Home / Articles / China’s Relations with the West: The Role of Taiwan and Hong Kong
Discussion of the United States’ relations with China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong can be framed as an issue of nationalism and national humiliation. Taiwan and Hong Kong are and have been crucial symbols of China’s emergence as a strong state in the international system, as evidenced by the huge clock that stood in the heart of Beijing in 1997 counting down the minutes to Hong Kong’s “liberation” from British rule and its return to China. Hong Kong and Taiwan have been neither simply prosperous territories whose possession would enrich China, nor merely strategic liabilities as loci for foreign powers threatening China.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are fundamental to the very legitimacy of the CCP and China’s government. They have constituted a continuing challenge to Chinese nationalism and China’s potential as a great power while posing the challenge of being models of what China could, should, or might be under a different form of government. From the Chinese perspective, so long as Hong Kong and Taiwan remain beyond China’s control, China’s century of humiliation at the hands of Westerners continues. This conviction, which the Chinese have shamelessly exploited in diplomatic negotiations and in propaganda outlets, has been hard for some of China’s interlocutors to understand. It has also constituted a reason for some, particularly in Washington and Tokyo, to keep Taiwan out of China’s grasp. But even those who do not have a hidden agenda might find that war with China over Taiwan is in fact possible, whether by accident, inadvertence, or design.
There are critical historic dynamics at work here. China endured foreign exploitation long before it had developed a strong sense of nation and nationalism. When Europeans ventured abroad for trade and empire-building in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, China was in the line of fire. The territories of Taiwan and Hong Kong became critical pawns in the struggle between China and the West. The Spanish, Dutch and British posed early challenges to China’s fragile control of its core and its periphery, seeking to use Taiwan and Hong Kong as bases for commerce and military expeditions in the region. But not until the West arrived in force in the mid-nineteenth century did these territories constitute a danger to China’s development. Hong Kong became a prize during the ugly war fought between 1839–42 to compel China to allow Britain to sell opium to the Chinese people. The Treaty of Nanjing that settled that war became the first of a series of unequal treaties that undermined China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It gave to the British Hong Kong island, which was at that time a barren outcrop—the British consul who negotiated that provision of the treaty was summarily exiled to a post in Texas as punishment.
That territory was supplemented in 1860 by the Kowloon Peninsula, and then in 1898 by a 99-year lease on the New Territories. Hong Kong island is really a very small part of Hong Kong. The Kowloon Peninsula did not improve things much, but acquisition of the New Territories, which make up about 92 percent of Hong Kong’s territory, made it possible for Hong Kong to survive.
China found itself increasingly vulnerable to foreign incursions. Even more menacing, London managed to convert Hong Kong into an economic magnet, using Hong Kong’s extraordinary harbor. This undermined the livelihood of cities like Guangzhou along the coast. Then over time, Hong Kong became a political refuge for people dedicated to the overthrow of China’s government. At the end of the century, the weakness of China’s dynasty and the greed of the foreigners led to a “scramble for concessions,” partitioning China into spheres not effectively controlled from the center. It also brought to Asia a pattern of behavior that imperialist-wannabes had to follow. Thus Japan, which had had its own confrontation with the West, sought equality and security by projecting strength through territorial acquisition.
Twentieth Century Onwards
In 1894-5, Japan waged a war against China that was unexpectedly and spectacularly successful, allowing Japan to take Taiwan and make it part of the Japanese empire. Hong Kong and Taiwan would thereafter remain in foreign hands well into the 20th century, creating both practical and philosophical problems for the Chinese. Even after the communist takeover of the mainland in 1949, these problems were not resolved. Hong Kong survived as a Western enclave dependent for water and food on China, but ruled as a colony from London. Hong Kong thrived economically, became a host to a multinational expatriate community, and gave the West a military base as well as a center for espionage on the Chinese mainland.
One might imagine that China would not have permitted this to continue as its power grew and it consolidated its control over the mainland. But in fact China had too much to gain from Hong Kong’s being a British colony. In 1965 alone China earned $500 million in foreign exchange from trade carried on through Hong Kong. And so, even though others—for instance India—stood up against the imperialists and took back the colony of Goa that the Portuguese had planted along the Indian coast, and even though the USSR denounced the Chinese as cowards for not taking Hong Kong back, China bided its time, recognizing that having Hong Kong in British hands was better than allowing embarrassment or bitterness to dominate.
Finally, and only when the impending end of the 99-year lease threatened to undermine the colony’s prosperity and political stability, serious negotiations were undertaken between China and Britain regarding the future. At that point the British, not appreciating the full significance of the nationalist symbolism of Hong Kong, naively believed the Chinese might be willing to leave Hong Kong in their hands, working out a deal whereby sovereignty returned to China but the people who really knew how to run Hong Kong would hang on to it. But the Chinese would have none of that. They insisted upon ending that relationship. China’s encounter with the West was in fact about to turn a sharp corner.
