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.
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.