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For Taiwan, a model it doesn't want to follow

When China's late leader Deng Xiaoping dreamt up the "one country two systems" formula for Hong Kong, he had a bigger prize in mind: Taiwan.
/ Source: Reuters

TAIPEI — When China's late leader Deng Xiaoping dreamed up the "one country, two systems" formula for Hong Kong, he had a bigger prize in mind: Taiwan.

Deng's vision had the former British colony serving as a model of how Taiwan, which Beijing considers a wayward province, would be run if it returned to the fold — a high degree of autonomy, a separate currency, and even democratic elections.

But a decade after Britain handed Hong Kong back to Beijing, most people in Taiwan are unimpressed.

Scholars and island officials say that democratically self-ruled Taiwan would suffer more politically than it would gain economically if it was reunified with Communist-ruled China under Deng's formula.

"For the Taiwan public, there's no market for 'one country, two systems'," said Liu Te-shun, vice chairman of the government's Mainland Affairs Council.

Freedom and democracy have suffered in Hong Kong since the return, Liu said, and the use of "China" to label Hong Kong also detracts from its global image as an international city.

"From a big-picture point of view over these past 10 years, we're still pretty worried."

Critics say that since the 1997 handover Hong Kong has seen self-censorship by media eager to please Beijing, holes in its legal system and a lack of full democracy.

And, although Beijing pledged 50 years of political autonomy and a capitalist economy, the Communist Party has stepped in to interpret Hong Kong's post-handover constitution three times since 1997.

Economically enticing
One bright spot some see is that tighter ties with the mainland have helped Hong Kong tap into China's economic boom.

Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at Hong Kong's City University, said Hong Kong people now realize that they need China for economic support, a switch from earlier times when they thought Hong Kong was driving China.

But Taiwan's government, run by a party advocating more distance from China and a separate Taiwan identity, is quick to point out political shortcomings in Hong Kong.

China has seen staunchly self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory since Mao Zedong's Communists routed the Nationalist Party (KMT) in a civil war that ended in 1949.

After decades of turmoil under authoritarian rule, Taiwan evolved into a multi-party democracy starting in the 1980s. Today every adult on the island of 23 million people can vote, and the mass media have been named the freest in Asia.

Despite sharp government rhetoric in Taiwan on shortcomings of the Hong Kong experiment, citizens will weigh that against Hong Kong's "real gains" that Taiwan also could get by linking up with China's strong economy, said George Tsai, an international relations professor at National Cheng Chi University in Taipei.

"Of course the government plays up the failures of one country two systems," Tsai said. "But average people don't really know that much about democracy."

Opportunity knocks
China is driving Taiwan economically, said Lee Chien-chung, a Malaysian businessman who visited Taipei in June looking for trading opportunities but found none.

"Everyone wants the Communists," he said. "In Hong Kong, people are living well."

Others argue that China might be willing to grant more concessions to Taiwan if it agreed to reunify, making the Hong Kong experiment less relevant.

China would give Taiwan more leeway in defense, foreign affairs and monetary policies than it gives Hong Kong, said Li Peng, assistant director of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University in China.

He said Beijing would be willing to make such concessions because its top concern would be making Taiwan agree to its more political concern of defining itself as part of China.

"You can't directly use the Hong Kong model for Taiwan," Li said. "Taiwan's space will be a lot bigger."