What does 'One China' really mean?

Beijing's critics on Hong Kong and Taiwan are foolishly ignoring China's own history and perspective

epa08444684 Chinese paramilitary police officers guard beside a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Beijing, China, 26 May 2020..  EPA/WU HONG
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You do not have to read the internal report presented last month to Chinese leadership on the subject to know that critical sentiment towards China is on the rise worldwide. Blaming the country for the spread of the coronavirus is only the latest issue to be weaponised. Two older ones have very much come back to the fore in recent days.

The first concerns Hong Kong. The announcement that Beijing's National People’s Congress is going to pass national security legislation for the Special Autonomous Region, because the city’s own Legislative Council (also known as the LegCo) cannot be relied upon to do so, has been greeted with protests from certain quarters.

Under Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the LegCo is obliged to pass such legislation, but has shied away from it since a 2003 attempt led to half a million people taking to the streets in protest. This explanation cuts no ice with critics who claim the new laws would mean the end of Hong Kong as it has hitherto been known, and that the "one country, two systems" principle which was supposed to guarantee the former British colony a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 handover has been undermined.

Under the new laws, mainland security agencies would be stationed in Hong Kong, and it is clear that Beijing is increasingly unwilling to tolerate large-scale public demonstrations – like those the region went through last year – let alone a burgeoning independence movement.

That is not to the liking of the British foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who issued a statement along with his Australian and Canadian counterparts, Marise Payne and Francois-Philippe Champagne, expressing their “deep concern” about the legislation, which they said would be contrary to the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that both countries signed.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went further. He called the new law a “disastrous proposal”, and hinted strongly that Hong Kong could lose its preferential trade status with the US as a result.

People move around the debris of roadblocks set by protesters during a protest against a planned national security law in the Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, China, on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Almost 200 politicians and legislators from 23 countries issued a joint statement criticizing China’s plans to impose a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, and warned that it could spark more protests in the city, Radio and Television Hong Kong reported. Photographer: May James/Bloomberg

Mr Pompeo has also been raising another long-standing issue: China’s relationship with Taiwan. He sent a message to be read out at the inauguration of Taiwan’s re-elected president, Tsai Ing-wen. This was an unprecedented move by a Secretary of State and highly provocative, given that Beijing considers the island to be a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland.

Which other country would tolerate the leader of a province declaring independence and then being congratulated by a superpower?

But the lack of diplomatic finesse is born of a view seemingly prevalent in many political circles of the West today: that China is, as the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama puts it, “a hostile power”.

Missing in all of this is any attempt to understand China’s point of view, let alone the perspective of a more nationalistic China. For why should the Chinese be denied the right to a pride in their homeland – something that is often painted as a virtue elsewhere?

Which other country would tolerate being threatened with trade sanctions for enacting laws within its own borders – which is what it will be doing in Hong Kong? And which other country would tolerate the leader of a province declaring independence, which is what Ms Tsai has effectively done, and then being congratulated by a superpower?

epa08444685 A waitress wearing a protective face mask holds a folding fan reading 'comrades, time for meal' outside a restaurant in Beijing, China, 26 May 2020.  EPA/WU HONG

It should be remembered that under the “One China” concept, to which nearly the whole world officially subscribes, there is only one government of China. This is why so few countries have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, or the “Republic of China”, as it still calls itself. And however much sympathy one may have with people in Taiwan who do not wish to rejoin the mainland, the territorial integrity of states is a key principle in international law, and one that has been fiercely defended by countries such as Spain, which is still trying to prosecute the Catalan independence leader Carles Puigdemont.

With Hong Kong, it is true that the Sino-British Joint Declaration is a treaty registered at the UN. But nearly three years ago a Chinese foreign ministry official described it bluntly as “a historical document” that “no longer has any realistic meaning”, and the moral case for Britain as the former colonial power to have any say over the future of an island and its neighbouring territories that it took from China with menaces over the 19th century is thin to non-existent.

Those were among the “unequal treaties” with foreign powers that China was forced to sign during what it calls its “century of humiliation”. Interestingly, a commentary on the state-run CGTN website recently referenced these, stating that “Britain, the US, Canada and Australia believe they are the guardians and that they have a bigger stake in what is part of China, than China itself. The logic and attitudes concerning the Sino-British Joint Declaration still mirror the unequal treaties of old.”

Were they not so blinded by their criticism of Beijing’s Communist leadership, even China's detractors would have to concede that there is something in this. They, and others, need to acknowledge China’s sense of itself, its history and its rights to sovereignty over its own lands.

For what, after all, is their ultimate goal? Their hopes were that, as China liberalised economically, a similar opening-up would happen in the political sphere. That is looking ever more unlikely under President Xi. But if it did, as Professor Fukuyama has admitted, “a more liberal China could easily be more nationalistic.”

So either way, railing or threatening or being unnecessarily provocative to China over Hong Kong or Taiwan will have little use, beyond escalating already worryingly high tensions. Beijing will not give an inch, and it would probably be politically suicidal for any leader to do so. You don’t have to agree with China’s positions on these two issues. To ignore them, or pretend they don’t have strong support at home, however, is not statecraft but stupidity. And we have enough of that in international politics at the moment as it is.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum