Editorial: Hong Kong still shows the wrong way

Hong Kong Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam. (By Associated Press)

Hong Kong last weekend became the latest part of the world to elect a woman as its leader. Under normal circumstances, this could have been the topic for much applause around the world.

The former British colony became the latest in a row of countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and last but not least Taiwan with President Tsai Ing-wen to have a woman as its leader.

Yet, the outcome of the vote is unlikely to be read as a victory for women’s rights but more as a victory for China’s influence.

Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) spent most of her career inside the Hong Kong bureaucracy, before but especially after the 1997 handover of power from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China.

The past five years she was the second-in-command to Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, whose period in office saw the democracy protests of the Umbrella Movement and the abduction of booksellers specializing in publications banned in China.

Of the three candidates in the election, Lam was the most specifically pro-Chinese contender, and she won with 777 votes out of 1,194 in a territory populated by 7 million.

Even worse, from a democratic point of view, is that, for a large part because of her pro-China image, she performed far worse in the opinion polls than her main rival, former Finance Secretary John Tsang (曾俊華). While surveys often prove wrong, the discrepancy between the apparent wishes of the public and the eventual outcome of a vote by a limited number of elite representatives is bad for the development of democracy in the territory.

The events in Hong Kong of course hark back to the “One Country, Two Systems” formula it was forced to accept at the time of the 1997 transition.

As long as the residents of Hong Kong do not have the right to elect their own leader, their chief executives will always be a representative of China first and of Hong Kong second. Lam will even have a harder time to win the trust of the public given the pro-Chinese image she’s been carrying along with her right from the start.

With Hong Kong residents more and more disaffected with Beijing’s meddling in its affairs, and not afraid to say so, it is still a surprise to some that China keeps touting the “One Country, Two Systems” formula as a solution not just to Hong Kong’s problems, but to Taiwan’s as well.

The method has never been accepted on the island as it was specifically designed to accompany the transition of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to China in 1997, a background completely alien to Taiwan.

There is no market for “One Country, Two Systems” on the island, confirmed Richard Bush, former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

China thinks that by endlessly repeating the positive aspects of this system, it will win over younger generations but this will not happen, according to Bush, who has been closely watching developments in Asia for four decades.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s (習近平) tough-man attitude will only create more distance between Beijing and those he is trying to reach, whether in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Stability will only arrive if China abandons its habit of wanting to control everything and understands its meddling only creates more alienation, Bush says.

Trying to force Taiwan into a formula which has already shown itself a failure will do nothing to improve the current state of cross-straits relations, described as “cold peace” by Arthur Ding (丁樹範), professor at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations.

The China expert sees few prospects for improvement at least during President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) first term in office, which ends in 2020. It should be already abundantly clear to Beijing that she will not accept such Chinese demands as recognition of the so-called “1992 Consensus” or the “One China Principle,” Ding said.

In the absence of any new interpretation of cross-straits relations, China should be able to accept the current situation while making a strong statement now and then, according to Ding.

If Xi applies the same hard-line tack which he used over the South China Sea in relations with Taiwan, only deterioration looks likely. Beijing could try to launch a full diplomatic assault to try and lure several of Taiwan’s remaining 21 official allies, but this would provide China with only limited benefits while causing the climate to worsen even more, Ding says.

The recent secretive detention of a former Democratic Progressive Party member and human rights activist will prove to be a bad move, since this is nothing to do with fraud rings, which already muddled the waters between Taiwan and China. If a Taiwanese citizen is being arrested in China for nothing more than holding the wrong opinions, then cross-straits relations are entering a slippery slope.

The greatest fear of international observers and Taiwan residents alike is that China will take steps to put its threat of military intervention into practice, but Ding says that is highly unlikely, since any such attempt will only cause rising friction, resentment and hatred, while poisoning the international atmosphere. Ding says China will opt for slow and gradual economic infiltration as the way to advance its attraction for Taiwan.

In the meantime, the Taiwan government has not given up hope of improvement. The Mainland Affairs Council has called for positive interaction between both sides of the Taiwan Straits as an essential element of regional peace and collective security, and asked China to respect and understand Taiwan’s democratic system and public opinion, call to communicate in order to defuse differences of opinion and seek the biggest possible space for cooperation.