Hongkong's view of Taiwan
The election of Chen Shui-bian has significantly raised the profile
of Taiwan among Hongkong people. However, this has been more the result
of Beijing's reaction to the election than to Taiwan's practice of direct
election of its leader, or of its implied support for the principle
Indeed, for the first time ever the government of Chief Executive
Tung Chee-hwa has been forced into publicly taking issue with a Beijing
official. This followed remarks by the deputy head of the central government's
liaison office in Hongkong warning Hongkong businessmen would suffer
if they did business with Taiwanese businessmen who supported Taiwanese
independence. Tung expressed "concern" to Jiang Enzhu, the senior diplomat
who is Beijing's chief representative in Hongkong and the Chief Secretary,
Anson Chan Fang On-sang, said that the remarks has caused widespread
concern among businessmen. "The SAR government has consistently stressed
that business decisions are best left to businessmen and should not
invite the interference of any official of whatever status".
The irony of this incident is that there is very little interaction
between Taiwan and HK business. For sure, HK is an indispensable conduit
for Taiwan-mainland trade and investment. Taiwan provides some 18% of
HK visitors, most of whom are en route the mainland. Likewise 7% of
the origin of HK re-exports is Taiwanese goods en route to the mainland,
and the percentage of transit trade is even higher. But a mere 3% of
HK's retained imports come from Taiwan, and only a similar percentage
of domestic exports go there. Portfolio investment flows have increased
sharply in recent years as Taiwan's markets have liberalized, but there
is little direct investment in either direction.
In many ways, Taiwan and HK have been growing further apart for years,
despite the flowering of cross straits trade and investment through
HK. There was a time when refugee business families in Hongkong, mostly
from Shanghai, kept in close touch with the island and its KMT rulers,
many of whom were from Shanghai/ Zhejiang/Jiangsu. Hongkong's current
chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's family was one such. Indeed Tung had
hoped to be rescued by Taiwan when his shipping empire nearly went bust
in the early 1980s. But it was Beijing which came to his aid, symbolically
representing the mainland's claim to HK. Subsequent political developments
and the rise of new economic power centers in both HK and Taiwan
The strong reaction to Jiang Enzhu's remarks reflected the susceptibility
of the HK government to business influences in general rather than any
particular concerns about Taiwan trade. If there was any sympathy with
Taiwan's belief in freedom of choice, it lay well buried. Indeed Hongkong's
official reaction on this occasion contrasted with the lack of reaction
in April when another Liaison Office official said that the Hongkong
media should not report the views of those advocating independence for
The silence on this occasion led to concerns in the media not merely
that informal pressure would be brought to bear on reporting pro-independence
views but that it would in future come within the scope of laws relating
to promoting treasonable activities. At present there are no such laws,
but according to the Basic Law the SAR is supposed to enact such legislation.
Article 23 states: that the SAR "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit
any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central
People's government". But Hongkong has not yet addressed the issue because
of its extreme sensitivity.
The official view in Hongkong is that all business links between the
mainland, the SAR and Taiwan be encouraged as a step towards reunification.
This ignores the fact that the past ten years of steadily increasing
interaction has actually been accompanied by a widening of the political
gap as a result of the flowering of democracy and liberalism in Taiwan.
But it makes obvious sense for Hongkong to underline to Beijing that
it is only concerned with business, and that business will bring ultimately
all sides closer together. However the Tung administration has also
sought to score political points by holding up the grant of a visa to
Taiwan's chief representative designate in the territory, Chang Liang-jen
by insisting that he will abide by the One China policy and refraining
from promoting Lee Teng-hui's "two states" theory.
Last year the head of the government-controlled RadioTelevision Hongkong
was removed after allowing an interview with Mr Chang's predecessor
to be broadcast. These events have caused considerable unease in Hongkong
as examples of threats to the One Country Two Systems principle. However,
they do no indicate much sympathy for Taiwan itself. Hongkong people
tend to view Taiwan's situation as rather akin to that of Hongkong,
assuming that eventually it too will have to agree to a One Country
Two Systems formula.
There is little appreciation of the extent to which Taiwan's history
has long been very different from that of the mainland. This leads to
the conclusion that resolution of the Taiwan question is simply one
of eventually resolving an issue left over from the era of colonialism,
and the Chinese civil war. Because independence has never been an option
for Hongkong, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that it could be
Few, even those most willing to criticize Beijing on human rights
and democracy issues, want to appear "unpatriotic" by seeming to appear
sympathetic to the idea of independence. In May the Legislative Council
passed a motion, sponsored by the main pro-Beijing party, opposing Taiwan
independence. Some liberals spoke sympathetically of Taiwan's democracy
and desire to preserve its freedoms, but they then failed to vote. There
was one abstention, no noes.
