Good for Hong Kong; wrong for Taiwan

The agreement on Hong Kong, initialed Sept. 26 by Britain and China, states that for 50 years after China takes over Hong Kong in 1997, ''the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of occupation, of academic research, and of religious belief, will be insured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance, and foreign investment will be protected by law.''

This agreement provides a Chinese guarantee for a capitalist system to remain in Hong Kong under the sovereignty of a communist rule. The Chinese want to make this British colony a model that might lure Taiwan back under a similar formula. This is evidenced by the fact that four days after the conclusion of the agreement, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang appealed to Taiwan that ''our proposition of one country, two systems after reunification is most reasonable'' and that ''we are ready to start joint consultations with the Taiwan authorities and personages of all circles in Taiwan for the early realization of a way of peaceful reunification acceptable to both sides.''

Will the Chinese keep their promise and allow Hong Kong to maintain its own social and economic systems for half a century after 1997? Unfortunately, the agreement is silent on how the guarantee will be enforced. But the experience of the Tibetans might provide an answer.

In 1951, China and Tibet signed an agreement. Article 4 states that ''the central authorities will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions, and powers of the Dalai Lama.'' Less than eight years later, in March 1959, China invaded Tibet and drove the Dalai Lama out of his country. ''More than 10,000 Tibetans were killed in Lhasa alone in the following days,'' according to John F. Avedon in his book ''In Exile From the Land of Snows.'' Since that time, Chinese suppression of Tibetan culture, polity, and life style has been well documented.

Even assuming that the formula (to incorporate Hong Kong into China) can safeguard the freedom of Hong Kong, it is still not applicable to Taiwan, for these two places differ in several significant ways:

* Geography: Annexation of Taiwan by China is geographically much less feasible than its annexation of Hong Kong: Taiwan is 110 miles off the Chinese coast, with a land area 40 times as big as Hong Kong's.

* Population: A great majority of the 5 million people in Hong Kong today are postwar Chinese immigrants and their descendants, who tend to identify themselves as Chinese. But 85 percent of the 18.5 million people on Taiwan are native Taiwanese, who went to Taiwan from China several hundred years ago.

* Legal status: China ceded Hong Kong island to Britain in 1841 and Kowloon in 1860, and leased the New Territories for 99 years in 1898. Britain owns Hong Kong and is legally entitled to settle its ownership with China.

Taiwan is a different case. The island was ceded by China to Japan in 1895. As a result of the Japanese defeat in World War II, Japan signed the Peace Treaty of San Francisco with the Allied powers in 1951, in which ''Japan renounces all right, title, and claim to Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores.'' The treaty does not specify who would be the beneficiary of these islands, and thus the US maintained that their legal status was unsettled.

This position was repeated by a State Department statement on April 28, 1971: ''In our view, sovereignty over Taiwan and the Pescadores is an unsettled question subject to future international resolution.''

The US did not change its position in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, in which it just acknowledged - not recognized - the Chinese claim that there is ''but one China and ... Taiwan is a part of China.'' Therefore, no governing body - not the People's Republic of China, not the US, not the Kuomintang that rules Taiwan - can settle the future of Taiwan.

Taiwan belongs to the people on Taiwan, and only the islanders can determine their own political future.

Just as the Republicans pledged, in their 1984 platform, to ''fully support self-determination for the people of Hong Kong,'' Americans should uphold the principle of self-determination - not the Hong Kong formula - for the solution of the Taiwan question.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.