With Hong Kong in the Fold, China Eyes Taiwan

Takeover seems to stiffen resolve of Taiwanese to avoid union until their neighbor reforms

China is using its July 1 takeover of Hong Kong to boost its drive to extend its empire to Taiwan.

But the military and psychological pressures exerted by the communist titan are having an unexpected effect in this small island nation off China's east coast.

Rather than accepting that they will be absorbed into China, as was Hong Kong, Taiwanese of every political stripe seem to be hardening their determination to maintain the island's independence.

Many people here see Beijing as a dangerous dragon intent on swallowing them.

"Beijing sometimes says that the Chinese and Taiwan peoples are part of one big family," says a clothing store clerk in Taipei. "But what kind of parent holds a gun to his child's head when asking him to come home?"

China regards Taiwan as a rebel province whose continued separation from the mainland is a legacy of the cold war.

"Most Taiwanese were glued to their television sets during the handover, and the sight of People's Liberation Army tanks and troops moving through the streets of Hong Kong sent shivers down many people's spines," says a young artist here.

"The Chinese Army tried to terrify the entire island during our elections last year, and the thought that it could someday enter Taipei increased our sense of unity against an outside threat," adds the artist, who requested anonymity.

During Taiwan's first free presidential vote in 1996, the Chinese Army staged mock war games nearby firing live missiles in an effort to dampen pro-independence sentiment.

Yet China's Communist leaders have also offered Taiwan a carrot: a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" formula that is supposed to guide Hong Kong's reunion with the mainland.

But in the days following the handover, Taiwan's leaders have scrambled to convince the world not to back Beijing's model for reunification. Thousands of protesters joined a "Say No to China" rally early this month.

Some say that the differences in history and political evolution between Hong Kong and Taiwan work against it following the former British colony on the path to union with China.

"The 'one country, two systems' formula was not a matter of free choice for the Hong Kong residents," said Taiwan Premier Lien Chan during a recent meeting with reporters. The premier added that Taiwan's 21 million residents would never back a reunification model imposed from above.

Workers, students, and professionals in every nook and cranny of Taiwanese society say their hopes of the mainland gradually evolving into an attractive partner were shattered during the Chinese Army's 1989 attack on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Under Beijing's model for the reunion of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan would be designated a special autonomous province of China. The island would give up its "national flag" but retain its armed forces, and Taiwan and the mainland would coexist as democratic and communist sections of a "greater China."

Yet even leaders of the New Party, the strongest supporters here of eventual reunification with China, say that China's socialist rule must give way to free and fair elections before Taiwan rejoins the motherland.

"Only after China follows in the footsteps of the Soviet Union in becoming democratic can we begin to talk about forming the 'confederation of Greater China,' " says New Party leader Wang Jianxian.

Communist Party and military leaders in China have stepped up vague threats about Taiwan's return since the takeover of Hong Kong. That has added to an island-wide siege mentality.

A public-opinion poll conducted immediately after the July 1 Hong Kong takeover showed that for the first time in Taiwan's history, those favoring independence for Taiwan outnumbered those backing reunification.

"Watching China's growing shadow over Taiwan is like living next to a volcano," says a journalist here. "You never know when [it] is going to erupt."

Although Taiwan's leaders and residents reject the "one country, two systems" model, it seems the whole island has been following the transition.

"The Chinese Army's parading into Hong Kong reminded many people here of the June 4 march on Tiananmen Square," says the store clerk during an interview at the Apocalypse II restaurant in central Taipei.

"To think that we would ever invite the same kind of rulers to head Taiwan is frightening," the clerk adds.

Scholars say that China's Hong Kong takeover will be monitored around the world.

"The success of the handover could have an ... effect on the periphery of Chinese civilization," says Tu Weiming, a China scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

But if Hong Kong's takeover goes wrong, "the 'one country, two systems' model will be proven a failure," says Ma Ying-jeou, a law professor at Taiwan's Zhengzhi University.

"And if that happens," he adds, "international support for China's eventual reunification with Taiwan will plummet."

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