JPRI Working Paper 106 (May 2005)
Civil War in China: The Final Phase
By Suzanne Pepper

Two seemingly unrelated events stood out amid the usual program of speeches, talking points, and vote counts that filled China's most recent congressional meetings in March 2005. Members of the National People's Congress (NPC), all indirectly elected, convene for a few days each year when appointed delegates to an advisory body, known as the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), also hold their annual get-together. This early spring ritual serves to legitimate and advertise decisions reached elsewhere by China's Communist Party rulers who bristle at the "rubber stamp" epithet their parliamentary routines invariably provoke. But the predetermined formalities themselves signify better than any derogatory label the predicament China's leaders are trying to escape and the dangers for all concerned if they fail.

The two events that made international headlines this year were a new law prohibiting secession and the unexpected resignation of Tung Chee-hwa midway through his second term as Hong Kong's Chief Executive. Tung became Hong Kong's first post-colonial leader after Britain relinquished sovereignty in 1997. His political demise was announced during the Beijing meetings and sealed by an appointment to the face-saving ceremonial post of CPPCC vice-chairman. The Anti-Secession Law is aimed at what Beijing regards as its renegade island province of Taiwan, otherwise still formally known as the Republic of China and the last reminder of a fractured past that has not been reunified under Beijing's rule. Through this legal maneuver, the Chinese government has given itself the authority to use "non-peaceful means" should Taiwan persist in its current drift toward permanent separation.

As expected, the Taiwan and Hong Kong agenda items proceeded without disagreement or dissent. The new law was passed on March 14th by an NPC vote of 2,896 with two abstentions and no opposition. Tung Chee-hwa resigned on March 10th and was elected to his new position two days later by a CPPCC vote of 2,065 to 21 with 20 abstentions. In fact, the smooth orchestration belied Hong Kong's current political disarray and the dangerous game of brinkmanship being played on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Also obscured was the link between Hong Kong's dysfunctional post-1997 governance and Taiwan's ongoing political drama, seen by all participants as the final phase of a conflict between Chinese communism and its adversaries that has continued in one form or another since the 1920s.

Viewed from afar, China's 20th century civil war should be no cause for concern in 2005. The last major battles were fought in 1949, the same year Chiang Kai-shek and remnants of his Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan. Only the Korean War and U.S. security guarantees saved them from total defeat. Now Chiang's authoritarian regime is long gone and the victorious communists have moved on as well. Once capitalism's mortal enemy, their party now strives to master the secrets of capitalism's success. Chinese leaders today should therefore have little difficulty finding acceptable solutions for their remaining differences.

In reality, the two sides cannot even agree to negotiate an end to the state of war that still exists between them, signifying a conflict that has never ended but instead continues by other means. The simulated war games are conducted now primarily on political playing fields where minds and wills are being taxed to the limit. The players may talk, travel, trade, invest, and intermarry; but each exchange also creates new opportunities for mutual exploitation set against the backdrop of an arms race that has moved full circle.

After 1949, Nationalists lived for decades on the promise of retaking the mainland and American conservatives relished the prospect of "unleashing Chiang Kai-shek" toward that end. Today, Washington still runs interference for his successors but the most American conservatives can hope for is an independent Taiwan, or so it might seem at first glance. Meanwhile, the island has reverted to full defensive mode while mainland offensive capabilities grow and its armchair warriors speculate confidently on the merits of an American-style "shock and awe" campaign to force Taiwan's surrender before Washington can come to the rescue. That Chinese leaders in Beijing will probably never resort to any such final solution, yet actively prepare for it and advertise their preparations, is a measure of the predicament they perceive.


Since the death of paramount revolutionary Mao Zedong in 1976, and especially since 1989-91 when communism collapsed in the Soviet heartland, China's Communist Party has lost both its claim to historical infallibility and its chief reason for existence. The Nationalists experienced a similar identity crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, when they had to confront the fallacy of their pretensions as rightful rulers of all China. To fill their own void, mainland leaders have elevated the pre-communist aspirations of a weak and war torn China, for restoration of its once-proud status, to the level of a sacred trust. Their legitimacy now derives solely from this mission and its logic is proclaimed at every opportunity.

The conflation of endangered political power with China's manifest destiny explains the drive for reunification and intensifying pressure on Taiwan to make the nation whole again. These imperatives also explain why Beijing has spent the years since 1997 trying to teach Hong Kong to sing that old revolutionary anthem, "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China." Unfortunately, Beijing's back-to-the-future formula is as out of touch with the times as Chiang Kai-shek's old pretensions about retaking the mainland, which he used to justify his grip on power just as Beijing leaders do today. Hong Kong and Taiwan are not being asked to reproduce the much-feared sequences of socialist development that mainlanders experienced when they first learned the song. But Beijing is nonetheless discovering the flaw in its grand reunification design: converging economic systems are only necessary, not sufficient.

At the heart of the impasse lie two very different ways of political life. Yet Beijing cannot offer Taiwan ironclad guarantees that reunification will not threaten its hard-won democratic gains and without such guarantees, Taiwan's people will never agree to reunification. Even with such guarantees, Taiwan may never acquiesce because Beijing made similar promises to Hong Kong and has proceeded to undermine them at every step.

