For years, China’s friends in the U.S. have argued that it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened: Taiwan would unify with China under the formula of “one country, two systems.” Given the mainland’s advantages economically, demographically and militarily, it seemed improbable to analysts that smaller and trade-dependent Taiwan could survive the gravitational pull of the PRC. Ethnically and linguistically, they were one people. Moreover, Party leaders in the PRC were offering to the people of Taiwan the “best of both worlds”: confederation with the ancestral home and a rising great power as well as the apparent autonomy to govern themselves under the broad umbrella of one country, two systems.
And, indeed, over the past few years, with the accession of KMT party head Ma Ying-jeou to the presidency of Taiwan in 2008, there appeared to be some momentum in this direction. Taipei and Beijing had signed agreements to open up trade and tourism between the mainland and the island and avoided open confrontations diplomatically.
But try as its proponents might, the “one country, two systems” paradigm never really carried much weight with the people of Taiwan as poll after poll intimated. While few Taiwanese were willing to push for outright independence and perhaps open conflict with China, fewer and fewer saw themselves as “Chinese.” Successive elections on the island created a sense naturally enough within the Taiwan that they were a self-governing, independent people. Moreover, the very nature of the PRC’s governing ways—opaque decision-making and minimal civil liberties—hardly gave the people of Taiwan the confidence that Beijing’s interpretation of one country, two systems would be as benign as some said.
As recent events in Hong Kong have shown, they were right to have such doubts. Beijing has tossed aside the pledge China made to the people of Hong Kong that it would be allowed to elect its leadership under democratic procedures. And this follows on the heels of subtle but nevertheless real efforts by China over the past few years to degrade Hong Kong’s key institutions of a free press and an independent judiciary.
So, in what has to be given the award for the worst-timed statement of the year, Chinese President Xi Jinping last Friday told a visiting delegation from Taiwan that reunification on the model of one country, two systems was an imperative. Even the soft-on-Beijing Ma administration had to reject Xi’s initiative, with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council—the executive agency responsible for carrying out policies toward the mainland—noting that some 7 out of 10 Taiwanese believe the model “unfit” for democratic Taiwan. To stick the knife in further, Ma himself said, “We fully understand and support Hong Kong's demand for universal suffrage," adding that allowing Hong Kong to elect its own leader would be a "win-win" situation for both Hong Kong and China.
The reality is that Taiwan’s underlying skepticism about unification with China under any model has been readily apparent for anyone who took the time to keep track of what the Taiwanese people were saying as opposed to focusing on some imaginary diplomatic breakthrough that the acolytes of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski were dreaming of, hoping for. Washington needs to come to terms with the point that democratic Taiwan is not headed toward some form of association with the PRC and should build policies that reflects that point.
At this moment, no one can predict what will happen on the streets of Hong Kong in the days ahead—except to say that Beijing will not give in to the protestors. But one can say with certainty that what has occurred in Hong Kong over the past month has put the nail in the coffin of the idea of “one country, two systems.” Only the most unrealistic of realists can ignore that fact.