The 1984 Sino-British agreement decisively rolled back British control and severely minimized London’s continued participation in the territory. China put into practice a policy that had been announced the previous year, in 1983, by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a policy of “one country, two systems” intended to facilitate unification with Taiwan. The Chinese decided that in order to demonstrate the brilliance of the concept, they would put it into effect vis-à-vis Hong Kong. Once the fact that the concept worked so well had been established, they thought, it would facilitate the return to the mainland of Taiwan, as well. “One country, two systems” made Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China, ostensibly autonomous, leaving only Hong Kong’s foreign relations and defense policy in Chinese hands, while keeping all internal, economic affairs and such things under the control of Hong Kong authorities.
In reality, however, Beijing exercised a veto, stifling the progress Hong Kong had made toward democratic governance that had been launched by the British only a few years before the turnover of the colony, a little bit late but nevertheless put in place. Democracy has not been eliminated from Hong Kong, but it has been much delayed. The current expectation is that the first direct election of the chief executive might occur no sooner than 2017. Meanwhile, China has tolerated activities in Hong Kong not permitted in China. For instance, every year in June people in Hong Kong go out in the streets and demonstrate in commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre; they go out in the street to object when China tries to change the rules on, for instance, residence in the territory, and people are free to practice any religion they want. Falun Gong, which is not permitted on the mainland, is practiced in Hong Kong. So Hong Kong today struggles with its identity both as an international entrepot and as a Chinese city seeking to help shape China and not be swallowed up by it.
Taiwan has posed a similar, but also quite different problem for China. Although the Japanese were ousted in 1945 when the Nationalist Chinese (the Kuomintang) took over the island, Americans became the decisive economic, social, military, and political force on the island. Taiwan therefore became home to what Beijing would consider a rump regime protected by the key capitalist enemy country in the world. The U.S. made it possible for the government in Taiwan to defy Beijing through the Korean war, the Vietnam war, throughout repeated Taiwan Strait confrontations, throughout the Cold War and then the Cold War’s end, through the era of normalization, and even after diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei ceased to exist and the U.S. recognized Beijing.
The U.S.-Taiwan relationship has not always been a happy one. Washington and Taipei work together cautiously and reluctantly, harboring different goals and almost perpetually distrustful of each other. In 1957, at presumably the height of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, the U.S. ambassador was sitting at a heads of mission meeting in Hong Kong explaining to U.S. ambassadors from all over the region how well the Americans and Chinese on Taiwan got along, how smoothly the government was functioning, only to have someone run into the room, hand him a message saying that the safe from the American embassy in Taipei had just landed on his car in the parking lot below an embassy window and there was a massive riot going on in Taiwan. Why was the riot happening? Ostensibly because a Chinese had been killed by an American and the American jury had let the serviceman off. But in fact, it was because the government in Taiwan was angry. It was angry that the Americans were not helping them attack the mainland, it did not like the quality and quantity of arms sales, and it did not like that the Americans lived in isolated enclaves and refused to interact with their neighbors. So the relationship, even at the strongest moment, was fraught with all kinds of crosscurrents that made it a difficult relationship.
One example of how the Americans mistrusted the Chinese on Taiwan is the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, devised under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. The idea was that the U.S. would not tell anyone what it might do in a moment of crisis because it did not want the mainland to look for gaps in the guaranty so it could attack. But similarly, it did not want the government in Taiwan to think it had a free hand, that with American support it could do what it wanted and attack the mainland. So instead the U.S. refused to commit to what it might do in the event of a military clash.
This wary partnership managed to keep China at bay decade after decade. Indeed, even after the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the PRC, the U.S. Congress stepped in and insisted on passage of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which in addition to facilitating economic, social, and cultural exchange, explicitly provided Taiwan the ability to defend itself. It did not require the U.S. to defend Taiwan—that was a step too far. But it did require the U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan so that Taiwan could defend itself. It also said that the U.S. had to maintain military forces in the region around Taiwan capable of coming to Taiwan’s defense if the president decided to do that. So it was a guaranty—a “partial guaranty,” but an important one. And it made it possible for the U.S. to sell Taiwan’s military a variety of advanced weaponry on a regular basis—not always what was wanted, usually at excessive cost, and often more important as symbols of American support than as useful weapons Taiwan might employ against the mainland. In some cases Taiwan never learned how to operate the equipment, never assembled or deployed it. But it did have a palpable symbol of American support for Taiwan’s continued existence.
After the TRA, also in 1982, the U.S., under enormous pressure from China to stop selling arms, came to an agreement with the mainland to limit sales. But Washington also turned around and gave Taiwan six assurances designed to say that even though we have to deal with the mainland, your security is still among our highest priorities. For example, the U.S. would not discuss weapon sales to Taiwan with Beijing in advance. It had not negotiated and would not renegotiate the TRA. It had and would not mediate between Taiwan and China. The idea was not to have the people on Taiwan lose heart and have the whole thing potentially collapse.
