By: Dominick Harnett


Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech in January restating the Chinese government’s goal of reunifying Taiwan under the Chinese flag. January marked the 40th anniversary since the United States broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established official diplomatic ties with China.  Pressure has been building at the higher echelons of the Chinese government to make real progress in reunifying Taiwan with China. However, Taiwan and China’s relationship has measurably declined in the last two decades. Taiwan has made it clear it is not ready to unify. President Xi has also made it clear that China will use all means necessary, including force, to bring about unification. The small nation of Taiwan is stuck between a rock and a hard place. China has offered the “One Country, Two Systems” policy as terms for unification with Taiwan. This is the system currently in place in Hong Kong. There the “One Country, Two System” experiment has been ongoing for the past 22 years since 1997 and Taiwan can learn a lot from it.


“One Country, Two Systems”

Deng Xiaoping originally proposed the “One Country, Two System” policy in the 1980s as a way to peacefully integrate Taiwan’s capitalist system with mainland China’s socialist system. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Taiwan was losing a series of diplomatic battles with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). One of those battles was at the United Nations when the PRC replaced Taiwan on the Security Council in 1971. Soon after, Deng Xiaoping gave a speech calling for a peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He understood that peaceful unification could not take place by forcing the people of Taiwan to forfeit their capitalistic system for the Chinese socialist system. Therefore he proposed the “One Country, Two System,” designed to have minimal impact on the way of life for residents of Taiwan.

Taiwan resisted these initial calls for reunification and remains independent to this day. In the meantime, an opportunity for China to implement the “One Country, Two Systems” policy presented itself in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong became an English colony in the mid 19th century during the Qing Dynasty of China. Before the annexation of Hong Kong, the Qing Dynasty fought a series of wars with the British Empire known as the Opium Wars. The First Opium War was in 1840, in which the Chinese were soundly defeated and subsequently forced to sign an unequal treaty with the British known as the ‘Treaty of Nanjing.’ Less than 20 years later, in 1860, a second war between the British and Chinese broke out. The Qing Dynasty was again compelled to sign an unequal treaty at the Convention of Beijing in which the Chinese were forced to cede Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain. In 1898, the deeply weakened Qing Dynasty signed the ‘Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong’ which gave the British a lease and sovereignty over Hong Kong for 99 years or until 1997.

The Republic of China took power in 1912 after the dissolution of the Qing Dynasty. This new Chinese government refused to recognize any of the three prior unequal treaties signed with the British, including the one signed at the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong. However, the relatively weak Republic of China could not enforce its claimed rule over Hong Kong. As a result, the British continued to administer Hong Kong until the Republic of China’s collapse in 1949.

The Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong came into power in 1949 and also adopted the policy of refusing to recognize the three unequal agreements signed with the British during the Qing Dynasty era. There was a widespread sentiment among Chinese people at the time that imperialism was the cause of the Century of Humiliation. Some felt that in order to gain true independence, they must destroy all remnants of colonialism. As a matter of principle and policy, this was true under Mao’s rule, but as a matter of reality, he never enforced it.

The Chinese were not in a position in the early 1950s to demand the British relinquish control of Hong Kong. The Chinese military was comparatively weak, and there were far more pressing matters at the time. Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, said when asked about Hong Kong in 1954, “the vast majority of Hong Kong residents are Chinese. They see Hong Kong as a part of China…However, as the timing is still not yet ripe, we will not raise the issue.” But as China finally began to recover from their brutal civil war in the 1940s, people began to focus on reclaiming Hong Kong. In 1957, Zhou Enlai again explained the strategy for Hong Kong was to maintain the status quo and to use Hong Kong for the benefit of mainland China. At the time, China had few places to trade with the western countries. The exception was Hong Kong due to its status as a British colony which exempted it from the tariffs and embargoes placed by capitalist economies onto socialist economies such as China. China used Hong Kong as a free-trade port to access many of the goods and technologies from foreign countries. Obtaining foreign goods was in contradiction to China’s policy of a self-sustained economy. However, the leaders of China, including Mao Zedong, recognized the value in keeping Hong Kong open to trade and accessing different technologies and goods.

