Beijing cannot scold its way to a solution to the 'Hong Kong problem'

Alice Wu says Beijing needs to display more nuance in its dealings with an insecure Hong Kong. More scolding will not help

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 3:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 3:04am

"One country, two systems" isn't a myth. The constitutional principle formulated by the late Deng Xiaoping has been around since 1984. But back in the day, many spoke of it as a solution to Beijing's "Taiwan problem". Today, it's beginning to look a lot like Beijing's "Hong Kong problem".

"One country, two systems" has evolved since its inception in Hong Kong 17 years ago. Over that time, talk of "testing it in Hong Kong, then Macau, before Taiwan" has slowly lost its relevance. Just a week ago, in fact, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said "one country, two systems" was irrelevant for Taiwan.

But it's important to remember why, back in the day, Taiwan was pulled into the sales pitch: it served a purpose. Cross-strait tensions ran very high; there was talk of military action from both sides that made the world hyperventilate. So the handovers of Hong Kong and Macau were smartly woven into the cross-strait narrative.

Speaking in those terms struck a chord with the international audience then. The thinking was that China would not mess up Hong Kong because "one country, two systems" had to work. Its success became the paper bag that calmed nerves.

Since that time, Beijing and Taipei have obviously charted their own course, one that's no longer hinged on "one country, two systems". That relationship has seen new complications and new challenges.

There are also more tensions and flashpoints in the mainland-Hong Kong connection, which has made a new narrative of assurance on "one country, two systems" necessary. Unfortunately, the State Council's release of its white paper has sparked angst, rather than acted as an assurance.

Beijing - while many would understand its grumpiness - needs to employ a set of more nuanced vocabulary that displays magnanimity more than authority when it comes to Hong Kong. The white paper cemented the impression that Beijing seems to speak, when it comes to Hong Kong, in only one frequency and one language: that of a parent chastising a child. That monotone adds undue strain to a delicate relationship.

This lack of nuance isn't the ideal response to Hong Kong's sometimes adversarial and antagonistic expressions of insecurity.

Just as the world continues to watch Beijing's handling of Taipei, the world is also watching China's relationship with Hong Kong, and Macau. How Beijing communicates with Hongkongers has been put under the international spotlight because the world continues to see that as a good reference point on how to read and understand China in broader regional and global terms.

For all the emphasis the Beijing leadership has placed on increasing its soft power, it's hard to understand how it is missing the opportunity Hong Kong presents. Soft power, properly executed, requires a soft touch. How Beijing deals with the current "Hong Kong problem" will determine whether Deng's "one country, two systems" can weather the test of time, and puts Beijing's true soft power capabilities to the test.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA