By Catherine Chou and Gina Anne Tam
On May 21st 2020, after nearly a year of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the government of the People’s Republic of China declared its intention to draft a “national security” law for the city, which would render illegal so-called “successionist” activities or the “subversion of state power.” Interpreted as an attempted clampdown on Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms of speech and assembly, the news was met with immediate outcry by city residents that such an act would violate the principle of “one country, two systems,” developed in the 1980s to facilitate the “return” of Hong Kong and Macau to the PRC from the UK and Portugal, their respective colonial rulers. The cornerstone of “one country, two systems”, as the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 outlined, was a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong for the first fifty years after the 1997 handover. Yet only 23 years later, Beijing is making clear with its “national security” law that it believes it can unilaterally interpret, warp, and circumscribe the nature of that autonomy. To Beijing it seems, “one country” will always supersede “two systems.”
One day earlier, on May 20th, “one country, two systems” was being challenged in a very different way in Taiwan, a de facto independent country long coveted by the PRC. After being sworn in for her second term as Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party reiterated her rejection of this political framework, describing it as a “downgrade” of the sovereignty her fellow citizens currently enjoy. She urged them instead to take pride in being “democratic success story”. That Beijing, under the chairmanship of Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party, is pressuring Taiwan to accept an arrangement it has simultaneously undermined in Hong Kong is ironic but not accidental. The purpose of “one country, two systems”, after all, is to promote a vision of China as a nation-state, a cultural concept, and a global force that contains Hong Kong and Taiwan firmly within its orbit at all times. Beijing has so successfully set the terms of the discussion about these two places that both their histories and futures are imagined as inextricably bound to China’s. Indeed, even anti-CCP activists in both spaces have often allowed Beijing to dominate the narrative. Protest slogans like “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan” presume that the fate of one might predict the other and that both are dependent upon the whims of Beijing.
What if we were to question this entire premise? Rather than streamlining Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the PRC into a “Greater China” with “one country, several systems” as its natural zenith, we argue that they are better understood as possessing divergent, independent histories that have only recently and unexpectedly been brought together by the force of Beijing’s ambitions. Indeed, the idea that Taiwan and Hong Kong were both “lost” to China and need to be recovered is rooted in an anachronistic reading of late imperial Chinese history that downplays the extent to which both territories have been subject to colonial violence. Taiwan has, for millennia, been home to indigenous people of Austronesian descent. Large-scale migration from China began only in the early seventeenth century under thirty-eight years of Dutch rule. Only in 1683 did the Qing invade the island and make it a prefecture of Fujian province. The territories that now make up Hong Kong had also long been home to diverse populations, and their relationship with China’s various imperial governments were sporadic and uneven. The late nineteenth century was a significant turning point for both territories. In 1895, in the twilight of the Qing dynasty, Taiwan was granted to Japan as part of the settlement for the First Sino-Japanese War. Although Hong Kong Island had been ceded to Britain in 1842, it was only in 1898 that large swaths of the territory north of the island were taken by Britain as part of a 99-year “lease,” a move that sparked a bloody six-day rebellion by bold villagers in the hills of the New Territories.
For the next fifty years, the experiences of Taiwan and Hong Kong veered significantly from that of China – and each other. While the Revolution of 1911 (Xinhai Revolution) replaced the sprawling Qing dynasty with the Republic of China, the Japanese continued their rule over Taiwan unaffected, brutally disciplining it into a pliable and profitable agricultural colony. Hong Kong, on the other hand, though impacted by the social and political upheavals across the border, was hardly a passive observer to them. Rather, the city was forging its own destiny as a critical node on a transnational network facilitating the flow of goods, peoples, and ideas across the world, its growing population of diverse settlers building a vibrant financial sector, launching cross-regional labor movements, and spearheading innovations in cinema, literature, and theater. On Christmas Day, 1941, for the briefest of periods, Taiwan and Hong Kong’s modern history converged. That day, Hong Kong once again changed hands as the territory was occupied as part of Japan’s swift move to conquer the Pacific, overrun in the same month as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.
