
Still, many activists were undeterred and continued protesting. On July 1, the first full day that the law was in effect, the police arrested 370 people—mostly for unlawful assembly, though 10 were arrested under the new law.
The Hong Kong business sector by and large supported the national security law, hoping that it would restore normality after years of unrest. Big British corporations, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Swire, and Jardine Matheson publicly expressed their support, though pressure was clearly applied in some cases.
Xi’s hard line on both Hong Kong and Taiwan has been part of his ongoing consolidation of power. On October 18, 2017, he presided over the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The congress affirmed Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the party’s guiding ideology and incorporated it into the party constitution. This gave Xi virtually the same status as Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Gone was the collective leadership designed by Deng and practiced for the next two decades by his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In 2018, Xi arranged for the National People’s Congress to amend the PRC constitution, ending the two-term limit for presidents.
In his keynote speech at the 19th party congress, Xi called on “the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation” to strive to realize the China Dream in an era that would see the country “moving closer to center stage.” It was the first time a modern Chinese leader had spoken of the country playing a central role in world affairs—a clear sign of Xi’s ambitions, and a bold departure from Deng’s injunction to keep a low international profile.
Xi also stated that “achieving China’s full reunification” was “essential to realizing national rejuvenation.” In other words, Taiwan had to be reunified with mainland China first. Xi’s impatience to bring about the political unification of Taiwan with mainland China was another departure from precedent. Whereas Mao told Henry Kissinger more than once in the 1970s that China could wait a hundred years for unification with Taiwan, Xi has said repeatedly that “the Taiwan question cannot be passed from generation to generation.”
As for Hong Kong, Xi indicated at the party congress that there was a need to “foster greater patriotism and a stronger sense of national identity.” That was an allusion to Hong Kong’s localism movement, which opposes encroachment by the central government on the city’s domestic affairs. This movement reflects the strengthening of a Hong Kong identity, just as a strong Taiwan identity has emerged in the last quarter-century.
In 2014, the same year as major protests against Chinese influence in both Hong Kong and Taiwan—the Umbrella Movement and the Sunflower Movement, respectively—China’s State Council, or cabinet, issued a white paper on “one country, two systems.” It declared that “China’s central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions,” including Hong Kong. Many wondered how “comprehensive jurisdiction” could be compatible with the “high degree of autonomy” promised to Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, under which Britain pledged to hand over Hong Kong in 1997 and China committed to set up the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Beijing was to be responsible only for defense and foreign affairs, while Hong Kong was “vested with executive, legislative, and independent judicial power.” The local government would handle “the maintenance of public order.”
Under Xi, Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong was accompanied by a wave of repression both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. On the mainland, hundreds of lawyers and human rights activists were detained, disbarred, or otherwise punished in a crackdown launched in July 2015. The last batch of lawyers was not released until the spring of 2020.
In Hong Kong, the Lam administration silenced discussion of independence and self-determination. In August 2018, for example, the Foreign Correspondents Club invited Andy Chan, convenor of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), to give a lunch talk. China’s Foreign Ministry asked the club to cancel the program but was rebuffed. The talk was hosted by Victor Mallet of the Financial Times, the club’s vice president at the time. The HKNP was banned the next month. In October, Mallet’s request to renew his work visa was denied; no reason was given.
While the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, was in power in Taiwan, Beijing had put pressure on President Ma Ying-jeou to discuss political issues, particularly reunification. But this was not supported by the Taiwanese public, so Ma stuck to negotiating economic agreements. In Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election, Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party defeated the KMT’s Eric Chu. As a result, Taiwan’s relationship with China deteriorated markedly. The new president made it clear that while she wanted to maintain the good cross-strait relations of the Ma years, she would not accept the “one China” concept adhered to by the KMT.
This was an understanding reached by the mainland and Taiwan in 1992, when the KMT was in power. Under the so-called 1992 consensus, both sides agreed that there was only one China, but also recognized that each could have its own interpretation of what “China” meant.
Ma’s presidency had brought a diplomatic truce, under which China agreed not to poach any of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Between 2008 and 2016, Beijing actually turned away countries that sought diplomatic relations and offered to renounce their recognition of Taiwan. But after Tsai came to power in 2016, Beijing cut off all official channels with Taiwan. The truce was over.
The mainland’s rebuff gave Tsai little choice but to strengthen Taiwan’s other links, including the all-important though unofficial relationship with the United States. This led to the unexpected December 2016 telephone call that she placed to Donald Trump, the US president-elect. To everyone’s surprise, Trump took the call. It was the first between a US president or president-elect and the leader of Taiwan since their diplomatic relations were severed in 1979, when Washington officially recognized the government of the PRC as the “sole legal government of China.” Simultaneously, the United States had severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as Beijing requires of all countries with which it establishes relations. But Washington said it would maintain people-to-people ties with Taiwan. The Trump-Tsai call was the first step to a much closer, albeit still unofficial, relationship between the United States and Taiwan, including arms sales.
