China blocks Hong Kong-Taiwan embrace

For Asia Times Online

TAIPEI – Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government would like to see Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang stop by on the island. However, it seems Beijing and Tsang himself aren’t too keen on the implications of such a visit.

Tsang has previously said an official visit to Taipei was his heartfelt wish, and the pending opening of Hong Kong’s de facto consulate in Taipei seemed to present a perfect opportunity. However, Tsang no longer wants to visit, with the reversal more lively based on events in China rather than in

Hong Kong or Taiwan.

The formal opening of the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei – which started operating in late 2011 – is expected within months. Tsang said in his 2009 annual policy address that he wanted to visit Taiwan during his term, which ends on June 30.

Taiwan’s representative office in Hong Kong recently revealed that it had made what it called “goodwill gestures” likely in preparation for an invitation. However, these were reportedly turned down by the chief executive’s office.

A trip by Tsang to Taiwan would have been a complicated matter. Since Beijing doesn’t recognize the Taiwanese government as legitimate, the question of how he would address Taiwanese officials is an early stumbling block.

How potentially explosive such protocol issues are in cross-Taiwan Strait meetings was demonstrated vividly in 2010, when Chen Yunlin, chairman of Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, visited Taiwan, making him the highest-ranking mainland official ever to do so. Chen infamously addressed Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou as “Mr Ma”, enraging many Taiwanese and costing the KMT significant political capital at home.

Tsang’s status as the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) lends him a rank in the Chinese political hierarchy equivalent to a provincial governor or a minister. Taipei would therefore have to put up with Beijing presenting Tsang’s trip to a mainland audience as two SARs dealing with one another.

Already heading in that direction, Tsang said in 2009, “Hong Kong can introduce to Taiwan how the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ is being implemented in the city.”

“One country, two systems” is a brainchild of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping. It stipulates that the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan all belong to “one China” but that each region can have its own political system and run its own legal, economic and financial affairs.

To the Taiwanese, having enjoyed de facto independence for six decades, the Deng doctrine has never been an attractive option.

Regardless of the obvious risks Tsang’s visit would bring about, the Taiwanese KMT government under Ma still wanted him to come.

Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, told Asia Times Online that Ma felt the visit would benefit Taiwan’s global presence.

“President Ma intends to expand his room for maneuver on the international stage with the help of the Hong Kong connection,” Chen said. “Ma wants to get into the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], and Washington has signaled it is okay with this, but it is a complicated diplomatic game.” [1]

The TPP is a multilateral free trade agreement promoted by the Barack Obama administration that excludes China. Ma has made membership part of his “golden decade plan”, but Beijing is certain to oppose it as it could enable Taiwan to drift from its orbit.
“By dealing properly with Hong Kong, Ma can demonstrate to Beijing that it can give Taiwan some international room. Hong Kong is a perfect touchstone as it is a World Trade Organization member and can individually sign free trade agreements. Taiwan wants that, too,” Chen said.

But Tsang has some plausible motivations to drop by in Taipei, according to Chen.

“In recent months, there’s been heated brawls between the city and Beijing [mainly about the Hongkongers’ impression their city is flooded by mainlanders], and many people merely see him as Beijing’s puppet. Tsang going to Taiwan could prove to Hong Kong’s population that he is doing something for them.”

Chen added that Hong Kong maintained close relations with Taiwan prior to the hand-over from Britain to China in 1997, but that these had since cooled. Tsang could be lauded for a trip that could revive business and cultural ties. He is positive that it’s the Chinese leadership preventing Hong Kong and Taipei from getting together.

“Beijing considers both as SARs. Ties between two SARs mustn’t be closer than their respective ties to Beijing.”

However, it is not totally implausible that Beijing could applaud Tsang for traveling to Taiwan. In 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao reportedly established an academic team that’s main task was finding a path between the “one country, two systems” spurned by the Taiwanese and the “special state-to-state relations”, which is an anathema to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

It’s not clear if the mission was a success, but it is evident that there have been some major changes of attitude on Beijing’s side since. Hu’s hallmark approach – that easy topics are negotiated first between Beijing and Taipei, thereby leaving the difficult and political ones shelved – has proved hugely successful.

Given his high rank, a visit by Tsang to Taipei could be seen in the same context, since it would allow a fine-tuning of protocol and etiquette in cross-strait meetings that then would pave the way for mainland officials of a very high rank to visit Taipei, as well as their Taiwanese counterparts traveling to Beijing.

Late last year, Ma Ying-jeou indicated the possibility of a peace agreement, but in the same breath said that he couldn’t sign it as long as Beijing would not address him as “president”.

Developments surrounding the Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections in January also signaled that Hu’s academic team had been creative.

In the past, Chinese media were not allowed to use terms such as “president” and “legislature” when reporting on Taiwanese politics without putting them between inverted commas, but during and after the elections even orthodox state-run publications like the Global Times skipped the practice.

The formula, if there is any, is simple: If Beijing’s media organs can call Ma “president”, figures like Tsang can do so when visiting Taipei. A main stumbling block for political cross-strait negotiations, including those for a peace agreement, would seemingly be removed.

Professor Chen confirmed that the CCP had commissioned China’s academic circles to come up with new ideas.

“The academics acknowledge that for China’s quest to achieve unification, there’s no easy way around the ROC [Republic of China] constitution. But Hong Kong might be a vehicle out of the quagmire. If a Hong Kong chief executive would address Ma as ‘president’ as a trial, Beijing could observe the reaction.”
A likewise strategy would explain why Tsang said he wanted to go in the first place. But Chen also presented a plausible explanation as to why he changed his mind.

According to Chen, the lead-up to the Chinese leadership change expected at the 18th party congress this autumn has been getting out of hand for the CCP.

He cites the unfolding political drama in Chonqing, where party chief Bo Xilai, who was tipped to join the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, is battling for his political survival after his right-hand man, Chongqing vice mayor Wang Lijun, tried to seek asylum in a US consulate.

While Bo’s rivals, most prominently Guangdong CCP chief Wang Yang, are said to be laughing up their sleeves, the outgoing CCP leadership is concerned events could spin out of control and even impact on Hu’s legacy.

“It’d be way too risky for Beijing to let Tsang visit Taipei at this stage. If Tsang would say anything here that faintly smacks of a formal recognition of Taiwan’s independent status, it would give powerful political ammunition to China’s political left and ultra-nationalists. They would then brand Tsang’s moves [and Hu’s cross-strait approach] as treason.”

1. The Trans-Pacific Partnership’s nine full members are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.


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