More than that, President Ronald Reagan, who had gone into an arms agreement with Beijing only reluctantly and felt that these six assurances were very important, also signed a secret one-page memo that immediately went into the NSC safe, which said that should the military balance in the Taiwan Strait change (at this point Taiwan’s military was much more effective than that of China), the U.S. would resume full-blown arms sales to keep Taiwan in the game. So the U.S. very much committed here militarily to Taiwan’s survival.
Taiwan, of course, also became a democracy—a young and unruly one, but one nurtured by Americans. The U.S. in fact had been responsible for keeping Chiang Kai-shek’s autocracy in power on the island and permitting all kinds of human rights abuses. But it also helped to educate and broaden the horizons for those willing to challenge the regime and move the island toward democracy.
For China, the development of democracy in Taiwan came as a rude surprise, as did the resilience of the population on the island and the continued power of Taiwan’s military. All of this was a surprise because in 1971, when Henry Kissinger arrived in Beijing to launch normalization, he brought with him a package of concessions. He said—without negotiation, without having to be pressured or pushed by the Chinese—that the U.S. would end its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, withdraw American forces from the island, and break diplomatic relations. I would argue that Kissinger gave away too much too fast, not simply selling Taiwan out but also falsely raising China’s expectations that Taiwan would soon collapse. When that did not happen, the Chinese once again felt betrayed by Westerners who had come to Beijing carrying false promises.
In the decades since then, China’s sense of itself as a burgeoning great power, increasingly wealthy and modernizing its military, has been coupled with changes in Taiwan. Not just its democratization or the popular perception of “one country, two systems,” but also the evolution of a distinct Taiwanese identity that is different from the Chinese vision of the people on the island as being just a different group of Chinese. In the early years after the Chinese came to the island, they followed a variety of social and cultural customs designed to perpetuate the sense that the island was simply another part of China. Thus the official language from the mainland, Mandarin Chinese, was the official language in Taiwan. The history Taiwanese studied was not the history of Taiwan but the history of China. The geography they learned was the geography of the mainland. So being Taiwanese, both subtly and not so subtly, was indicated to be second-class, inferior. They were to be made to want to be Chinese and part of a greater China.
That has changed in many ways, to the dismay and anger of the government in Beijing. China’s leaders have rallied people on the mainland in nationalistic demonstrations against changes in Taiwan, demonstrations that are not just against the authorities on the island, but also against the U.S., which is portrayed as a Western power that has once again undermined China’s legitimacy, authority, and nationalism.
China has sought to intimidate, to divide and conquer, and even to bribe Taiwan’s people into renouncing independence, even if they are unwilling to embrace unification. In 1996 China fired missiles in Taiwan’s direction after the democratically elected president of Taiwan made an unofficial visit to his alma mater, Cornell University, which the Chinese considered potential American recognition of Taiwan as an independent political body. It passed an anti-secession law designed to make the independence of Taiwan illegal and therefore justify anything China might do to stop moves toward independence. And trade deals worked out between China and Taiwan in recent years constitute something akin to bribery. Many of them are aimed specifically at commerce, agriculture, and industry in the southern part of Taiwan, the stronghold of pro-independence forces. This sends a message that if you want trade and prosperity, you had better not support the political parties that represent independence.
In response to all these changes, China has returned to the beginning, demanding help from the West to resolve the struggle that the West, after all, began. Europe forced China to recognize its maritime responsibilities, attacking it from the sea and stripping off territory that China had not considered important while it faced inland, aimed at the Mongols and the Manchus. Today, with Hong Kong a special administrative region of China, Taiwan is the only important irredentist issue that continues to roil Chinese nationalism.
The Chinese are nervous; they look at the now lame duck President Chen Shui-bian as someone so irresponsible that he might do something crazy between now and the time he leaves office in May (Ma Ying-jeou, elected in March, assumes office May 20). So Chinese delegations to Washington keep explaining how the U.S. must step in and keep Taiwan’s president under control. This is quite a change. If China long felt that the West came in and forced China to do things it didn’t want to, now we have China coming to the U.S. trying to force Americans to do things that they don’t want, because of this historical event where Taiwan (and Hong Kong) was taken away from China and undermined Chinese nationalism.
Whether Taiwan is eventually absorbed, remains separate, or becomes independent, and how that result is achieved, could end up triggering the first hot war between nuclear armed great powers. That could happen by accident, by mistaken policies, or by design. Much as Americans might say, “That’s crazy, why would we want to go to war over Taiwan?” it’s very possible. We should all be thinking about that and teaching our students why this is an important problem that they need to understand if we are to avoid that frightening future.