Meanwhile, China started peeling off Taiwan’s diplomatic partners one by one, beginning with Panama in 2017. In August 2018, when Taiwan lost a fifth partner, El Salvador, Washington began trying to discourage others from following suit. But the Solomon Islands and Kiribati severed relations with Taiwan in 2019, leaving only fifteen states, including the Vatican, that still recognized Taiwan. In November, however, Tuvalu, another Pacific island nation, rejected Beijing’s overtures and decided to stick with Taiwan. In March 2020, Trump signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, intended to support “Taiwan’s diplomatic alliances around the world” through increasing engagement with countries that strengthen their relations with Taipei.
Aside from working to diplomatically isolate Taiwan, Beijing has pressured nongovernmental entities to accept that Taiwan is part of China. It has demanded that international corporations doing business in China ensure that their websites do not identify Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Tibet as independent entities. In April 2018, China’s civil aviation authority wrote to dozens of airlines to ask that they correct their websites. The White House called the demand “Orwellian nonsense.” Yet by August, all 44 of those airlines, including American ones, had obediently followed Beijing’s orders. Business, after all, was business.
Xi’s hard line on both Hong Kong and Taiwan has been part of his ongoing consolidation of power.
Hong Kong’s Last Stand?
Ironically, Taiwan provided the impetus for Lam to propose new legislation that would for the first time allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Lam cited the murder of a young Hong Kong woman by her boyfriend while the two were vacationing in Taiwan in 2018. The killer had returned to Hong Kong, where he confessed, but he could not be prosecuted because there was no extradition treaty. Lam’s proposal would, in effect, allow people to be extradited from Hong Kong to any jurisdiction in the world, including both Taiwan and mainland China, as Beijing had long sought.
One of the first people to respond to this alarming prospect was Lam Wing-kee, one of five Hong Kong booksellers who had disappeared in 2015 and later surfaced in police custody on the mainland. They were all connected with Causeway Bay Books, where popular (some would say trashy) books on China’s leaders were sold. Mainland visitors to Hong Kong were avid buyers of such books, and the store also distributed them on the mainland. In June 2016, Lam held an explosive press conference: the 61-year-old bookseller disclosed that, after months of detention in China, he had been allowed to return to Hong Kong to retrieve a hard disk with information on customers who had bought banned books. Once back in Hong Kong, he refused to return to the mainland and instead publicized what had happened to him during his months of detention in a tiny cell. Before fleeing to Taiwan, he announced that he would reopen the bookstore there.
Despite widespread opposition to the proposed extradition law—culminating in a massive march on June 9, 2019, in which 900,000 people participated, making it the biggest protest in Hong Kong since the handover—Carrie Lam continued to insist on the bill’s passage. The public consultation period was drastically shortened; in the legislature, no committee was set up to scrutinize the bill. Hours after the June 9 march ended, Lam announced that she would proceed with the discussion leading to a vote.
Taiwan’s leader reacted very differently. On June 10, Tsai expressed solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters. She declared that Taiwan’s democracy was hard-earned and had to be safeguarded and renewed. She pledged that as long as she remained president, she would never accept “one country, two systems.” It was surprising for a Taiwan leader to speak so directly on Hong Kong and democracy.
On June 12, protesters surrounded the Hong Kong legislature, making it impossible for anyone to enter. In the ensuing confrontation, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets; dozens of people were hospitalized. The police characterized the protest as a riot, meaning that the 32 people who were arrested could face ten-year prison sentences. But the protesters continued their siege. Finally, on June 15, Lam announced that she would suspend, though not withdraw, the extradition bill. This did not have the intended pacifying effect: an even larger protest was held the next day, drawing 1.2 million people, or about a sixth of Hong Kong’s total population of 7.4 million. (The figures for the two mass protests were estimated by medical researchers at the University of Hong Kong.)
On July 1, a public holiday, protesters stormed the Legislative Council building, encountering no police opposition as they spent hours in broad daylight pushing a makeshift battering ram against the glass door of the building until it shattered. When the protesters entered the building that night, the police inside fled. Radical protesters escalated their actions on July 21, pelting eggs and paint at the Chinese national emblem on the wall of the Liaison Office, which represents the central government in Hong Kong. This defacing of a national symbol was seen as a challenge to Chinese sovereignty, provoking Beijing as never before.