What are the ideal conditions that the leaders of China were waiting for before they reasserted sovereignty over Hong Kong?  In the mid 20th century, Britain more or less had the same policy as the United States in regards to China. Britain did not maintain full diplomatic relations with the PRC, although they did recognize them as a legitimate country, unlike the United States. Serious talks were not held over sovereignty of Hong Kong due to the PRC’s diplomatic status with Britain.

All of this changed in the 1970s when the United States reversed policy and chose to strike a deal with the PRC. On February 21, 1972, President Nixon made a historic visit to China, starting a new era of diplomacy with China. Soon after, other western countries began establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC, including Britain on March 13, 1972. Less than one month after President Nixon’s visit, China and Britain normalized relations and established diplomatic ties with each other. The United Nations General Assembly also voted in October 1971 to officially recognize the People’s Republic of China as the rightful seat on the Security Council.

Following these changes, the Chinese representative at the United Nations, Huang Hua, stated that China’s position on Hong Kong and Macau is both territories rightfully belong to China, and China will work to resolve the issue peacefully. He later added that the United Nations should not deliberate the question over Hong Kong and Macau. Many other member states of the United Nations agreed with China, and in November of 1972, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of non-intervention on the issue of Hong Kong and China. The five member states that voted no were the United States, Britain, France, Portugal, and South Africa. The UN vote put tremendous pressure on Britain and China to peacefully resolve the issue of Hong Kong. And in May of 1974, British Prime Minister Edward Heath met with Mao Zedong, and both agreed to begin working out a peaceful transition over control of Hong Kong by 1997.

Coming to an Agreement

Deng Xiaoping announced public support of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy during his visit to the United States in 1979, in which he said, “we will respect the realities and current systems there so long as Taiwan returns to the Motherland.” In 1982, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited China to discuss Hong Kong. During the meeting, Deng Xiaoping stated in regards to Hong Kong:

“To maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity depends upon our proposals that China will adopt the policies that are fit for Hong Kong after she resumes the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s current political and economic systems and even most of its laws can remain unchanged. Certainly, some should be revised and reformed. Hong Kong will still maintain its capitalist system. Many present systems that are suitable should remain unchanged” Later adding, “Within a unified PRC, the Mainland practices socialism, while Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan practice their existing capitalist systems. The purpose is to accomplish Hong Kong and Macao’s return for peaceful national reunification.”

The Chinese leaders were determined to bring Hong Kong into the fold of Chinese rule through a peaceful transition. Chinese leaders carefully took into consideration the vastly different political system, language, and history of Hong Kong. They chose to allow Hong Kong to exercise a tremendous amount of autonomy within the socialist government of China.

The proposal agreed upon by both parties was known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which outlined the legal basis to allow Hong Kong to maintain its current systems of government and economic policies. This legal basis is known as Basic Law and is the constitution for Hong Kong that the PRC abides. Under this constitution, Hong Kong keeps a high level of autonomy for 50 years after unification or until 2047. It is still unclear what will happen in 2047.

During discussions of  Basic Law, there was contention over the amount of political and civil autonomy Hong Kong would be allowed to keep.  There were worries about governmental encroachment by mainland China into Hong Kong. Both parties agreed that Hong Kong would be free to elect their own local officials and council members. Some positions would require Beijing’s approval.

Basic law

Basic Law is the constitutional basis that both Hong Kong and the PRC abide. It is the legal basis for adjudicating disputes between Beijing and Hong Kong. Basic Law sets up what is known as a “Special Administrative Region” or SAR.

The general principles of the SAR:

Unifying China and protecting national sovereignty Mostly keeping in place the previous system of government, including laws and adjudication process.

