Twenty years on from the handover, Hong Kong shows why Taiwan must never embrace ‘One China, Two Systems’

20 years after the handover, the state of the ‘One China, Two Systems’ agreement in Hong Kong acts as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks Taiwan should go down the same route

World dignitaries and other guests attend Hong Kong handover ceremony in 1997. (By Associated Press)

As Hong Kong approaches the 20th anniversary of its handover from the UK to China on July 1st, it seems an appropriate moment to consider how the "One China, Two Systems" principal has been applied over that period.

The idea of "One China, Two Systems," as agreed in the Sino-British handover agreement which was signed on 1st July 1997 was that, whilst sovereignty over the entire Hong Kong territory was returned to China, the citizens of Hong Kong would be guaranteed a degree of autonomy for at least 50 years.

It was a system originally designed by the Chinese Communist Party for Taiwan rather than Hong Kong, yet today, the likelihood of it ever being applied successfully in Taiwan is further away than ever.

Taiwanese citizens only have to look at what has happened across the Taiwan Straits in the intervening 20 years to be deterred from ever agreeing to such an arrangement. Because less than half-way into that transitional period and it has become abundantly clear that the Chinese regime has deliberately, flagrantly, and repeatedly, breached that agreement.

Different Historical Contexts

It is important to look at the issue of "One China" in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the context of history. Hong Kong was incorporated into China between 221-206 B.C., during the Qin Dynasty. It was not until the Opium Wars of the late 1800's that parts of the peninsula were ceded to Britain. The rest was leased to the UK in 1898 for a period of 99 years.

In the intervening period, Hong Kong had integrated and developed its own identity. But the indisputable historical links to China remained and at the end of the lease in 1997, Britain was left with little choice but to hand over the province.

Taiwan on the other hand was not settled by any Chinese migrants until the 15th century and was not annexed into China until 1683. This is almost 2,000 years later than Hong Kong. Just over 200 years later, it was given to Japan as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 And while the Republic of China was founded in 1912, the island of Taiwan did not become part of it until 1945.

And, of course, by 1949, the Republic of China had been driven to Taiwan as the Communist seized power in China, meaning that Taiwan has never been part of the People's Republic of China and in its entire history, has only been governed from China for a period of 216 years. This means the historical link, and indeed the Chinese claim to Taiwan, is much weaker.

National Identity

Like Hong Kongers, Taiwanese have developed their own national identity since they were last governed from China, 122 years ago. 70% of people in Taiwan now identify themselves as Taiwanese, while around three-quarters support some form of independence. Less than a third would support some form of unification, and that even includes agreements which involve some form of compromise with Beijing as well as complete reintegration.

Alongside China's economic and political bullying of Taiwan, a big reason for this is what Taiwanese people have witnessed taking place in Hong Kong since reunification.

Flagrant and repeated breaches

Despite signing up to the "One China, Two Systems" agreement which they had designed themselves, the Chinese Communist Party has been flagrant in their repeated breaches of what was agreed.

Back in 2014, Hong Kongers took to the streets in their tens of thousands to protest the selection of candidates for the role of Hong Kong Chief Executive (which replaced the British Governors). This supposedly independent process was hijacked by Beijing, with candidates having to be approved by the Chinese Communist Party before being eligible to stand.

The pro-Beijing candidate Carrie Lam was elected in a process which included just 0.03% of the Hong Kong population. Taiwan has fought hard to secure its now flourishing democracy and few Taiwanese are willing to gamble this on the word of the Chinese Communist Party.

Likewise, freedom of speech is highly valued in Taiwan after years of oppression under the military dictatorship of the KMT. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, booksellers who dare to sell books critical of the Communist Party are disappearing and even billionaires are liable to be spirited back to China if they step out of line.

The last British Governor to Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has said in an interview today that China has been guilty of a sequence of "outrageous breaches" of the handover agreement and condemned Britain for not doing more about the matter.

With the Chinese President Xi Jinping, visiting Hong Kong this weekend to mark the anniversary, it will be interesting to see what reception he gets. Local reports suggest a massive security operation is underway, implying that major protests are expected.

The extent to which the people of Hong Kong will be allowed to voice their dissatisfaction with where Hong Kong is at the moment will be keenly watched from this side of the Taiwan Strait. But the Chinese Communist Party has a proven record of ignoring the will of their people in the interests of the party at home and few expect things to be treated any differently nowadays in Hong Kong.

A cautionary tale for Taiwan

The concept of "One party, Two Systems" still exists, but nowadays in name only. 20 years on from the handover, Beijing has full control over the governance of Hong Kong, its secret service operates on the streets, and the people of Hong Kong know that if they speak or act out of line, there are likely to be serious consequences.

Hong Kong's sad situation serves as a cautionary tale for Taiwan. Hong Kong is a clear illustration of what "One Country, Two Systems" is in practice. And it is as clear a reason as I can think of why Taiwan must resist such an agreement at all cost.