Beijing's conundrum is thus complete. To solve its problems with Hong Kong and Taiwan, Beijing must acknowledge that politics is the key and genuine democratic self-rule the only real solution. But Beijing cannot adopt such a course without simultaneously acknowledging the need for its own political reform and to do so risks a Soviet-style devolution of Communist Party rule in China. The Anti-Secession Law is part of Beijing's attempt to buy time and finesse a solution. So too is the premature resignation of Hong Kong's ill-fated chief executive who obeyed Beijing's instructions to the letter, defied local democratic aspirations, and consequently could not sustain the authority necessary to govern Hong Kong's partially democratized system.


These strains are clearly written on the diverse faces of Beijing officialdom as shown to the world at large and to compatriots back home. Since Hong Kong occupies a border zone in between, the disconnect appears more striking there: between sophisticated decisions that are rapidly transforming China into a global economic powerhouse, and the clumsy fantasy-land logic that rules over domestic political life. Such contrasts are hardly unique to China and myths are the stuff of politics everywhere. But in trying to find solutions for its current dilemma, Beijing is actually heightening political distinctions by trying to deny and contain what cannot be acknowledged and accommodated.

Nowhere was this clash of political cultures displayed more clearly than in Hong Kong during the recent sequence of crises leading up to Tung Chee-hwa's resignation. And nowhere has Beijing demonstrated greater skill in containment or contortions in denial. The crises themselves were 20 years in the making, rooted in arrangements negotiated by London and Beijing to ease local fears and achieve a smooth transition from British back to Chinese sovereignty. At the time, in 1997, Beijing could well believe it had designed a workable mechanism for managing ex-colonial Hong Kong and wooing back Taiwan as well.

The formula, known as "one country, two systems," was actually conceived for Taiwan soon after Deng Xiaoping established himself as China's paramount leader in 1978. Taiwan was then still ruled by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist successors and the formula dovetailed nicely with Deng's agenda for post-Mao China. Taiwan had prospered under its combination of capitalist economics and repressive autocratic rule, anticipating a perfect convergence. The two-systems idea would allow Taiwan to continue as it was until mainland China's economy caught up while the two political systems merged and evolved in tandem.

Alas, Beijing ignored the old warning about trying to cross the same river twice. Taiwan initially spurned Deng's offer but its promise was at least ready when Hong Kong's future suddenly became a more urgent priority. Expiration of an old lease covering most of the colony's 400 square miles provided the 1997 deadline after Deng declared non-renewal of the lease as another of his obligations to Chinese history. [1]

No Chinese government had ever willingly accepted the 19th century arrangements whereby Hong Kong passed from Chinese into British hands. The same also applied to all the other bits of territory, treaty ports, and spheres-of-influence that dated back to a time when the Age of Empire followed the Age of Discovery and Europeans thought the world they had discovered was theirs for the asking. China's drive to be rid of these old "humiliations," as they are still routinely remembered, began long before communist victory, and provided Deng with the ties he needed to a cause that also pre-dated communism's failures.

In Taiwan, however, the long-standing tension between Nationalist mainland rulers and native-born Taiwanese yielded to rapid change during the two decades following Chiang Kai-shek's death in 1975. Martial law was revoked. Repression ceased. Dissidents were released from jail. Other critics realized it was safe to return from self-imposed exile in the U.S., Japan, or wherever, and preordained formalities gave way to genuine competition at election time. By 1997, Taiwan had evolved into an exuberant young democracy. Many interests therefore had to be accommodated and Nationalist rulers could no longer sit down with their Beijing counterparts to cut a deal as Deng Xiaoping had envisaged. Indeed, the Nationalists had become reformers themselves. They were also about to lose power, or at least be obliged to share it more or less equally with Taiwanese who harbored in their midst advocates not just of democratic reform but of the variable century-old movement for independence as well.

The demand for Taiwanese independence was first raised in the late 19th century when a fast-learning Japan decided to emulate the West in all things, including colonial conquest, and did not stop until it had swallowed up all the West's Asian possessions, between 1941 and 1945. Taiwan was the first of Japan's acquisitions, seized in 1895 from the old Chinese empire, which was by then too weak to defend itself even against an upstart neighbor. Local Chinese officials did what they could by way of resistance and declared a short-lived independent Republic of Taiwan. Different versions of this aim with different motivations have since waxed and waned.

Unlike their performance elsewhere, however, Japanese rule in Taiwan between 1895 and 1945 was relatively enlightened, in marked contrast to their Nationalist successors. Unreformed mainlanders had already worn out their welcome by 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek's demoralized government took up residence. Contemporary divisions between ruling mainlanders and ruled Taiwanese date from this period , defined by the latter's demands for independence and reform. Taiwanese thus acquired a distinct political identity, separate from both Communist and Nationalist variants of mainland rule. The not-yet-forgotten memories of Japanese brutality on the mainland and relative beneficence in Taiwan add further to the division between mainlanders and Taiwanese.

Then, despite these swift-flowing currents, Beijing tried to cross the river again. Heedless of Taiwan's political transformation, to say nothing of the 1989-91 communist collapse in Europe and its own hard-line effort to stave off a similar fate, Beijing pressed its suit ever more ardently as preparations for Hong Kong's return were finalized. These included a constitution, known as the Basic Law, drafted expressly for the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) in recognition of its separate status. A similar document was drawn up for the 400-year-old Portuguese colony of Macau, prior to its return in 1999. Since both constitutions were based on identical one-country, two-systems principles, these now came in for more careful scrutiny. After a few years, the results were also clear in practice and the new Taiwan did not much like what it saw.