As the Hong Kong protests escalated, Beijing abandoned its practice of giving orders to the Hong Kong administration behind the scenes; now it began openly directing events. On July 29, 2019, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing held its first press briefing since its creation in 1978. Spokesman Yang Guang reaffirmed the central government’s support for Lam and praised the Hong Kong police. He insisted that a return to law and order was the top priority, and that nothing else would be discussed until that happened.
Beyond ‘Two Systems’
Across the strait, people in Taiwan were watching as China tightened its grip on Hong Kong. Underlining their calls for stronger police action, the Chinese authorities conducted paramilitary exercises in Shenzhen, a mainland city adjacent to Hong Kong. The People’s Armed Police staged anti-riot drills as an officer yelled in Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Hong Kong, that protesters should “stop the violence and repent.”
This muscle-flexing was carefully noted in Taiwan, where it is well understood that Beijing views the two territories as inextricably intertwined. The “one country, two systems” policy had been conceived by Deng in the late 1970s as an instrument to gradually achieve unification between Taiwan and mainland China. Beijing was now using similar tactics in handling Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its attempt to intimidate Hong Kong was a mirror image of its activities in the Taiwan Strait, where the Chinese navy and air force have stepped up their exercises to “check Taiwan independence.”
Yet Tsai’s firm rejection of China’s “one country, two systems” offer and her expressions of sympathy for Hong Kong protesters strengthened her political standing. Polls showed that up to the spring of 2019, she trailed potential challengers in the 2020 presidential election. But the public support that she gave to the Hong Kong protests helped boost her ratings in the months leading up to the January election.
Tsai used the slogan “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan” to warn that if Taiwan were to accept “one country, two systems,” it would end up like Hong Kong. The slogan was modified by Joshua Wong to “Today’s Taiwan, tomorrow’s Hong Kong,” signifying the inspiration that pro-democracy Hong Kongers drew from Taiwan. In fact, many Hong Kong people have been emigrating to Taiwan: 5,858 did so in 2019, a 40 percent increase over the previous year.
In January 2020, Tsai was reelected in a landslide, taking 57 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The KMT candidate, Han Kuo-yu, garnered only 39 percent. This had a major impact on the hitherto pro-China KMT. Wu Den-yih resigned as chairman, and the party elected legislator Chiang Chi-chen, known as Johnny Chiang, as its new leader. He told the Financial Times before the vote that he was prepared to abandon the 1992 consensus, which he said had been so distorted by Beijing that his party could no longer win elections.
After winning the chairmanship, Chiang did not receive the traditional congratulatory telegram from Xi, in his capacity as CCP general secretary. Instead, a statement was issued by the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office urging Chiang to adhere to the 1992 consensus.
In Hong Kong, there was a pause in street protests as the November 2019 District Council elections approached. Voters overwhelmingly supported the protesters. Before, all 18 district councils had been controlled by pro-establishment forces; 17 of them changed hands in the election, putting pro-democracy politicians in control.
Season of Threats
The new year brought the coronavirus that was first discovered in Wuhan, China. The ensuing social distancing and stay-at-home policies prohibited mass protests in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong legislature was in disarray. The key House Committee had been paralyzed since the new legislative year began in October. Pro-democracy legislators filibustered for six months to prevent a new chairman from being elected.
In April, central government offices in both Beijing and Hong Kong intervened, accusing opposition legislators of misconduct and violating their oath of office. When Dennis Kwok, an opposition legislator, accused the offices of interfering in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs, they stated that as organs of the central government, they had the right to supervise affairs in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government had historically maintained that these offices were covered by Article 22 of the Basic Law, which states that no central government “department” may intervene in Hong Kong. But once the offices declared that they were not bound by that provision, Hong Kong had no choice but to accept the new situation.
The promulgation of the national security law marked an even more decisive turning point for Hong Kong. Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said at a July 1 press conference in Beijing that the law corrected “deviations” in the “one country, two systems” framework. “To put it more succinctly,” he said, “it is to move closer to ‘one country.’”
China’s tightening of control over Hong Kong resulted in a marked deterioration of relations with the United States and other Western countries. On May 29, the day after the National People’s Congress authorized its Standing Committee to draft the legislation, Trump announced that the United States would “begin the process” of ending Washington’s special relationship with Hong Kong, a process that would “affect the full range of agreements,” from “our extradition treaty to our export controls and technologies.” By July 2, both houses of the US Congress had unanimously passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which provides for mandatory sanctions against those responsible for undermining the territory’s autonomy.
Beijing is now using similar tactics in handling Hong Kong and Taiwan.
