Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement with the mainland was supposed to serve as a model for the eventual unification of Taiwan with the motherland.

Obviously, however, the template isn’t working very well or Chinese President Xi Jinping would not have ushered in the new year with a speech in which he threatened to go to war against the self-ruled island of nearly 24 million people unless they accepted unification under the Hong Kong model as their preordained destiny.

one country two systems
File Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

Significantly, Xi was speaking at the Great Hall of the People on the 40th anniversary of the 1979 “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” which brought an end to Beijing’s long-standing martial rhetoric and steady stream of artillery strikes on islands controlled by Taipei. That message, issued by the Standing Committee of the Fifth National People’s Congress, signalled a welcome shift in the Chinese leadership’s war-like posture in favour of “peaceful unification.”

At that point in history, of course, “one country, two systems” was just an unarticulated notion in the mind of China’s post-Cultural Revolution leader, Deng Xiaoping, and Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty had not yet been determined.

The message was also issued on the very day, January 1, that the United States formally switched its diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing. Precisely a year later the US would terminate its mutual defence treaty with Taiwan under which it was bound to protect the island if it were attacked by Beijing— although, in a calculated ambiguity, US leaders since then have never stated that the American military would not defend the island in the event of an attack.

Now, in the midst of a Sino-US trade war and military posturing by both sides in the South China Sea and elsewhere, anxieties over a possible military clash between the two great powers over Taiwan are particularly high, especially following Xi’s apparent repudiation of the spirit of the Standing Committee’s 1979 dispatch.

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Beyond rubbishing that spirit, the speech also appeared to undermine the informal 1992 Consensus, which allowed Beijing and Taipei to agree on a one-China principle while also differing on what that principle means.

Although the president did not mention Hong Kong by name—no doubt because the city has become a symbol of a future that most Taiwanese ardently want to avoid—he stated that Taiwan “must and will” be united with the mainland under the one country, two systems formula that brought Hong Kong back into the fold 21 years ago.

“We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures,” Xi added.

Xi’s military threat, coupled with his invocation of a one country, two systems prescription for Taiwan that is clearly failing in Hong Kong, managed to achieve what no Taiwanese politician has proved capable of lately: bringing together Taiwan’s bitterly divided political factions in a unified response to its authoritarian Big Brother across the Taiwan Strait.

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen. File photo: Flickr/presidential office.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party may perpetually be at loggerheads with the opposition Kuomintang, which renounces independence and does its level best to appease Beijing, but the political rivals are united on two points: no war and no Hong Kong model for Taiwan.

More than 80 per cent of those surveyed rejected the one country, two systems framework for Taiwan in a poll taken after Xi’s speech by the Cross-Strait Policy Association. Only 13.7 per cent supported it.

The poll also showed great scepticism among Taiwanese about the purpose and effectiveness of the 1992 consensus.

Remarkably, 40 years after the US dropped diplomatic recognition of Taipei in favour of Beijing and nearly 50 years after the United Nations did the same, the cross-strait relationship remains dangerously problematic. Xi’s speech only further heightens the tension and increases the risk of an armed conflict that would throw the entire region into turmoil.

Over the last 20 years, as Hong Kong’s hope gradually morphed into a festering disappointment, Taiwan has looked on in rising alarm.

During that time, full democracy, promised to Hong Kong at the handover in its defacto constitution, was pointedly denied, even in the face of a mammoth 2014 pro-democracy movement that occupied key commercial areas of the city for 79 consecutive days.

basic law constitution handover
File photo: GovHK.

Duly elected lawmakers have been booted out the Legislative Council while other would-be legislators have been banned from running for office altogether.

Hong Kong booksellers have been snatched and “disappeared” across the border, and independence, always a hotly debated topic in Taiwan, is now a taboo word in Hong Kong.

The list goes on: Soon Hongkongers may find themselves behind bars for up to three years for booing the national anthem at a football match.

One, country, two systems?

No thanks, say the Taiwanese. And who can blame them?

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.