21st February, 2014
China Uses Economic Means to “Acquire” Taiwan – Hong Kong’s Example Shows: Businessmen Can be Bought, Not the General Public
Global Times, one of China Communist Party’s mouthpieces, published a translated article entitled “American Media: Peking’s Strategy to ‘buy’ Taiwan: Coerced Unification Without Firing a Shot”. The honesty of Global Times in revealing its stance (translating the article as opposed to censoring content) is almost surreal. The article states that China seeks to advance cross-strait integration with a cross-strait service trade agreement because from China’s point of view the agreement performs the vital political and united front functions in Taiwan. As shown by the experience of Hong Kong, the agreement will strengthen China’s capability to influence and shape Taiwan’s political process and policy efforts toward a “peaceful unification without firing a shot”.
It is still too early to tell whether China’s Taiwan strategy works, but we can certainly see the substantial impacts China’s “economic united front” strategy in Hong Kong only after ten years.
We agree that since CEPA (Hong Kong version of the service trade agreement) was signed in 2003, capitals from China floods into Hong Kong, and the local economy is becoming more and more reliant on China. Hence, China continue to gain power over Hong Kong SAR Government, commercial institutes and media. This appears that China has been extremely successful in “strengthening its capability to influence and shape Hong Kong’s political process and policy efforts”. Although united front is effective within the business, political and media sectors, it does not seem to have worked quite that well within the general public – an important but easily forgotten element of the equation.
Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme has been tracking Hongkongers’ confidence in the Chinese government, One-Country-Two-Sytem and Taiwan-China unification. According to POP’s data, although CEPA has brought businesses and politicians’ confidence “back to China” after the handover, but such confidence is not shared by the general public at all.
The data also shows that since the sovereignty handover in July 1997, the general public in Hong Kong was quite confident about One-Country-Two-Systems: 63.6% of people said they are confident, whilst 18.1% said they are not – which means a net 45.5% of people are confident. In 2003, SARS (the pandemic brought to Hong Kong from China) and Article 23 (a proposed National Security Bill to be legislated under Article 23) caused massive outcry, the confidence level fell massively to net 9.4%. CEPA was signed in 2003 with an aim to cool down the public rage over all the problems in Hong Kong. Later on, Tung Chee-hwa, the then Chief Executive, said that Hong Kong’s economy was gradually recovering due to CEPA and the positive sentiment surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympic, the confidence level rebounded to 60.8%. The high confidence level, one has to admit, was somehow related to CEPA. However, as Peking continues to tighten its interference in Hong Kong in a bolder manner, the politicians and businessmen are siding more and more toward China. Hong Kong’s values: human rights, freedoms and independent legal system, have been suffering tremendous pressure, coupling with the fact that conflicts between Hong Kong and China gradually intensify, Hongkongers’ confidence level started to drop. In June 2013, net confidence level fell to historical low to -0.1%, whilst the December 2013 net level sat at 6.9% – both are below the 2003 level (9.4%). It is necessary to point out the fact that due to the SARS pandemic real estate prices plummeted and unemployment rate went up to 8.7%, combining with the government forcing the Article 23 to be legislated, it is understandable to see the confidence level to tank. However, Hong Kong’s economy has been performing well in the past couple of years, with an unemployment rate of 3.1%, a 16-year low, and continuous budget surplus, net confidence level managed to drop to historical low at a below-zero level. This shows that CEPA could have brought significant economic interests to Hong Kong, but after a short honeymoon period, the public still resents the influences by China’s invisible hands.
The same trend applies to Hongkongers’ confidence in China’s government: when the public was outraged in 2003, their net confidence level in China’s government was -4%; but in June 2013, the level further plummeted to -20%. The December 2013 figure was -1.1%. The irony is, China’s government was hoping to use CEPA to regain the trust of Hongkongers, but the reality is Hongkongers’ confidence in China’s government fell below the original (2003) level. This shows that CEPA did not regain people’s trust, but instead encourages the boom of localism.
An even stronger evidence is that ever since the Hong Kong-China Assimilation programme is getting closer and closer to complete, the percentage of Hongkongers that support Taiwan’s independence continues to grow. In 2003, even when the public was full of rage against the SAR government and China, there were only 16.6% of people support Taiwan’s independence. However, since 2011, the percentage continues to go up. As problems caused by Independent Travel Scheme and anchor babies (e.g. shortage of labour ward spaces, formula powder shortage and school places shortage) are becoming more and more significant, the percentage of Hongkongers that support Taiwan independence has been sitting on above the 19% bar. In August 2013, the supporting rate hit 26.3%, almost 10 percentage point higher than that in 2003.
Despite the fact that China continues to “offer” more and more “economic interests” to Hong Kong, and the assimilation closer to succeed than ever, more Hongkoners want Taiwan to be independent as they do not want to see Taiwan to be taken over by China. In a nutshell, this is all because Hongkongers have seen the damages and negative impacts of Hong Kong-China Assimilation and wish that Taiwan would not follow their own footsteps.
Over 50% Hongkongers have said that they are not confident that Taiwan and China can be “reunited” – 52% in August 2013, highest since the handover of sovereignty in 1997. The percentage of Hongkongers who think that One-Country-Two-Systems will not work in Taiwan also went up to 44.4%, another historical high, in August 2013 as well. All these point to the same thing: the more China “cares for” Hong Kong, the less “nationalist (i.e. supportive of China)” Hongkongers become, and for the confidence for a “unified China” has completely gone.
Even if China and Taiwan government force for an “unification”, the hearts of Taiwanese will not surrender. In return, supports for Taiwan independence will grow and generate the boom of “city-state theory”. China’s governance will become even more challenging, and the situation in Taiwan will be even sticker than that in Hong Kong now. Unification of Taiwan and China will only be empty words at the end.