After the first arrests for national security offenses under the new Hong Kong law, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said July 1 that Britain would provide a pathway to citizenship for British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong, estimated to number 2.9 million. In Parliament, he accused China of a “clear and serious breach” of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Canada abrogated its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, while indicating that it was prepared to receive more Hong Kong migrants. Australia, too, said it would consider offering safe haven for Hong Kongers.
China made clear that it would take retaliatory action. It announced legislation to sanction US personnel through visa restrictions. It also warned Britain, Australia, and others that they would face countermeasures if they interfered with Hong Kong.
Although Western countries were by and large critical of China, many in the developing world supported Beijing. At a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on June 30, Cuba, backed by 52 other countries, read a statement supporting China; Britain, with the support of 26 nations, made a critical statement. By the numbers, it was a Chinese victory.
But Taiwan also stepped forward to offer help to Hong Kongers fearful of the future. “China’s disregard for the will of Hong Kong’s people proves that ‘one country, two systems’ is not viable,” Tsai tweeted June 30. The next day, Taiwan established the Taiwan–Hong Kong Services and Exchange Office to process residency applications from Hong Kongers planning to emigrate. Chen Ming-tong, head of the Mainland Affairs Council, said that Taiwan saw an opportunity to attract talent from Hong Kong and would welcome multinational companies interested in moving their headquarters.
In Taiwan, there was a sense of self-confidence in mid-2020, in large part because its achievements in battling the pandemic have won global goodwill. Between Tsai’s reelection in January and her inauguration in May, the novel coronavirus had brought devastation to much of the world, but Taiwan was an island of tranquility thanks to prompt action by the government even before the first case on the island was confirmed on January 21. As soon as the World Health Organization was notified that pneumonia of unknown cause was circulating in Wuhan, Taiwan officials started inspecting passengers arriving on direct flights from that city for symptoms.
As of early July 2020, Taiwan had confirmed 449 cases of COVID-19, with just 7 deaths. Most of the infected had recovered. This spectacular health achievement was accompanied by a concerted effort to provide masks and other personal protective equipment to other countries, including the United States. Photos have shown senior members of the Trump administration wearing masks bearing “Made in Taiwan” labels.
Both Taiwan and Hong Kong have been affected by the deterioration in US–China relations. When China decided in March to expel correspondents of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, it specified that these reporters would not be allowed to work in Hong Kong either. This seemed to be another downgrading of Hong Kong’s autonomy, since the territory is meant to be responsible for its own immigration policies. The Times asked permission to open a bureau in Taipei, which no American newspaper had ever done. Taiwan then invited the Post and the Journal to open bureaus as well. Their presence would raise Taiwan’s profile and enhance its international status.
As Hong Kong continues to lose its luster, Taiwan is likely to benefit. But Taiwan clearly would prefer Hong Kong to be free and democratic, like itself. As soon as China unveiled its plans to draft national security legislation for Hong Kong, Tsai said on social media: “To all those in Hong Kong currently fighting for the values you hold most dear, I want to say that Taiwan has always given our utmost concern & support.” On May 29, Tsai visited the new Causeway Bay Bookstore in Taipei and chatted with its owner, Lam Wing-kee, thanking him for his work in supporting human rights and freedom in Hong Kong.
Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, that day issued a statement condemning China’s move and declaring its support for Hong Kongers’ pursuit of universal human rights. This was a rare joint statement by parties including both the governing Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition KMT, which previously was known for being pro-China and a longtime supporter of reunification.
On June 1, the Hong Kong police for the first time in 30 years banned the annual June 4 vigil to commemorate the crushing of the Chinese pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Every year since then, the Hong Kong vigil had been held to mourn the dead and to call for democracy in China. The police cited the social distancing requirements occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. But there were fears that this was only an excuse, and that from now on such demonstrations would no longer be tolerated.
Despite the ban, thousands of Hong Kong people gathered in Victoria Park, and the police did not intervene. There were peaceful candlelight vigils across the city, though scuffles broke out in Mong Kok in Kowloon.
In the end, Hong Kong’s future lies with China. There is no good reason for China to let the world see the city, which prospered under British rule, dying on the vine under Chinese sovereignty. On the issue of Taiwan, too, China has little to gain by being intransigent.
On May 20, in her inaugural address, Tsai Ing-wen said, “Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term.” Two days later, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, addressing the National People’s Congress, pointedly dropped the word “peaceful” when talking about reunification. If China still cares about soft power, it should consider the damage its policies on Hong Kong and Taiwan are doing to its global image. Threatening to resort to the use of force against people it considers its own flesh and blood does not play well on the international stage. The rest of the world may conclude that China will treat it the same way.