In the recent Hong Kong protests, commentators have scrambled to use the cliché that Hong Kong could become Tiananmen 2.0. However, the stampede to reach for this off-the-shelf narrative has crowded out a more critical analysis of the implications of heavy-handed People’s Republic of China (PRC) policy in Hong Kong. The Tiananmen comparison fails to capture a key factor at play in Hong Kong: identity formation. To understand the ramifications of a crackdown on identity formation, both Beijing and the press should look to the lesser known 228 Incident, which occurred on Taiwan in 1947. The success of Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong and Taiwan depends on their acceptance of a “Chinese” identity, which the citizens of both territories have yet to embrace. Ignoring the lessons of 228 in the shortsighted pursuit of stability could lead to the rejection of a Chinese identity in Hong Kong, and make “one country, two systems” an impossible goal for Taiwan.
The Taiwan of 1947, recently freed from 50 years of Japanese colonial rule, in many ways resembled Hong Kong after the PRC takeover. The Taiwanese initially welcomed the mainland Kuomintang (KMT) forces as brethren and liberators, but the first sight of the ragged mainland troops quickly showed the Taiwanese just how wide the cultural gulf had grown in 50 years. Disillusionment soon turned to resentment as KMT officials treated the Taiwanese less as compatriots and more as conquered people. The Taiwanese were denied the benefits of representative democracy on the grounds of being “politically retarded” by Japanese rule. Tensions boiled over on February 28, 1947, and riots shook the island. In response, the KMT government in Nanjing dispatched an army from the mainland to crush the riots, killing over 10,000 Taiwanese. The Taiwanese never forgot the sense of betrayal by their mainland “liberators.” The 228 Incident catalyzed the formation of a separate Taiwanese identity and continues to complicate political discourse in Taiwan decades later.
The 228 Incident serves as a warning to Beijing on how heavy-handed policy in Hong Kong could play out decades later. First, a mobilization of “mainland” forces to crush protests is likely to accelerate the formation of a separate Hong Kong identity. This would be a great setback to the PRC goal of a well-integrated Hong Kong. Second, Beijing does not even have to initiate a crackdown to build a Hong Kong identity – simply putting too much of a mainland face on policy will also do the trick. By being too meddlesome in the selection process for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Beijing actually robs the chief executive of legitimacy and creates a target for both an opposition and an anti-mainland identity.
Repression in Hong Kong would also have destructive effects on Beijing’s Taiwan policy. The 228 Incident deeply scarred the Taiwanese, and remains significant in Taiwan’s political discourse as a rallying cry for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has a Taiwanese nationalist agenda. A crackdown by mainland authorities in Hong Kong would fit neatly into an existing narrative of betrayal and political repression in Taiwan. “One country, two systems” would become an impossible sell to the Taiwanese, and the DPP would be greatly strengthened relative to the KMT, Beijing’s preferred interlocutor in Taipei. Beijing’s dreams of peaceful reunification with Taiwan could go up in smoke.
Identities matter, and a recent editorial in People’s Daily accusing Occupy Central of promoting “self-determination” and “independence” suggests growing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) anxiety over what it sees as Occupy Central’s role in forging a Hong Kong identity. Anxiety could lead to overreaction, but CCP leaders in Beijing ignore the lessons of 228 at their peril. The 228 Incident demonstrates that crackdowns often become Rubicon moments in identity formation. A rash reaction to the Hong Kong protests by Beijing would be self-defeating: it would create a hostile identity in Hong Kong and would likely solidify the growing Taiwanese identity on Taiwan. Both outcomes would effectively scuttle any chance of success for “one country, two systems” in the near future. Beijing should continue to tread lightly in Hong Kong, lest the ghosts of 228 haunt its every move in both Hong Kong and Taiwan for years down the road.
Thomas Vien is an independent researcher focusing on China. This piece originally appeared on CSIS’s CogitASIA blog.