Promote stability and prosperity for the Region

Foreign Affairs and Defense

Under Basic Law, the Central People’s Government (CPG) in Beijing would be responsible for the foreign affairs and defense of Hong Kong. Certain exceptions, outlined in Basic Law Article 13, allow Hong Kong to continue aspects of foreign affairs on their own, including participation in the World Trade Organization and the Olympics. Hong Kong would be responsible for administering their own government and maintaining public order. China cannot send in members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to resolve domestic disputes or protests in Hong Kong. Such an act would violate Basic Law Article 14. Additionally, Chinese national laws would not apply in Hong Kong, and the PRC and all its provinces are forbidden from interfering with local Hong Kong affairs, except those explicitly expressed in Article 13.

Citizenship and Rights

The question of citizenship is also laid out in Basic Law, and it defines the rights of Hong Kong citizens. Under Basic Law, Hong Kong is responsible for protecting private property and issuing patents as well as mediating patent disputes. Moreover, Article 25 and 26 of Basic Law expressly protects the right to free elections. Basic Law also guarantees rights unique to Hong Kong. These include; freedom of the press, right to free speech, freedom to associate, freedom to assemble, freedom of due process, freedom of movement (within Hong Kong), freedom of religion, freedom to protest (under specific regulations), and the right to join unions. China has challenged these freedoms in some cases, which will be discussed later in the paper.

Due to the unique citizen rights in Hong Kong, residents there are issued separate passports from that of mainland China. Hong Kong and PRC residents must also go through customs before entering each other’s countries, even though Hong Kong is officially apart of the PRC.

Political System

The political system of Hong Kong is laid out in the Basic Law document and requires the Chief Executive (effectively the governor of Hong Kong) to be a Chinese citizen, over the age of 40, and permanently residing in Hong Kong. (Article 44)  A nominating committee approves candidates for Chief Executive before they can appear on a ballot. The Chief Executive is elected by popular vote but must be approved by Beijing. This provision of Basic Law has been the cause of several protests within Hong Kong. Some believe that China is interfering with the domestic affairs of Hong Kong of which is prohibited under Basic Law.

The Legislative Council of Hong Kong is elected through a democratic process by residents of Hong Kong. All powers to make and repeal laws are exclusive to the Legislative Council. A significant role of the Legislative Council is the power to appoint or remove judges on the Court of Final Appeal, the final place of adjudication within the Basic Law system in Hong Kong. The court system protects Hong Kong from Beijing’s influence under Basic Law. However, judges within the Hong Kong system may inquire with judges within the PRC, if they desire, according to Article 86.

Economic System

Under Basic Law, Hong Kong controls its own seaports. Hong Kong is treated separately from China for customs enforcement according to Article 109. This provision has allowed Hong Kong to remain mostly unaffected from US tariffs imposed on mainland China by the Trump Administration. Hong Kong also maintains a separate financial system as well as associated rules and regulations. Hong Kong continues to use the Hong Kong dollar and is responsible for printing and controlling the supply of its currency.

An aspect of foreign affairs that Hong Kong has maintained control over is its ability to negotiate free trade agreements with foreign countries. Beijing allows Hong Kong to do this as long as they use the name ‘Hong Kong, China’ on official documents and records.

Interpretation of Basic Law

The final judgment on the interpretation of Basic Law is by PRC courts. Its interpretation of some provisions in Basic Law has caused tensions between Hong Kong and China. Such as Beijing’s interpretation of their duty to protect the national integrity of Hong Kong and China which has led to Beijing cracking down on political parties. (Discussed later). Hong Kong is allowed to interpret some provisions of Basic Law within their own courts. However, the final interpretation is by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) in Beijing. Also, any adjudication that directly affects mainland China is always left to Chinese courts, not those in Hong Kong. The SCNPC also has the power to amend Basic Law, but are forbidden from making policies that contradict the basic principles of Basic Law.


