Why is China feeling unloved? Look to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The ongoing student-led occupation of Hong Kong streets, and an electoral drubbing of the pro-China party in Taiwan on Nov. 29, are both about China keeping its distance.
Around the world, China is walking tall, growing into a great power role and impressing people from Papua to Peru with its economic clout.
Closer to home, though, Beijing is feeling decidedly unloved.
In Hong Kong, student demonstrators may be running out of steam after occupying major thoroughfares for two months to demand greater democracy. But their message – that they want a different politics and future for Hong Kong than the one China conceives – has been heard loud and clear in Beijing.
Then, on Saturday in Taiwan, voters in local elections clobbered the ruling Nationalist party, which has been working hard to forge closer ties with the mainland. The results dealt a blow to Beijing’s hopes of one day bringing the island into the fold of the People’s Republic.
Hong Kong is part of China. But under a deal brokered with former colonial power Britain, the central government gives it wide latitude under a “one country two systems” formula.
Beijing claims Taiwan as a renegade province. But the island has enjoyed de facto independence since China’s civil war ended in 1949.
Now, in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, many people – especially young people – are feeling Beijing’s breath uncomfortably hot on their collars.
Last March, Taiwanese students occupied the national parliament to protest against a proposed trade deal with Beijing that they feared would increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on the mainland, and bring the prospect of political unification closer. They argued the terms of the deal had been insufficiently understood in Taiwan. The trade pact has been on hold ever since, and seems unlikely to become law in the light of Saturday’s election results.
Behind the protests earlier this year, and influencing the election results, is a deepening sense of mistrust of the mainland authorities. Polls carried out by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council have found a steady increase over the past 18 months in the number of respondents feeling that Beijing’s attitude to Taiwanese people was “unfriendly.” More than 50 percent of Taiwanese now share that sense, according to a poll last July.
In Hong Kong, student demonstrators have been demanding that Beijing let voters choose their next leader freely, with no prior vetting of candidates. The Chinese government has steadfastly refused to bow to those demands and is showing no signs of readiness to compromise.
Over the long term, the unresolved standoff could turn a whole generation of Hong Kongers sour on China's leadership.
The unrest in both Hong Kong and Taiwan has fed not only on fears and resentment of Beijing, but a sense among young people that the governments of both territories have unduly favored big business. That is especially worrisome, they say, because big business in Hong Kong and Taiwan has lined up with Beijing, in hopes of economic favors and fatter profits.
The Chinese government has remained studiously silent about the Hong Kong demonstrations, letting the Hong Kong government do the talking.
Nor have officials here said anything about the recent elections in Taiwan other than to “hope compatriots across the Strait will cherish hard-won fruit of cross-Strait relations and jointly safeguard and continue to push forward” such ties, in the words of Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office.
Beijing will have to step carefully so as not to raise Taiwanese hackles further, even as it tries to do everything it can to prevent a victory at presidential elections in 2016 for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
The DPP has in the past espoused a pro-independence policy; China has threatened to invade the island should it declare independence. But such a move would bring Beijing and Washington into direct military conflict, an outcome both are very anxious to avoid.