Responding to Hong Kong's 2003-04 upsurge of discontent, Beijing rejected demands for a wholly elected local government. The blunt denial came with an equally brusque reminder that the people of Hong Kong already enjoyed "unprecedented democratic rights." [2] And so they do, which begs the question Beijing refuses to confront. Taiwan currently enjoys even more, including freedom from mainland interference, genuine self-government, and democratic elections throughout, none of which has materialized under Hong Kong's two-systems arrangement despite multiple promises and reassurances indicating otherwise. Yet Beijing has continued to champion "two systems" as the basis of its reunification proposals for Taiwan, even as both the Nationalists and their Taiwanese opponents continue to reject the offer.

By mainland standards, Hong Kong's rights and freedoms are indeed generous. The Basic Law spells them out and they have (with some erosion around the edges) been honored in full: freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and private property; torture is prohibited and so is arbitrary arrest; homes are inviolable and the right to raise a family is guaranteed; the judiciary remains independent. The list reflects all the most feared elements of mainland rule and Hong Kong has so far been spared them all.

Beijing thus kept to the letter of its promises to the British when both were struggling to prepare an anti-communist community for life under communist rule. According to the relevant passage in their 1984 agreement, "the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the lifestyle." [3] But the one indeterminate element, noticeable by its absence, was the single most important: government itself, which is now tied root and branch to its Beijing parent. The ties, written into the Basic Law, are also enforced with the same determination that was initially used to make Chinese sovereignty an offer Hong Kong could not refuse, and is now being marshaled to force acceptance on Taiwan as well. [4]

Government was, of course, British Hong Kong's Achilles heel. From start to finish, virtually no decade passed without someone raising the issue of electoral representation, which even in the mid-19 th century was making its way through the institutions of colonial governance. Addressing his London superiors in 1856, Governor John Bowring wrote that he saw "no reason whatever why the representative principle, conceded in some form or other to almost every colony under the Crown, should be denied to Hong Kong." [5] Bowring's proposal was nevertheless rejected, as were all others for over a century. Direct election by universal suffrage for a few Legislative Council seats was not introduced until 1991.

Hong Kong's archaic Crown Colony form of government remained essentially unchanged throughout, led by an appointed British governor who appointed both his Executive Council or cabinet of advisors and a Legislative Council, which provided the necessary consent. A loyal expatriate-led civil service bureaucracy enforced and administered.

The British themselves called it "benevolent autocracy," benevolence signifying the personal and economic freedoms safeguarded by this most anachronistic of 20th century political systems. The process whereby it stayed that way was dubbed "administrative absorption of politics," a tribute to British skill in co-opting local "men of wealth" while preempting the emergence of any genuine opposition through measures both benevolent and otherwise. [6] The result was known as government by "consultation and consensus," said to derive from the Chinese preference for social harmony over Western-style competitive politics.

Explanations proved somewhat awkward when members of Parliament asked questions in London, but answers were always based on two contradictory themes: apathy and danger. In his 1965 memoirs, former governor Alexander Grantham summarized the post-1949 variant of these themes to explain why he had resisted political reform during his 1947-57 tenure. Due to its unique historical circumstances, he wrote, Hong Kong could never aspire to independence like other colonies because all Chinese had always maintained it was part of China. Chinese were also "politically apathetic," preferring to "leave the business of government to the professionals." Finally, he and his local advisors feared the Communist-Nationalist conflict could not be kept at bay if Hong Kong allowed popular participation in government. [7]

Such were the truths and half-truths of Hong Kong's colonial inheritance and Beijing set about incorporating them all. "Two systems" meant Hong Kong could remain as it was, which meant all the rights and freedoms, plus a simulated version of autocratic colonial rule. London's lynchpin role would be taken over by Beijing, power would be concentrated locally in the hands of a chief executive, and an updated version of Hong Kong's enduring myths soon emerged to rationalize the whole.

As for the myths, the most pernicious, given its long after life, was the claim that electoral reform and independence were automatically linked as Grantham implied. In fact, the two were not synchronized in British colonial history and there had never been any movement for independence in Hong Kong. On the contrary, the one concerted reform effort, initiated by British officials themselves, was actually undertaken with the aim of keeping Hong Kong British. The plan emerged toward the end of World War II, in response to Nationalist and American pressure for Hong Kong's post-war return to China. London's idea was to give Hong Kong residents a greater role in running the colony and thereby win their support for Britain's continued sovereignty over it. [8] Communist victory ended all such pressures and it was the remnants of this plan, announced in 1946, that Governor Grantham laid to rest in the early 1950s. Concerning the myths of apathy and obedience, post-Mao leaders had already discovered the utility of conservative Confucian values to help fill the political void at home and were delighted to find them still apparently prevailing in conservative colonial Hong Kong as well.

Mainland suspicions consequently began to grow when the British, suddenly concerned about how their own history might judge their Hong Kong stewardship, hastily dusted off the most recent (late 1960s) package of aborted reform proposals. A new territory-wide system of District Boards was introduced and some seats were elected by universal suffrage in 1982, just as Beijing was making its 1997 intentions known to the city and three years after the British learned for sure that Hong Kong's status was going to change.