There have been several contentions between Hong Kong and mainland China that has led to protests since reunification. One such protest was in 2003 when the Hong Kong Legislative Council introduced the National Security Bill of 2003 in an attempt to implement Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, which states:

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies”

After the approval of Basic Law Article 23 in 1996, the British government had unsuccessfully attempted to narrow the definition of “subversion” and “secession” to acts of violence. (Wong, 2004) This left the window open for a wider interpretation of the law by Beijing. They tried to more narrowly define Article 23 by introducing this bill via pro-China members of the Legislative Council. The aim of the 2003 National Security Bill states:

“amend the Crimes Ordinance, the Official Secrets Ordinance, and the Societies Ordinance pursuant to the obligation imposed by Article 23 of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China and to provide for related, incidental and consequential amendments”

Meanwhile, proponents of the bill argued that the legislation was necessary to control “independence radicals” that threatened the Hong Kong government and its connection with mainland China. However, opponents saw the bill as a trojan horse for China to infringe on Hong Kong’s free speech by forbidding anti-China speech. Protests then ensued, and after tremendous public backlash, the bill was dropped and has not been reintroduced. Although the Legislative Council never reintroduced the bell, this has not kept China from implementing their interpretation of Basic Law Article 23. In 2016, Beijing determined invalid the oaths of two pro-independence legislators in Hong Kong. Beijing argued that under Article 23, the two legislatures positions were at odds with Basic Law and therefore their oaths were untruthful. Beijing also deemed it a threat to national integrity for members of the Legislative Council to advocate for independence from mainland China.

In the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing promised Hong Kong residents universal suffrage by 2017.  Therefore in 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) issued guidelines to proposed reforms before the implementation of entirely free elections. One of the reforms included guidance that stated:

“The Chief executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong” and also reads, “the method for selecting the Chief executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose.”

Under this guideline, Beijing would oversee the committee that chooses candidates to run for Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Additionally, once a Chief Executive is elected, they would require the approval of the SCNPC to take office. The SCNPC stated that the election process in Hong Kong would remain the same, but would eventually implement a new system that requires legislatures to also have the approval of Beijing in order to take office.

Pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong quickly condemned these guidelines and protests soon followed. Tens of thousands marched on the streets and in front of Chinese government offices. The demonstrations lasted from September 2014 until December 2014, and the movement became known as the “umbrella movement.”

Despite the largesse of the protests and the three month period in which they took place, Beijing did not budge on their reforms. Chinese officials insisted on the changes as a way of protecting the long term relationship between Hong Kong and the Mainland. From the beginning of the protests, it was unlikely Beijing would have conceded anything to the protesters. Beijing couldn’t afford to concede. Beijing cannot be too compromising as also to appear weak. Beijing’s policy is to take a hard stance against separatist movements in all parts of China to mitigate risks of independence movements cropping up in other regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. However, Beijing also must walk a delicate balance of not appearing authoritative over Hong Kong or else it risks damaging its desire to unify with Taiwan. In the end, as a result of the protests, no policies were changed. But a sense of trust towards Beijing by Hong Kong residents has been lost.

Additionally, in 2016 Beijing used Article 23 along with the 2014 electoral guidelines to remove to legislators from the council for being pro-independence. This use of Article 23 caused another series of pro-democracy demonstrations to take place in Hong Kong. A year later in 2017 protests broke out again after a Hong Kong court sent three pro-democracy activists responsible for the Umbrella Movement to jail.

Undeterred by protests, Beijing banned an entire political party known as the Hong Kong National Party on July 17, 2018, on the grounds of national Chinese territorial integrity. The Hong Kong National Party was a pro-independence political party in Hong Kong founded in 2016 by Chan Ho-Tin. The ban also included jail time for anyone found guilty of aiding the party. Beijing was making clear that democracy in Hong Kong would take place only under Beijing’s terms.


