By: Victor Louzon

On Sept. 26, China’s President Xi Jinping restated his hope to see mainland China and Taiwan united on the basis of the “one country, two systems” principle. The timing was odd, with Hong Kong in the throes of a massive student protest demanding true universal suffrage. 

Xi’s declaration was denounced not only by the pro-independence political forces in Taiwan, but also the Mainland Affairs Council, dominated by the more pro-Chinese Kuomintang. The six-week-old struggle in Hong Kong and the reaction in Taiwan have exposed widening disagreement with Beijing that casts doubt on the viability of the “one country, two systems” formula.

Unsurprisingly, the outcry in Taiwan was louder on the pro-independence side, for which current events are just one more proof that Chinese sovereignty is tantamount to tyranny. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, who favors a rapprochement with Beijing, was embarrassed, too. Striving not to antagonize Beijing, he called for a “peaceful and rational” way of pushing for reform. But as the democratically chosen leader of a society largely sympathetic with the Hong Kong protests, he had no choice but to support demands for free elections.

Xi’s declaration was thus probably a way to probe Taiwanese public opinion. After all, the one-country, two-systems principle applied to Hong Kong was designed for a future reunification of China with Taiwan, which remains Beijing’s main territorial claim. Since 1997, Hong Kong has been regarded as a testing ground, and as one saying goes, “Hong Kong’s today is Taiwan’s tomorrow.”

The comparison between Hong Kong and Taiwan is valid to a point. Hong Kong has been part of the People’s Republic for 17 years; Taiwan has almost all the attributes of a sovereign country except international recognition. Hong Kong enjoyed liberal administration by the British colonial government, but not democracy, whereas Taiwan developed free elections in the 1990s.

Nonetheless, the two territories have much in common. Both used to be part of what was sometimes called “blue China” – the prosperous, extraverted and maritime periphery of a continental empire. Both enjoy more political freedom than the People’s Republic and are sometimes regarded, with possibly excessive optimism, as models for political reforms in China. Young Taiwanese activists have protested in solidarity of their Hong Kong counterparts, even though Occupy Central is wary over entanglement with Taiwan independence activists – which, as an article in Beijing’s Global Times ominously warned, would make them “enemies of the state.”

Moreover, in Hong Kong as in Taiwan, politics have taken a distinct “identity turn.” Political opposition is increasingly framed as clashes of identities around the notion of being Chinese. This is no news in Taiwan, where the standoff between pro-Chinese and nativists has shaped electoral politics since democratization. The debate over identity is more recent, in Hong Kong, where Chinese patriotism has failed to take full root since the 1997 handover.

The gamble by Deng Xiaoping and his successors was that reunification would strengthen identification to China in the Hong Kong population, which in turn, would make the difference in economic and political systems harmless to national unity. Patriotism would defang autonomy.

Instead, identification to Hong Kong as a specific entity has been gaining strength particularly among young generations educated under Chinese sovereignty. In a strange historical twist, decolonized Hong Kongers seem less attached to their Chinese identity than their colonized parents were. This sense of estrangement sometimes turns to outright hostility or contempt, fueled by what’s regarded as the negative influence of mainland China – from soaring real estate prices to pressures on the freedom of the press to the influx of mainlanders, whether they are tourists or illegal immigrants. In 2012, Hong Kong activists even bought a full-page ad in Apple Daily to denounce the invasion of “locusts.”

Beijing’s decision to rein in universal suffrage thus rests on the assessment that Deng’s gamble failed.

These politics of identity bear striking similarities to debates in Taiwan. Indeed, Formosan nativists suppose more often than not that the Chinese are less civilized than islanders; a slightly more politically correct version suggests that China’s “political culture” is intrinsically authoritarian and incompatible with Taiwanese democracy. Mainlanders have money and power, argue some activists, but they are not to be emulated or respected – if anything, China should learn from Taiwan or Hong Kong, and not the opposite.

In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, estrangement from China goes along with a tendency to rehabilitate the colonial past. Many Hong Kong residents remember British rule without resentment, some with nostalgic fondness, preferring to recall its rule of law as legacy rather than London’s refusal to grant self-determination. Taiwan’s pro-independence side is considerably more lenient than the Kuomintang in appraisals of Japanese rule. Of course, retrospective illusion permeates this colonial nostalgia, all the more since it’s particularly prevalent in the younger generations. 

The fact remains, many Hong Kongers and Taiwanese find China wanting compared to their former colonial overlords. This rhetoric strikes at the heart of Chinese nationalism by recalling the tropes of colonial times on Chinese backwardness.  

Identity claims in Hong Kong and Taiwan are thus a double insult, rejecting China both as foreign and uncivilized – denying value to Beijing’s grand narrative of a “century of humiliation,” redeemed by today’s “Chinese dream.”

Colonial nostalgia in Taiwan and Hong Kong triggers angry Chinese reactions. In 2012, Kong Qidong, a professor at Peking University, declared that regretting British rule made Hong Kongers no better than dogs. Chinese nationalists use similar vocabulary denouncing Taiwan “separatism,” often attributing this to Japan “poisoning” Taiwanese minds.

This violent rhetoric suggests that the root of the problem might well be Chinese – for it is Chinese nationalists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait who made political loyalty a question of national identity, equating patriotism with obedience to an authoritarian regime. This culturist and authoritarian argument is at the root of notions such as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – a capitalist economy ruled by a communist dictatorship. 

According to this logic, dissenters in the mainland or elsewhere can only be bad Chinese. It appears, however, that this discourse can backfire: In Hong Kong and Taiwan, proponents of political freedom who reject Chinese identity often merely react to Beijing’s coercion in its own terms.

On paper, the one-country, two-systems principle seems a pragmatic solution to the diversity of territories controlled or claimed by China– in short, an “imperial” policy, as some mainland intellectuals envision it. In reality, however, Beijing is clinging to a unitary and authoritarian idea of China, which does not allow for plurality of identities and complexity of political allegiances normally entailed by an empire.

This does not bode well for the future of political pluralism under Chinese rule, in Hong Kong or – if reunification should happen – Taiwan.

Victor Louzon is a Yale University Fox International Fellow and a Fulbright Visiting Student. He wrote this for YaleGlobal, the website of the Yale Center for the Study of Globaliztion