A push for unity widens gaps

Taiwanese say Hong Kong's loss of freedom gives them little faith inChina's reunification bid.

Since Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui proposed his "two states" formula for ties with the Chinese mainland in July, fissures within "cultural greater China," which includes ethnically linked Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong, have deepened.

In the 1980s, Beijing's economic and political liberalization opened China's doors to long-banned family visits and investment from Taiwan and Hong Kong. At the time, scholars in all three regions predicted that the links with a reforming mainland could evolve into a Democratic Federation of Greater China.

But few Taiwanese now say they support a political union with the Communist-ruled mainland, and many say Hong Kong's slow-motion loss of freedom gives them little confidence in Beijing's "one country, two systems" proposal for reunification.

In seeking to re-create the Chinese Empire, which once stretched from Hong Kong in the south to Tibet in the west and Taiwan to the east, Beijing's standing offer to Taiwan is a reunification deal similar to Hong Kong's. China often matches its "carrot" of autonomy for Taiwan with the "stick" of threats of an armed invasion if the island veers toward independence. But neither tactic seems to be persuading Taiwan to join a Chinese union.

In the closing days of the 1949 Chinese civil war, millions of mainlanders crowded onto Taiwan-bound ships as the Red Army swept across China. Most sought a political haven from the excesses of Communist rule.

The defeated Nationalist Party for years ruled Taiwan with an iron fist. Yet the island has rapidly moved toward democracy in the last decade, marked by a freewheeling press, open and fair presidential elections, and legal protections for basic rights modeled after the US system.

"The dictatorship of Taiwan's past is only a distant memory," says a young filmmaker in Taipei. "Today, we elect our own president, do whatever we want politically, and speak out on any issue that interests us," she says."Why should we move backward like Hong Kong has in order to reunite" with China?

When China recovered Hong Kong two years ago, it promised the territory that the basic, British-inspired rights of the people would not be curtailed.

Under the "one country, two systems" formula, China guaranteed Hong Kong would keep its legal and social autonomy, in effect protecting the capitalist enclave from Communist rule and a state takeover of businesses.

But a tightening noose around Hong Kong and periodic military maneuvers aimed at intimidating Taiwan have delayed if not destroyed the peaceful creation of a political Greater China.

In the last two years, says Hong Kong human rights activist Frank Lu, "There has been a steady erosion of both democracy and human rights." Beijing this summer overturned a decision of Hong Kong's highest court, calling into question the enclave's judicial independence. And in August, China barred the pope from visiting Hong Kong, which triggered fears that the territory might see its religious freedoms evaporate.

Hong Kong, long a neutral mediator between the two civil war combatants, is now perceived here as not only a victim of the "one country, two systems" union, but also an increasingly willing ally of Beijing's.

In the past few weeks, China has used parts of the Hong Kong press to warn of military retaliation if Taiwan seeks nationhood and has barred Taiwan officials in Hong Kong from stating the island's case for political autonomy.

Since the 1997 handover, Beijing's handpicked leader of Hong Kong has repeatedly urged Taiwan to follow the former colony's example in returning to the motherland. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa "keeps calling on us to reunite under the Communists' one-country formula," says a senior Nationalist Party official in Taipei who asked not to be identified.

In one sign of the growing anger at Hong Kong's collaboration in pressuring Taiwan into a union with the mainland, a Taiwanese lawmaker recently suggested that if war erupts across the Taiwan Strait, some of Taipei's bombs should be aimed at Hong Kong. Nationalist Party leader and legislator Liu Tai-ying, who proposed firing missiles at Hong Kong, "is a close confidant of President Lee Teng-hui's," says Wang Chien-shien, a senior official of Taiwan's New Party. He adds that the statement could reflect high-level frustration here at the Hong Kong government's perceived role as a pawn of Beijing.

Even the New Party, which promotes unification sometime in the future, is growing weary of Beijing's saber rattling. "Many of us fled to Taiwan from communism on the mainland, and we are not about to embrace reuniting with China as it is now ruled," says Mr. Wang. "The New Party does not support the People's Republic of China, only the goal of a political grouping with a democratic China," he adds.

Like many politicians and residents of Taiwan, the Nationalist Party official bristles at any comparisons between Hong Kong and Taiwan. "Hong Kong was once a colony of Britain's, and is now a colony of China's, and the people have no power to decide their own destiny," he says. "Taiwan is a democracy that has ruled itself since 1949, and it is the people of Taiwan who must decide our future through a free vote."

Mr. Lu agrees that Hong Kong and Taiwan are poles apart on the issue of rejoining Beijing's embrace. "Britain's lease on Hong Kong expired in July of 1997, and the people here never really had a choice about whether to return to China," he says. "But there's no similar deadline for Taiwan."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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