The first ever indirect election for a few Legislative Council (or Legco, in local shorthand) seats was held in 1985, and Chinese suspicions deepened. The aim of this new initiative was clearly stated: "to develop progressively a system of government the authority for which is firmly rooted in Hong Kong" and accountable to its people. [9]

Candidates with the most straightforward democratic platforms generated the greatest public interest and none more so than lawyer Martin Lee. His maiden speech in 1985 marked the onset of a tense adversarial relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong's growing democratic community that has yet to soften 20 years later. Lee declared Hong Kong people themselves to be the best guarantee against Chinese interference. Hence direct elections were the only means of achieving "an effective and highly autonomous government to keep our system separate from the rest of China." [10]

Beijing theoreticians immediately took up the challenge. In their version, London, having failed to extend the lease or an administrative presence after 1997, was trying to compensate with a scheme to root government in the people. This was the equivalent of popular sovereignty, which was tantamount to independence, as the British themselves had so often said when rejecting past political reform petitions. Suspicions hardened into certitudes after 1989, when Chinese students filled Beijing's Tiananmen Square in protest and all of Hong Kong responded in kind. Local democrats marched at the head of Hong Kong's largest ever political demonstrations, at least one million strong, chanting new more audacious slogans that they have refused to abandon: democracy in China itself, they say, is Hong Kong's only true safeguard.

Official mainland responses have since alternated between arguing that popular sovereignty is tantamount to independence and charges of subversive intent, the latter to remind democrats that calling for the overthrow of one-party rule would merit jail terms or worse in any other mainland jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the Basic Law was promulgated in 1990, while communist regimes were collapsing everywhere else, and Beijing was determined to hold the line. With the help of Hong Kong's "men of wealth," Beijing produced the most conservative design that its 1984 promises would allow. Virtually all Hong Kong's Chinese tycoons switched allegiance, once satisfied their economic interests would be protected, and served as mainstays on the many Beijing-appointed committees used to build a new government.

As a result, no Chief Executive and no member of his Executive Council can be appointed over Beijing's objection and as a matter of practice, none contradicts Beijing's will in word or deed. Shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa was tapped as Beijing's choice and a Beijing-appointed Selection Committee endorsed the appointment in a "mainland-style" vote. Oblivious to the new "Hong Kong-style" expectations, Tung remained as loyal and obedient to Beijing as Beijing hoped Hong Kong would be to him. His first speeches focused on the old hierarchical Confucian values of duty and obligation to elders and superiors. Not for us, we're Chinese, he said of the West's obsession with individual rights and freedoms, which he recalled disapprovingly from his years in America during the profligate 1960s.

The community, being Chinese, applauded politely and carried on with its mixed border-zone ways as promised by the Basic Law. Confucian homilies thus provided scant cover for an administration that stumbled from one crisis to the next, with a leader who treated public political discourse as a form of penance best avoided. Yet despite widespread local complaints, Beijing endorsed him for a second term in 2002 because , said national leaders, they were quite content with his performance. And well they might be because he had carried out his assigned tasks to the letter, including a long list of decisions by a Beijing-appointed Preparatory Committee that tried to undo as many of Britain's 11th -hour reforms as possible and more. [11]

By the end of Tung Chee-hwa's first term, Hong Kong's wholly-elected District Boards had been rechristened District Councils and reinforced with enough appointed members to ensure conservative majorities. Two wholly elected municipal housekeeping councils had been abolished and the Legislative Council was being run in strict accordance with Basic Law rules. Legislators may not introduce bills that relate to public expenditure, government structure, or its operation, and the Chief Executive's written consent is necessary for all bills relating to government policy.

Additionally, no more than half the 60-seat council can be directly elected and proportional representation is mandated for these contests. Hence democratically inclined candidates, who have garnered at least 60% of the popular vote in all Legco elections since 1991, can never occupy more than about one-third of the seats. In the most recent 2004 election, democrats captured a record total of 25. If all else fails, a dual voting mechanism for legislative initiatives gives indirectly elected conservatives veto power over directly elected democrats.

Tung Chee-hwa never ceased lamenting the difficulty of pushing his bills through this divided legislature and democrats never ceased lamenting their inability to block even one. But conditions for changing these arrangements and amending the Basic Law are also so strict as to render them difficult to meet and impossible to achieve without the central government's approval. Indeed, that approval can be invoked on all matters deemed by the center to concern its relationship with Hong Kong. Still not satisfied, Beijing authorized the creation, in 2000, of a Central Liaison Office headed by ranking mainland officials in seeming violation of the spirit if not the actual letter of the Basic Law (Article 22).

This new office succeeds the multi-purpose New China News Agency that had served since 1949 as Beijing's local representative and leader of Hong Kong's "pro-China" community, as well as cover for its still-unacknowledged branch of the Communist Party. [12] In a city dominated by anti-communist mainland émigrés, this minority took defiant pride in calling itself "leftist" and "patriotic" as a mark of distinction from everyone else. Contributing further to the sense of grievance and solidarity was the Hong Kong government's peculiar method of containment. As a result, mainland-owned banks, businesses, and publications, patriotic schools, and the largest trade union federation grew into established fixtures of local society, but their leaders were otherwise shunned. The colonial establishment included no leftists and their influence was checked by all the less benign methods at a colonial ruler's disposal, leaving a residue of resentment that has yet to fade.

