On July 1 last year, Hong Kong marked the 20th anniversary of the handover from Britain to China. Xi Jinping made his first visit to Hong Kong as the president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the commemorations. He was received with great pomp and fanfare, but demonstrations and protest marches in the city signaled the significant rise in tensions and anti-mainland sentiments that simmer in the city.
In his speech, Xi starkly discouraged any of the growing calls for greater political freedoms and independence. He drew a red line for anyone using “Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland.” The message could not be missed, as the Chinese president staked out that “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government… crosses a red line and is absolutely impermissible.”
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At the moment, prospects and hope for “true universal suffrage” in Hong Kong seem stalled. Reports at the recent National People’s Congress in Beijing indeed further squelched any hope for this. Twenty years ago, when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, the city was allowed to retain its own economic and political system under the framework “one country, two systems.” The agreement guaranteed that Hong Kong will function as a special administrative region (SAR) of China until 2047 and ensured that the city will able to exercise political freedoms and civil rights such as a separate legislature, freedom of speech, and independent judiciary.
Many fear that these rights are now being rapidly eroded in Hong Kong, as Beijing has intensified its control and influence over the city. The disappearance of five booksellers in 2015 was the most worrying sign of how the long arm of Beijing is violating the Basic Law in Hong Kong. Furthermore, in recent years the media and book publishing industry has experienced a severe shake-up, with the takeovers of newspapers in Hong Kong by pro-Beijing businessmen and incidents of violent attacks on reporters. These developments underscored deepening sentiments that intimidation and interference by political and commercial interests have triggered self-censorship and caused press freedom to deteriorate in the city. Moreover, Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law to exclude two elected legislators as well as its attempts to change history courses in school curriculum have only further exacerbated the growing fears that Beijing is undermining the territory’s autonomy.
Increased Isolation of Taiwan
The PRC’s heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong is not an isolated trend. Taiwan has also seen intensifying activities from Beijing trying to isolate and intimidate the island democracy. Since President Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), assumed office in 2016, cross-strait relations have nose-dived. In trying to destabilize the Tsai administration, Beijing has resorted to a number of military and economic threats against the island. Other measures include a suspension of the mechanism of regular dialogue with Taipei and limiting the flow of mainland tourists to Taiwan.
Outside Taiwan, Beijing’s bid for to isolate Taiwan internationally has inter alia involved blocking Taiwan from participation in international organizations as well as pushing Taiwanese nationals abroad to be deported to mainland China for crimes they committed overseas. On another interesting note, Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th Communist Party Congress prompted many commentators to speculate that Beijing may have set a deadline for the reunification of Taiwan. In the report Xi declares that China has entered a “new era,” in which the nation is to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2050. Listed as a part of this great rejuvenation is the reunification of the Taiwan, thus implying Beijing should have control of the island by 2050.
Given the growing sense of Chinese nationalism, this increasing assertiveness in core territorial issues resonates well with a domestic audience. However, discontent among the populations of Hong Kong and Taiwan toward Beijing is widespread. Although economic affluence on the mainland has improved significantly, people in the two territories do not seem to feel any more attraction for Beijing. Rather, the more they get a taste of Beijing’s presence, this has inexorably led to growing alienation and anti-mainland sentiments in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The narrative of PRC as the representative element of Chinese national rejuvenation starkly contrasts with Hong Kong and Taiwan’s development of separate identities from China.
The predetermined “reunification narrative” of the PRC remains, however, as an integral part and driving force of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and also pervades the general public in China. This excessive focus on reunification leads to the failure of Beijing to understand – or consider – that the resistance in Taiwan and Hong Kong reaches beyond just taking part in opportunities in China’s economic growth. These two territories have developed identities and lifestyles separate from the Chinese mainland during decades apart from PRC. More importantly, key to this sense of differentiation are democratic ideals and the sense of wanting to protect freedoms and rights that simply don’t fly with the regime in Beijing. People in general in Hong Kong and Taiwan are not willing to negotiate away these liberties.
Calls for Hong Kong independence and brawls between local and mainland students across university campuses are largely a result of this growing concern. In Taiwan, the massive protests of the student-led Sunflower Movement and the electoral landslide victory of DPP were directly related to the fear of the island becoming too enmeshed with PRC.
Beijing Stronger Than Ever Before
From Beijing’s side, the hardened stance partly reflects Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, which involves a hardline approach in these two regions. But it is also a result of a broadly more assertive and confident China in international affairs. A stronger PRC has always entailed a more uncompromising approach on its core issues. Yet, questions arise over what Beijing sees ahead as the best ways forward in order to reach its end-goal of the “great rejuvenation.” What does the PRC leadership consider a productive strategy to achieve the Chinese Dream peacefully?
The current strategy surely speaks straight to the hearts of many on the mainland, but it is equally certainly not winning many hearts and minds in either Hong Kong nor Taiwan. Consequently, the repeated calls from the CCP leadership for Hongkongers to have a stronger sense of Chinese identity are having the opposite effect.
It is plausible that Beijing has lost belief in a willing reunification and integration with Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively. Ultimately, the end goal of the “great rejuvenation” led by the CCP supersedes the ambition of a peaceful incorporation of the two territories. Territorial division is a core issue that is a symbol of colonial humiliation for China and national unification is ingrained in the story of China retaining its rightful place on the international scene. Any distractions are subordinated this enclosure of history. China is now the strongest it has been in centuries, and considers itself in a position powerful enough to up the ante in these two regions.
What is on the Horizon?
It is therefore reasonable to expect a further intensification of activities from Beijing in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hong Kong will relentlessly continue its persistent resistance in trying to defend and sustain precious freedoms and rights. However, any dissent against the government in Beijing will likely be met with increasing intolerance from the CCP. Hong Kong will always sustain a significantly more open political climate than the mainland, but any act that challenges the authority and sovereignty of the PRC government will prompt Beijing to keep drawing more and thicker red lines for the autonomous region. Indeed, the prevalence of publications critical of Beijing has already begin to diminish from the public eye in Hong Kong. One can foresee that these materials will be increasingly cracked down upon and eventually become rare sights. Over time it’s not unrealistic to expect a situation reminiscent of Singapore, in which a more restricted freedom of speech and freedom of press will be enforced on anything that targets the ruling party.
As for Taiwan, the intention to utilize Hong Kong as a successful precedent for winning the Taiwanese over is out of the question. The prospects for peaceful unification are getting dimmer and the mutual distance is growing larger with every generation that passes by, which at some point Beijing must have understood. The PRC has so far unsuccessfully tried to combine sweeteners with coercion to bring the island into its fold.
In the future, China is likely to double down on its efforts to further isolate Taiwan on the international scene. Through intimidation and economic sanctions, it will seek to gradually cut Taiwan off from international support. With delegitimizing and destabilizing measures such as military activities surrounding the island and propaganda campaigns, Beijing may seek to ultimately strip Taiwan of its de facto independence. The intention with this would be to potentially weaken the population and corner it into a state of hopelessness in order to stoke a sense of disbelief in the Taiwanese political system. This way, Beijing may be trying to shift from a de jure unification strategy toward a de facto unification strategy by “hollowing out” Taiwan.
It would be desirable if measures focused on increasing mutual understanding between China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. But at the moment the course looks set instead on a downward spiral. As Xi Jinping has paved the way for staying on as president beyond 2023, his hardened stance is unlikely to shift. The result of this, however, risks antagonizing these populations even more against China and only exacerbate the voices calling for independence.
Johan Englund is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong.