Taiwan and Chen
Shui-bian: How they are viewed from Hongkong three years after the handover
(Taipei Review September 2000)
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
Taiwan. 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
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 for Taiwan. 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 role. 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 found inconvenient. 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!
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