The News Agency staff performed a yeoman's service before 1997, by mobilizing this alienated community, placating business elites, scouting for other sympathetic talents, and coaxing erstwhile enemies to cooperate on the various founding committees of the new SAR government. But what was accepted as necessary during the pre-1997 transition has now been institutionalized in the new liaison office. Its staff works tirelessly to mobilize and coordinate local partisans on Beijing's behalf for every election and political debate. Their solidarity is unwavering and despite internal differences, they never break ranks on the issues that matter to Beijing, making it difficult now to see where one system ends and the other begins.


That avowedly pro-communist politicians, conventional conservatives, and liberal democrats can contest elections and sit peacefully in the same council chambers must be counted a unique achievement in the history of China's civil war politics. That the much-repeated pre-1997 promises about local autonomy are being compromised in so many ways lies at the heart of Taiwan's determination to avoid a similar fate. In Hong Kong, the tense standoff over political boundaries reached a crisis point in 2003-04, when Beijing's insistence on new national security legislation put Tung Chee-hwa to his greatest test and showed the two-systems experiment at its worst.

Beijing's decision to include Article 23 in the final draft of the Basic Law was made soon after the Tiananmen upheaval in 1989, when Hong Kong activists began calling for a democratic mainland government. Article 23 obliges Hong Kong to enact legislation against treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets, and foreign organizations that threaten China's security. Novice that he was, Tung Chee-hwa vowed to enact the legislation during his first year in office. Pro-Beijing politicians took credit for persuad ing him otherwise but seem only to have conveyed the need for caution without explaining why.

A consultation draft was published in September 2002, soon after Tung's second term began and even if mainland legal drafters were not directly involved, their Hong Kong counterparts made it seem so. The official "nothing to fear" mantra appeared meaningless given the range of proscriptions and gaping loopholes left open in pursuit of national stability and state security. [13]

Treason was to include instigating foreigners to invade any Chinese territory, an unstated reference to American defense of Taiwan. Failure to report an offense of treason was to be criminalized along with aiding, abetting, counseling, and conspiring (chap. 2). Subversion was even more dangerous, being defined as any attempt to overthrow the central government or "disestablish the basic system of the state," as defined in the Chinese constitution, by force or other "unlawful means" (chap. 5). Secession meant secession. Sedition meant incitement to commit all the above and included a range of routine Hong Kong activities like possessing "seditious publications" without a "reasonable excuse" such as academic research or news reporting (chap. 4). Theft of state secrets was equally problematic in its definition (chap. 6).

These crimes were also introduced without any explanation of whether mainland classified-information categories would apply. Hong Kong's resistance would turn on this point more than any other because all kinds of information from disease outbreaks to economic data, as well as military and political affairs, are systematically expunged from mainland academic and news publications by censors applying the same catchall norms of stability and security that Hong Kong was being asked to embrace.

Political novice that he still was, Tung Chee-hwa left promotion to the one person among his principal officials least qualified for the task. Perhaps the Secretary for Security's most revealing comment came in an unrelated aside when she boasted to a reporter that she had learned to "drink like a man," the better to mix with her mainland public security colleagues. [14] Then, like some petty-minded holdover from Hong Kong's past now trying to please her new mainland mentors, Regina Ip pouted and sneered her way through months of controversy while Tung looked on and the patriotic community applauded her "leadership." They even formed a friends-of-Regina lobby to promote her candidacy as his successor. She insisted that most people either supported the legislation or could not care less, while loyalists closed ranks to blame democratic opponents for dereliction of patriotic duty and misleading a gullible public.

In the end, 500,000 people rose up and saved themselves by staging Hong Kong's largest angriest protest march since 1989. Tung was unmoved but the July 1, 2003 demonstration convinced his conservative pro-business allies to withdraw their support for his bill, which remains on indefinite hold. As for the catalyst, fate could not have intervened in a more dramatic fashion. SARS originated just across the border in Guangdong province during the winter of 2002-03. Health authorities in Guangdong maintained their silence, as required by law, until the deadly new virus began spreading worldwide via transit passengers from Hong Kong.

The disease needed a name and the international health community called it Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, after its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region point-of-transmission where the new namesake unwittingly added insult to injury. Schools closed and all social life came to a virtual halt, as did the Article 23 debate, but Tung Chee-hwa would not delay his legislative timetable. By the time the all clear sounded in late June, just days before the planned protest march, 300 SARS deaths had been recorded in Hong Kong alone.

Meanwhile, a relevant provision on theft of state secrets had been revised and readied for passage into law. The offense was to be defined as illegal access to and unlawful disclosure of "information related to Hong Kong affairs within the responsibility of the Central Authorities." [15] This provision would have made illegal the acquisition and disclosure of information such as that initially withheld by mainland authorities from Hong Kong's Director of Health when she tried in vain to confirm early reports of the disease.