Hongkong's democratic forces have in the past tended to view Taiwan
as inward-looking and unwilling to commit to promoting mainland democracy.
They can be critical of the relatively subdued reaction of Taiwanese
people to the June 4 massacre. Whereas Hongkong's democratic forces
have tended to see themselves as having a duty to foster pro-democracy
dissidents on the mainland, while Taiwanese have been more preoccupied
with building their own democratic institutions.
In addition to lack of sympathy for the independence movement, there
is general concern that Taiwan's ambitions and self-confidence will
lead to tensions which will be especially negative for Hongkong - politics
upsetting sacrosanct business. There is less discussion of how badly
Hongkong would be damaged if cross-straits relations were to improve
to the point of direct air, sea and banking links. Indeed, academic
or private sector study of this issue is conspicuous by its absence.
That may be no surprise in the context of Hongkong's political situation.
However, given that direct links would probably also coincide with the
mainland and Taiwan joining WTO it is important.
To date HK has preferred to emphasise the positive aspects of WTO in
spurring China trade and investment and not worry about whether its
own relative position would be undermined. In principle Hongkong has
to believe that what is good for the concept of Greater China must be
good for Hongkong. However, given the northward shift of gravity of
the mainland's growth and the increasing attraction of Shanghai as a
base for foreign enterprise in China some believe that the status quo
- plenty of cross straits trade and investment but no direct links -
serves Hongkong well.
Generally it is believed that the election of Chen Shui-bian is more
likely to delay direct links, whereas the other Lien or Soong would
have pursued a more accommodating stance to Beijing than Lee Teng-hui.
At the domestic political level in Hongkong the example of direct
election of President Chen and the orderly transfer of power from the
KMT is something of an embarrassment to the Hongkong government which
has been so keen to limit democratic participation and play down the
role of the legislature in policy making. There was a time when establishment
figure in Hongkong would claim that democracy in Taiwan simply led to
corruption, ugly scenes in parliament and the unleashing of labor and
environmental demands which damaged the economy. Those now look as self-serving
as they always were.
Hongkong's economic record in recent years has proven much inferior
to that Taiwan, and Hongkong is now suffering from refusing to take
seriously the environmental problems which democratic pressure have
forced Taiwan to confront. Hongkong's "executive-led" government has
proved less effective in many areas than Taiwan's. Hongkong lacks political
corruption of the sort which has tarnished Taiwan.
On the other hand, Hongkong people have the (correct) impression that
wealth is more evenly distributed in Taiwan, and economic power is dispersed.
Probably even the KMT does not control as much of the Taiwan economy
as Li Ka-shing's family does of Hongkong. Hongkong is more than ever
aware that Taiwan's manufacturing technology achievements have been
remarkable. Hongkong senses a need to be in the same game, but has fallen
too far to catch up so may have to be content with its traditional middleman
Hongkong is aware that Taiwan keeps an eye on it to see how One Country
Two Systems works in practice. Taiwanese will have noted that thus far
the judiciary and media have both proved robustly independent but the
executive has been the opposite. The main assault on judicial independence
has come from the government itself, which last year went to Beijing
to use the National Peoples Congress to overrule a Hongkong Court of
Final Appeal judgement on rights of abode in Hongkong which the administration
This is a government which often seems to be more like the old KMT
- preferring to rule by bureaucratic fiat than be subject to legislative
or judicial constraint. The SAR government has also allowed mainland
authorities to bypass Hongkong extradition procedures in seizing those
suspected of mainland crimes. The local courts ability to implement
the Basic Law as they see fit is thus being eroded. The Court of Final
Appeal's stature has been eroded by its treatment on the right of abode
issue . Two of its members are retiring this year and the choice of
their replacements will be studied for an indication of whether they
are chosen for legal abilities or willingness to second guess Tung Chee-hwa.
The quality of the Hongkong judicial system has often been exaggerated.
Even if outright corruption has been relatively rare, it has a record
of bizarre decisions. It has retained several costly and archaic British
practices long ago abolished in Britain itself. However, it has been
seen as generally fair, and this remains the case. Foreigners still
play a major role in the judiciary as well as legal profession. The
role of Hongkong as a center for international commercial litigation
and arbitration helps retain legal quality and this provides something
of a shield for the rule of law and against arbitrary government.
Hongkong people generally believe that the legal system is still much
superior to that on Taiwan. However, it looks increasingly subject to
political pressures on issues concerning "executive led government"
which appears not to understand the concept of separation of powers
and that government itself must obey the law. So despite its lack of
sympathy for Taiwanese independence, there is a growing perception that
Taiwan's political development, economic achievements and social progress
make it the best example of modern Chinese society. If only it were
more Chinese! ends
published in Taipei Review
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