TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Did Britain make the international blunder of the century when it returned Hong Kong to Beijing's rule two months ago?
Should the red, white, and blue banner of Kuomintang-held Taiwan, rather than the five-starred flag of Chinese communism, now be flying over decolonized Hong Kong?
Despite Taiwan's decades-long decline on the diplomatic stage, a small cabal of Kuomintang elders here claims that the historic treaty on the return of Britain's last colony in Asia should have been signed with Taipei - not Beijing.
"We are happy that colonialism has ended in Hong Kong, but very disappointed that Britain did not forge a handover pact with Taiwan," says Chin Hsiao-yi, who holds a Cabinet-level post as head of Taiwan's National Palace Museum.
"The Palace Museum holds the original treaties that ceded Hong Kong to London," and they govern sovereignty over the enclave, adds Mr. Chin, a powerful figure in the ruling Kuomintang Party's old guard.
"Our possession of all imperial treaties proves we are the legitimate political heirs of the Ching Dynasty," says Wang Qiutu, another museum official.
"Taiwan's claim over Hong Kong seems like it is from a diplomatic time warp," says Jim Feinerman, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
When the Chinese civil war was suspended with the Kuomintang's retreat to Taiwan in 1949, the Communists continued the battle on the global diplomatic front.
Since then, the United Nations and fewer than 30 countries have rejected the Kuomintang's claim that the "Republic of China" includes not only Taiwan, but also continental China.
"Mere possession of the Ching court treaties does not prove Taiwan is the legitimate successor" to China's last emperor, says Professor Feinerman. "This is the equivalent of someone getting hold of the original Declaration of Independence and saying, 'I am the legitimate head of the United States,' " he adds.
Rival successor claims are judged under international law primarily according to which side controls more people and territory, he says.
Beijing rules over 1.2 billion Chinese on the mainland, while Taipei governs 21 million residents on Taiwan island. By the same reasoning, Feinerman says, an international tribunal would probably rule Beijing is entitled to recover the Palace Museum's imperial collection, but he adds the case is unlikely to ever find its way into any court. "Beijing maintains Taiwan is part of China, so it would never bring the case to an international forum," he says.