Democrats rushed to exploit the upsurge of public anger with more urgent arguments for a government accountable to the people of Hong Kong. Specific new demands were raised for full democracy or a wholly elected government by 2007-08, the earliest dates allowed under Basic Law guidelines for changing the existing arrangements. Even though opinion polls showed great majorities in agreement, these were the demands that Beijing summarily rejected in April 2004, with the reminder that Hong Kong already had enough democratic freedoms. This direct intervention was justified on grounds that instability threatened, thereby making the issue a central government concern, despite the Basic Law's mandate for local consultation on political reform and a specific note that Legco reform was a local Hong Kong matter.

The political drama provoked by Article 23 had several more episodes yet to run but Beijing's verdict capped an important criticism-study campaign, reminiscent in style if not content of revolutionary days gone by. The aim was to teach a slow-learning Hong Kong what Beijing meant by "two systems" and to discredit all who would argue otherwise. Dubbed Basic Law "guardians," the main teachers were elderly mainland law professors who had helped with drafting the law in the 1980s, and were now assigned to explain its true intent.

The guardians and Beijing officials spoke repeatedly, in loud angry voices, elaborating on the key two-systems promissory slogans: "high degree of autonomy" and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong," to answer the questions "how high" and "which people." The message was clear: autonomy assumes that Beijing must take precedence over Hong Kong whenever Beijing deems necessary, and the Hong Kong people in charge must be patriotic. The old Hong Kong myth linking elections by definition to independence was added for good measure.

Professor Xiao Weiyun arrived from Beijing in January 2004 and set the tone. Basic Law drafters had actually been thinking of the mid-21 st century for wholly elected Hong Kong government, he said, not 2007. He also emphasized that it was for the central government to decide because, "in one country with two systems, one country is prior and fundamental." Only a strong China could have forced Hong Kong's return and only a strong China could keep it.[16]

As to who should rule, how can anyone who opposes Article 23 legislation to safeguard national security be called patriotic, Beijing officials asked. Of course they cannot, chorused local pro-Beijing partisans , and had not Deng Xiaoping himself said that patriots should rule Hong Kong? The conclusion was easy and local patriots had in any case been proclaiming it for years. "Traitor," screamed the placards and hecklers who greeted Martin Lee when he returned from one of his lobbying trips to Washington. Like father, like son, scoffed Vice-Minister of Commerce An Min, in Beijing. Martin Lee's father had been a Nationalist general and opposed the Communist Party before fleeing to Hong Kong in 1949. [17]

The Basic Law must be understood in its entirety, explained the guardians who returned for more seminars in March. Spirit, essence, and legislative intent were more important than words, they declared. Patriotism and executive leadership were the essence even if not mentioned in so many words and universal suffrage, which was, must not be mistaken for true democracy. [18]

Patriotism was in any case the fulcrum on which all else turned and in Beijing's eyes, patriotism's logic was irreducible. If democrats continued to protest, they were unpatriotic and since they did, so they must be. If they won a majority in Legco, they would overthrow executive-led government, demand universal suffrage, and use democracy as a cover for independence just like President Chen Shui-bian was doing in Taiwan. Such was the real meaning, hidden within Hong Kong's new marching slogan, "return power to the people." Beijing had already taken back power from the British in the name of all the Chinese people. Returning that power to the people of Hong Kong, through a wholly elected government, would therefore be tantamount to independence and a denial of Chinese sovereignty.


Having backed itself into this corner, only Beijing can find a way out. If patriotism's irreducible logic were not being used in the service of endangered legitimacy, and if Beijing's predicament were not so real, those concerned could rest easy in the assumption that a peaceful solution will eventually emerge. In fact, all the principal players do still assume this, which is why they continue to exploit the space between danger signs. But they also hope no one miscalculates because if anyone does, the 1989 Tiananmen Square precedent for subduing unruly unarmed civilians is still fresh in the public's memory.

Beijing's new Anti-Secession Law is only the most recent of the danger signals, although it actually represents a step back from the brink, as first articulated in 2000. Two white papers were issued that year, one specifically on Taiwan and the other on defense. Both toughened Beijing's long-standing refusal to renounce the use of force should Taiwan continue to procrastinate "indefinitely." [19] The 2005 law says the same thing but is more circumspect. It threatens to use "non-peaceful means" to preempt Taiwan's independence, rather than to enforce reunification arbitrarily.

Still, everyone is playing a risky game. As with Hong Kong, the current phase of escalating tension began soon after the collapse of communism elsewhere, when Beijing circled the wagons and determined to defy the odds. In this life and death struggle, national leaders cast economic growth as their only friend and political reform as a mortal enemy. Taiwan did not need to wait until 1997 to see how Hong Kong's two-systems model actually worked because the Basic Law, promulgated in 1990, spelled out the fundamentals for all to see. The response began with a series of subtle maneuvers initiated by the Nationalist Party's first native-born Taiwanese leader, Lee Teng-hui. He succeeded Chiang Kai-shek's son, Chiang Ching-kuo, as head of both party and government upon the younger Chiang's death in 1988. Lee won Taiwan's first ever presidential election in 1996 and retired in 2000.

Before the early 1990s, both sides of the Taiwan Strait could at least agree that they were part of one China awaiting reunification. But from that time, Lee's Nationalist government moved in progressively less subtle ways to establish a separate space and identity for Taiwan that does not assume either prior unity or future reunification. Beijing countered, beginning with then President Jiang Zemin's January 1995 speech outlining an eight-point plan for reunification. [20] Beijing also began marking time. After Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, Taiwan would be the next order of business.