Yet in the great post-war reshuffle, their fates continued to shift away from one another. Japan relinquished its colonies in 1945. Taiwan came under the administration of the ROC and the Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT), which responded to an incipient revolt against their rule in February 1947 by massacring tens of thousands of Taiwanese. In 1949, the KMT lost control of the “mainland” to the Chinese Communist Party, inaugurating a decades-long contest over representation of the “real China” that ordinary Taiwanese had no say about participating in. Beginning in the mid-1980s, activists fought a costly battle to end one-party authoritarian rule and establish a multi-party democracy. Meanwhile, Hong Kong was handed back to the United Kingdom for another half-century, during which time city residents, still subject to colonial governance and thus unable to directly choose their leaders, expressed their political will through local organization and protest. There was no overlap in the colonial languages impressed upon Taiwanese and Hong Kongers (Mandarin versus English) or the states that claimed to rule them (the ROC versus the UK).
From this history, two important patterns thus emerge. First, even as the CCP insists that both Taiwan and Hong Kong fulfill their destiny by “returning” to the motherland, no one alive today remembers a “China” that includes the “mainland,” Taiwan, and Hong Kong governed by the same regime. The argument that these two places rightfully “belong” to China is based on a version of the country that has not existed for five generations now and was only ever itself a tenuous reality in the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Second, despite the popularization of the idea of “self-determination” in the twentieth century, the narrative that Taiwan and Hong Kong were both “Chinese” has encouraged the international community to simply accept the claim that their governance, immediately or eventually, rightfully belongs to China. This trend of ignoring local wishes continues today, as Beijing tries to bring both places onto the same future path, one whose fulfillment will depend on the violent suppression of the people who live there.
Our reading of the history of the region is borne out in the goals of many Taiwanese and Hong Kongers. In the face of increased threats from Xi Jinping’s government in Beijing, they have forged ahead with creating their own understandings of identity and community. Even as Taiwanese struggle to keep the PRC’s annexationist desires at bay, they have turned their attention to dismantling what they can of the ROC party-state and consolidating a sense of their own nationhood. In a twist, attempts at decolonization have preceded any formal declaration of independence, including renaming streets and public places, teaching Taiwanese history in schools, and overturning convictions for political crimes under martial law. Hong Kong, on the other hand, offers a new model of post-colonialism that rejects the dichotomy of independence or incorporation into a nation state. Today, a central rallying cry in Hong Kong is “Hong Kong is not China,” a declaration that proposes not a new nation-state but instead asserts a negative – whatever Hong Kong is, it is not China. By rejecting or modifying the label “Chinese,” both territories have started exploring what it might mean to honor their histories as multicultural and multiethnic societies instead.
The remarkable mass protests of the last five years in Taiwan and Hong Kong are a fight to re-enter a historical timeline where outcomes are not foretold by Beijing and contingency still plays a role. From the Sunflower and Umbrella Movements of 2014 to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, these existential struggles have bred a fragile and improbable cross-border solidarity. It was only in the summer of 2019, for example, that a majority of Hong Kongers began to favor Taiwanese independence, having opposed it by wide margins in preceding decades. Taiwanese civil society and politicians are currently engaged in a debate about how best to help Hong Kongers fleeing potentially draconian sentences, with some pushing for a formal asylum law and others worried that large-scale resettlement might endanger Taiwan’s hard-fought identity and independence. In the streets, in print, and online Hong Kongers and Taiwanese are at once in dialogue and preoccupied with writing their own unique stories.
Umbrella protests in Central, December, 2014. Banner reads “I want true democracy.” Photo by Gina Anne Tam.
Yet despite these efforts, many of the parameters of our current discourse are still set by the CCP, with wide-reaching consequences. This state of affairs shouldn’t just be the concern of academics, nor is it simply a superficial dust-up about terminology. We draw on the past to imagine what is possible– our reading of history opens our eyes, or closes them, to a number of potential fates. When we imagine Hong Kong and Taiwan only as orbits around China’s core, as rightfully belonging or returning to it, we end up with distorted understandings of what might happen to these places in the future. After 125 years of very different trajectories, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers are finally looking to one another with hope, recognition, and curiosity. It is time the rest of us did the same.
Gina Anne Tam is an Assistant Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where she teaches East Asian History. Her first book, Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. She has also published in The Nation and Foreign Affairs on the relevance of the history of Chinese languages to current events in Hong Kong.
Catherine Chou is an Assistant Professor of History at Grinnell College in Iowa, where she teaches pre-modern European and global history. In addition to her academic work on early modern political theory, she writes about Taiwan for popular audiences in venues like Popula and Inkstick Media. She tweets at @catielila and is in the beginning stages of a book about decolonizing Taiwan in the era of the PRC’s rise.