China's Frayed Perimeter

When China resumed control over Hong Kong, after the end of British colonial rule in 1997, many Chinese believed that a new era was at hand: one in which an ascendant mainland China under Communist Party rule would finally integrate all of what is sometimes fancied as Greater China, bringing a definitive end to separatism on the country's perimeter and uniting the country.

Hong Kong's handover was arranged under the terms of a compact that became known as One Country Two Systems, which promised substantial local autonomy for Hong Kong until 2047. Above all, this implied that the city could continue to develop its democratic politics, while retaining it's independent legal system and its freedom of speech, with China retaining ultimate say over its defense and its foreign relations.

One Country Two Systems was agreed to by Beijing, in part, with an eye to Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province, and as the biggest prize in its struggle to "reintegrate" the nation. The idea at the time seems to have been that if Hong Kong were to be seen as a prospering, liberal polity, little interfered with by Beijing, then Taiwan might be susceptible to a return to the fold under China's ultimate sovereignty using similar arrangements.

Twenty years after Hong Kong's handover to China by the British, to say that things have not worked out along these lines would be an understatement. In the last few years, as Beijing has involved itself more and more in Hong Kong politics, political sentiment in the city has trended more and more sharply in the direction of suspicion of China, of resistance—especially among youth in the city—to the idea of complete integration with the mainland, and in its most radical expression, toward outright independence from China.

These trends have unfolded in parallel with a dramatic generational cultural shift in Taiwan away from once common self-identification as "Chinese," and toward the deepening and hardening of an emergent Taiwanese national identity that rejects any idea of absorption by China.

Journalist Howard French explores the emergence of pro-autonomy and pro-independence opinion in Hong Kong through conversation with youth activists, leaders and intellectuals, and it assesses the range of options that Beijing has at its disposal—all unattractive—for containing this growing separatism.

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