Using the same logic applied to Hong Kong, the official habit of referring to Taiwan's democratization as just another independence ploy also dates from the mid-1990s. Officials adapted other new Hong Kong tactics and tried their best to influence Taiwan election results with variations on the patriot theme. In Taiwan's case, the formula included much saber rattling with military exercises timed to remind voters of the impending threat. Similarly, a flurry of news releases preceding Taiwan's first presidential election in March 1996 declared that to vote for a president was by definition to vote for independence, regardless of the candidate. The February 2000 Taiwan white paper was issued just a month before the second presidential election and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji himself contributed a speech warning Taiwan voters not to do something they would later regret because Chinese soldiers were willing to die for the cause of national reunification.

Beijing's frustration grew as Taiwan ignored both carrots and sticks. All the candidates mocked Premier Zhu's warning and the voters did exactly what he had tried to prevent by electing Chen Shui-bian. Chen was the candidate of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and he made history by breaking the Nationalists' 70-year hold on power -- providing yet another reason for Beijing to fear electoral politics.

Like Hong Kong's democrats, the new president spoke of democracy not just as a source of pride but of protection as well. He also went further by suggesting that the people of Taiwan should themselves be allowed to decide on reunification, through a referendum or some other means. Hence Chinese leaders rail at Taiwanese democracy as a cover for independence, whereas Taiwan's drift toward "independence" is actually a protective cover for democracy. But in Beijing's eyes, reunification is a non-negotiable sacred trust and not for the people to decide, which is why even the mere mention of "referendum" sets off an instantaneous barrage of protest.

Left to themselves over time, however, Taiwan voters would undoubtedly be able to do more than anyone else to help Beijing deconstruct its fears since no serious public opinion poll has ever produced more than a minority for independence. Of course, most people reject the idea of reunification as well. Majorities always favor the status quo and will presumably continue to do so for an uncertain period of indefinite duration, unless something happens or can be made to happen, which is where the game of wits and nerves begins.

For Beijing, sometime and maybe are not good enough, and only a credible threat of force will end the drift. For Taiwan, only a self-governing political system can protect against Hong Kong's fate. Threats from Beijing only confirm Taiwan's demand for protection, leaving "pro-unification" and "pro-independence" politicians to dance around carefully worded variations of the same response. Meanwhile from the sidelines, old Lee Teng-hui plays the role of all-party whip, calling Beijing's military buildup a bluff and urging Taiwan, in effect, not to concede too much too soon. But in Beijing hard liners are naturally playing the same game. Force deployed, they retort, is the only credible use for a threat proclaimed.

In fact, the hardliners on both sides know exactly what they are doing and Lien Chan's dramatic trip to Beijing in late April 2005 illustrated the positive potential of their brinkmanship game. Lien is the current Nationalist Party chairman and has unsuccessfully contested two presidential elections against Chen Shui-bian. Lien's historic journey home, the first for any Nationalist leader since 1949, may have seemed like an act of treachery to Chen and a gesture of submission to Beijing, so soon after passage of its Anti-Secession Law. But the gesture also essentially called Beijing's bluff and Lien said nothing about reunification. On the contrary, he championed a peaceful status quo and Beijing had no choice but accept what in 2000 it proclaimed a provocation for war. Further in return for Lien's renunciation of independence, Beijing even had to listen while he lectured, circumspectly, on the wisdom of political reform. As a result, his Nationalists may well win back the presidency in 2008 because Beijing will presumably remain on its best behavior until then so as not to prejudice their chances of victory -- whereupon Beijing will still be left with an independent-minded Taiwan determined to avoid Hong Kong's stifling political fate.

The two sides have thus played each other to a draw for now, but the game is far from over and there is third party involvement with the United States still responsible for Taiwan's defense. Unfortunately, the current American administration does not "do nuance," because China's dilemma was difficult enough to grasp for a president who did.

During its final years in office, the Clinton administration scoured the world in search of conflicts to solve by way of compensation for his tattered legacy at home. Eager aides hit upon Taiwan reunification and recommended Hong Kong's seemingly perfect "two systems" as a model solution. Taiwan naturally balked at the gratuitous effort that just as naturally encouraged Beijing and heightened tensions ahead of Taiwan's 2000 presidential election. Now the Bush administration is working to similar effect on a far more dangerous scale by drawing Japan into the potential tinderbox of cross-strait relations.

Back when it first assumed the Taiwan obligation, Washington was motivated by anti-communist instinct and anti-communist containment. Now both motives have been absorbed into the Bush administration's grandiose global scheme for preemptive defense, ensuring that decisions made in its name will be even more indifferent to the consequences for political life on the ground. In this case, of course, the president should have no trouble recognizing the consequences since Bush espouses the same absolutist patriotic certitudes as Beijing, whose leaders only aspire to project power regionally as Washington does on a global scale.

Given the Bush administration's pretensions, however, what's good for America is good for the world. Washington therefore remains unconcerned about its provocative role in tapping Japan as a key Asian partner in the new grand strategy. This has meant not just upgrading Tokyo's military and diplomatic status, but using Japan as a counterweight against China's growing power, regardless of the bitter memories Japan's 20 th century adventures in China evoke.

