What the End of One Country, Two Systems Means

  • Beijing's decision to impose a long-delayed security law on Hong Kong reflects the mainland’s growing concern with challenges to national unity. 
  • Hong Kong will face an acceleration of reintegration, and a more rapid erosion of its special status, while Taiwan will face increased economic and military pressure from the mainland. 
  • China will use its political, economic and, if need be, military might to assert its sovereignty over its periphery, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Beijing's decision to impose a long-delayed security law on Hong Kong reflects the mainland’s growing concern with challenges to national unity ahead of next year's 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. But it is more immediately driven by the rising violence in Hong Kong and the political evolution in Taiwan. Despite international criticism, China will strengthen efforts to fully integrate Hong Kong and to further isolate Taiwan internationally. 

The issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan are intimately linked for Beijing. Hong Kong was intended to be a model of effective unification under one country, two systems, to entice Taiwan to rejoin the motherland and bring to fruition the post-World War II rebuilding of China. But Hong Kong's integration has grown increasingly fractious over the past decade, and this has reinforced sentiment in Taiwan that reintegration with China would see a similar erosion of Taiwan's political and social structures. 

With Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen's reelection in January, driven in part by the Hong Kong protests, Beijing is aware that there is little support left in Taiwan for reintegration with the mainland. Rather, Taiwanese politics now splits between pro-status quo and pro-independence ideas. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Taiwan's international status back to the forefront, with countries from the United States to Australia arguing in favor of increasing Taiwanese participation in International forums like the World Health Organization, something strenuously objected to by Beijing.

The 2019 protesters in Hong Kong rallied around five key demands, essentially insisting on self-determination for Hong Kong. This was clearly something on which Beijing would not yield. As protests continued, elements within the movement grew more violent, with some using improvised explosives, something Beijing fears Hong Kong security forces cannot fully manage. The combination of the college break and the social restrictions implemented due to the COVID-19 crisis eased the protests, but the Chinese National People's Congress' decision to take up the security law reignited them. While these protests were small, they demonstrated a growing willingness to challenge Hong Kong's restrictions on gatherings and foreshadowed another summer of regular protest activity leading up to legislative elections in September.

The security law was supposed to be something Hong Kong itself passed following the 1997 handover from the United Kingdom, but domestic opposition delayed concrete action. Beijing has now stepped in to provide the legal tools to counter separatism, terrorism or intentional economic upheaval. The law will also provide a mechanism for Chinese agencies to operate directly in Hong Kong. The timing coincides with a delayed vote in Hong Kong later this week on a bill that would outlaw parodying or disrespecting the Chinese national anthem, another measure generating ire among Hong Kong protesters. 

In the past year, China has grown more assertive in its international diplomacy, lashing out at anything it considers a challenge to Chinese national unity or criticism of Chinese actions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already-tense exchanges between China and several Western countries, but despite criticism and threats of political and economic sanctions, Beijing remains undeterred. The 100th anniversary of the CCP is an important piece of China's narrative to reinforce Chinese nationalism and challenge what it sees as an outdated and unfair Western world order. 

With rising international efforts to constrain China's economic and political rise, Beijing cannot allow Hong Kong, a Chinese city, to remain a challenge to central authority. The politics of one country, two systems no longer resonate, and leaving Hong Kong to its own devices no longer aids China's Taiwan policy. For Hong Kong, this means an acceleration of reintegration, and a more rapid erosion of special status — something that will likely trigger a further acceleration of corporate diversification or relocation from Hong Kong, challenging its status as a financial center. For Taiwan, it means increased economic and military pressure from the mainland. And for the world, it means China will use its political, economic and, if need be, military might to assert its sovereignty over its periphery, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.

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