While “One Country, Two Systems” allows for a tremendous amount of autonomy to Special Administrative Regions, the system is unlikely to convince residents of Taiwan to reunify with mainland China. This is because domestic politics within Taiwan have seen radical shifts towards democracy and independence since around the same time Hong Kong reunified with China. In 1996 Taiwan elected Lee Teng-Hui to be President of Taiwan who was the first democratically elected leader in Taiwan. Before this, nominating committees chose the leader of Taiwan, similar to the system in Hong Kong now. The same timing of Taiwan’s first democratically elected leader and Hong Kong’s unification with the PRC is not a coincidence.

Despite the wishes of Beijing, Taiwan has shifted further away from China, not closer. Surveys of residents in Taiwan show a dramatic rise in people identifying as Taiwanese, and not as Chinese. According to surveys by the National Chengchi University Election Study Center, in 1992 less than 20% of people living in Taiwan, identified as ‘Taiwanese.’ In 2013, the same survey showed that the number that identifies as Taiwanese jumped to over 60%. Likewise, in 1992 about 25% identified as Chinese. In 2013, less than 5% said they identified as Chinese. The attempt by Beijing to win the hearts and minds of people living in Taiwan using the system in Hong Kong is not working.

Beijing had hoped to show Taiwan that “One Country, Two Systems” could work for them. Hong Kong was the example of the amount of autonomy Taiwan would maintain. However, for residents of Taiwan, the “One Country, Two Systems” policy in Hong Kong has been more of a cautionary tale, rather than a model. Taiwanese now value their liberal system of government more than ever. The protests that have erupted in Hong Kong over the PRC’s tampering in their democratic process have proven detrimental to China’s goals for unification.

Even the minority of Taiwanese that favor unification still prefer to see mainland China adopt democracy before unification. But mainland China has been regressing in this field. President Xi Jinping has been consolidating power by eliminating term policies for presidents in China, effectively granting himself the power to rule indefinitely. He has been building up the Chinese military, which is seen as a direct threat for the Taiwanese. Additionally, China has a dismal record of respecting human right in places like Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese government has been expanding its surveillance capabilities to monitor its citizens. All these factors contradict the liberal democratic values that have taken deep root in Taiwanese values.

But China doesn’t seem to care about the Taiwanese people’s shift away from favoring any sort of unification. In a speech earlier this year, President Xi restated China’s goal of unification with Taiwan. The address was on January 2, 2019, which marked 40 years since the United States and China established diplomatic relations and when China announced its policy of unification.

President Xi reiterated China’s goal of unification through a peaceful process, and it is the same goal announced 40 years ago. Before 1979, much of the rhetoric by the Communist government used words such as ‘liberation’ of Taiwan, which implied using force. But that type of rhetoric has been toned down in the past few decades, and President Xi again reemphasized a peaceful process. President Xi iterated the importance of reunifying China to become a stronger nation.

However, President Xi seems to be growing impatient with the process of unification and did not offer any new concessions to Taiwan. It was quite the opposite. Richard C. Bush of the Brookings Institutions notes of President Xi’s speech:

“Xi backtracked from past policy on what aspects of Taiwan’s current system would be preserved after unification under (One Country, Two Systems). He said, “Under the premise of ensuring national sovereignty, security, and development interests, the social system and lifestyles of Taiwan compatriots will be fully respected…and the private property, religious beliefs, and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan compatriots will be fully guaranteed. This is less than previous formulations, which included the Taiwan army and the island’s political institutions. Moreover, Beijing would likely reserve for itself how to define “legitimate rights and interests.”

Nowhere in President Xi’s speech did he address any of the concerns raised by Taiwan regarding “One Country, Two Systems” implementation in Hong Kong. It does not appear that China shares the interests of democratic rights that Taiwan values. Instead, China is continuing its usual rhetoric of unification through peaceful means, even though China has not officially removed the possibility of force off the table. While China continues this rhetoric, Taiwan remains independent.


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