Most recently, in February 2005, a pact between Tokyo and Washington took the relationship a step further by making the defense of Taiwan, against China, a common security objective. Beijing's new Anti-Secession Law may have provided the incentive for this long-contemplated move but its impact spread like wildfire all the same. By March an internet petition opposing Japan's admission to the exclusive club of permanent United Nations Security Council members had registered 29 million Chinese signatures. By mid-April, China had erupted in the largest series of street demonstrations since an American plane bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia six years earlier.

Actually, if it were just a matter of ending the final phase of China's civil war, a firm "no war, no independence" no nonsense pledge from Washington would be enough to see the job done. Enforcing the pledge, instead of just reciting it on special occasions, would give the participants time to work through their political differences and Beijing could concentrate on economics without having to plan for the military conquest of Taiwan. But ending the Chinese civil war is the least of Washington's concerns.

For those making U.S. foreign policy today, Taiwan is a small issue -- like gay marriage in domestic politics -- to be exploited in pursuit of larger ends. For American conservatives, Taiwan represents the final phase of their own global war against communism. Such a prize is surely worth fighting for, especially if someone else can be induced to help out with the fighting, and inflamed political passions on the streets of China might be just the spark needed to light a larger conflagration. Should it delay China's impact on the global competition for markets and resources, so much the better in this scenario. Preventing the emergence of rival power centers is an essential premise of Washington's new defense strategy and military alliances are being designed to cope with disruptive contingencies wherever they occur. Someone else can worry about the dismay being bred among first generation voters in Taiwan and Hong Kong at so cynical a manipulation of the great American ideals they thought they were emulating.

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer. She is the author of Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-59 (University of California Press, 1978; 2nd ed. Rowan and Littlefield, 1999); Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th-Century China (Cambridge University Press, 1996); and a forthcoming book on Hong Kong's political history. Email:



1. Peter Wesley-Smith, Unequal Treaty, 1898-1997: China, Great Britain, and Hong Kong's New Territories (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, rev. ed. 1998). [Return to Text]

2. Text, National People's Congress Standing Committee, "Decision on Issues Concerning Methods for Selecting Hong Kong's Chief Executive and Forming Legco," Beijing, April 26, 2004 ( [Return to Text]

3.Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Xinhua News Agency, September 1984), p. 3. [Return to Text]

4. The most detailed English-language accounts of Hong Kong's confrontation with its 1997 fate are: Mark Roberti, The Fall of Hong Kong: China's Triumph and Britain's Betrayal (New York: John Wiley, rev. ed. 1996); Robert Cottrell, The End of Hong Kong: The Secret Diplomacy of Imperial Retreat (London: John Murray, 1993). [Return to Text]

5. Governor Bowring, dispatch 49, March 26, 1856 (source: CO 129/55), in, Steve Tsang, ed., Government and Politics: A Documentary History of Hong Kong (Hong Kong University Press, 1995), p. 62. [Return to Text]

6. Ambrose Yeo-chi King, "Administrative Absorption of Politics in Hong Kong," Asian Survey, May 1975, pp. 422-39. [Return to Text]

7. Alexander Grantham, Via Ports: From Hong Kong to Hong Kong (Hong Kong University Press, 1965), pp. 111-12, 195. [Return to Text]

8. Steve Yui-Sang Tsang, Democracy Shelved: Great Britain, China, and Attempts at Constitutional Reform in Hong Kong, 1945-1952 (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 12-31. [Return to Text]

9.Green Paper: The Further Development of Representative Government in Hong Kong , July 1984, p. 4. [Return to Text]

10. Legislative Council, Hong Kong Hansard, Nov. 27, 1985, pp. 146-49. [Return to Text]

11. Yuan Qiushi, ed., Xianggang guodu shiqi zhongyao wenjian huibian (A Compilation of Important Documents on Hong Kong's Transition Period), (Hong Kong: Sanlian, 1997), pp. 266-317. [Return to Text]

12. The most informative account of the agency's work, in Chinese only, was written by one of its directors after his defection to the U.S.: Xu Jiatun Xianggang huiyilu (Xu Jiatun's Hong Kong Memoirs), (Taibei: Lianhobao, 1993), 2 vols. [Return to Text]

13. Security Bureau, Proposals to Implement Article 23 of the Basic Law: Consultation Document, September 2002. [Return to Text]

14. South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, March 12, 2003. [Return to Text]

15. Security Bureau, Implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill, Explanatory Notes, February 2003, p. 8. [Return to Text]

16. South China Morning Post, Jan. 17, 2004; Ming Pao Daily News and Ta Kung Pao , both Hong Kong, both Jan. 17 and Jan. 20, 2004. [Return to Text]

17. South China Morning Post, Ming Pao Daily News, Ta Kung Pao, all March 8, 2004. [Return to Text]

18. South China Morning Post, Ming Pao Daily News, Ta Kung Pao, all March 16, 2004. [Return to Text]

19. Texts, "The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue," and "China's National Defense in 2000," in, China Daily , Feb. 22, 2000 and Oct. 17, 2000, respectively. [Return to Text]

20. Renmin ribao (hai wai ban) , (People's Daily, overseas edition), Beijing, Jan. 31, 1995. [Return to Text]

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