Francis Moriarty: Happy birthday China — now blow out the Molotovs

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The People's Republic of China celebrated its 70th anniversary with fireworks across the country Oct. 1, but in Hong Kong the skies were as dark as the turn of events — a high school student-protester there was shot in the chest by a police officer at nearly point-blank range during a street clash and is fighting for his life in hospital.

The Hong Kong police defended the shooting in a statement, saying the officer — in full riot attire — feared for his life when he fired, as he was under attack by the protester, who had struck him on the arm with a metal rod. The victim can be seen slumping to the ground and saying his chest hurts, as blood seeps through his shirt.

The shooting came amid street violence as protesters there marked the birth of modern China by throwing gasoline-filled bottles and bricks at police, who returned fire with tear gas and water cannons.

There was no traditional pyrotechnic display overhead for Hong Kong's families to ooh-and-ahh over as they flocked along the rim of Victoria Harbor to celebrate National Day. The government canceled the celebration to prevent large crowds.

The annual flag-raising at the Hong Kong Convention Center was also closed off to the public and chief executive Carrie Lam's chair was empty: Despite the pro-democracy unrest rocking her city for 17 weeks and counting, Lam flew to the national celebrations held in Beijing. Her absence reinforced the widespread perception among Hong Kongers, especially the young, that the Central government is calling the shots, and that Lam's first loyalty is to the system that appointed her through a China-controlled committee.


If the violence in Hong Kong were not enough to give China's President Xi Jinping heartburn, he might also consider events in Taiwan, the democratically self-governed "other China" lying just 100 miles offshore.

There, thousands of demonstrators dressed in black and wearing gas masks marched in the capital, Taipei, to show solidarity with their Hong Kong cousins. This gesture is enough to encourage Beijing's leaders to do something that probably no government should ever do: Believe their own propaganda. In this case, that means alleging that Taiwan's pro-democracy ruling party under President Tsai Ing-wen, and its ally the United States, have fomented the unrest in Hong Kong.

Taiwan is an especially sensitive nerve for the Chinee Communist Party. That's because Mao Zedong's Red Army fought a civil war for control of China with the Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist forces were victorious and on October 1, 1949, Mao announced the founding of a "new" China with its capital in Beijing.

Chiang's Nationalist forces fled offshore to Taiwan, where they declared the island as the new home of China's legitimate government until the day when Nationalists would retake the mainland. Since that division, it has been the Communist Party's self-appointed historical mandate to seize control of this presumptive "nation," and to persuade Taiwan's 27 million proudly independent citizens to accept political reattachment to the mainland under the Communists' rule.

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Short of force, what's the plan to accomplish this?

To date, the strategy has been to persuade Taiwan of the potential benefits by first luring Taiwan entrepreneurs to set up factories on the mainland. Many of these investors were drawn from among Nationalist Party supporters. This approach successfully attracted significant investment, especially in electronics, while also weakening Taiwan's industrial base.

Beijing has also created a body of people inside Taiwan who can influence public opinion there, both by supporting pro-reunification forces inside the founding Nationalist Party (now in opposition) and by voicing criticism of the current government under Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP. One of the main taregts of this campaign of criticism has been the DPP's handling of Taiwan's economy.


In 2008, when the Nationalists were returned to power on the island, they ran on a platform of improving the economy through warmer Cross-Straits relations. One way to do this was to generate benefits by opening Taiwan's airspace to commercial aviation from the mainland, while also allowing mainland investment in the travel industry. This was expected to foster people-to-people ties while creating a boom for tourist-related Taiwan businesses.

But the boom failed to match the hoopla. The tourists' money instead moved in a virtuous circle: They booked trips with mainland agencies, flew on mainland airlines, stayed primarily in hotels and guesthouses owned by mainland investors. Precious few ate in locally owned restaurants, despite Taiwan's reputation for excellent food. Worse, they moved around in rented vans, not local taxis.

This was a major PR misstep. Taiwan's taxi drivers are often indigenous people who are not ethnically Chinese and for whom Mandarin is a second language. Most had backed the DPP's Chen Shui-bian in the 2000 election when he became the first Taiwan president not from the Nationalist Party. But eight years later, unhappy about the economy and scandals, many of them again switched parties and voted for the Nationalist candidate, Hong Kong-born Ma Ying-jeou, a former Taiwan mayor who had touted an increased infusion of mainland tourism investment as the tonic for Taiwan's economic woes.

The benefits did not materialize. It also became clear that seven decades of separation had led to irreconcilable differences in habits, ethics and political values. Yet Beijing still promotes the same one country-two systems formula that's now imploding in Hong Kong.

There has never been a market in Taiwan for such a reunification policy and what is happening in Hong Kong has nailed that door shut.

Happy birthday, China. Watch out for the exploding candles.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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