What Taiwan can learn from the fall of Hong Kong, according to Dennis Kwok, scholar in exile at Northeastern

audience members at a conference discussion
Northeastern Professor Mai’a Cross holds a conversation with Dennis Kwok, a scholar-in-exile, visiting lecturer and Barrister-at-Law and the founding member of Hong Kong’s Civic Party, on the rise of China, the fall of Hong Kong, and the implications for the Taiwan Strait in Renaissance Park. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

When Dennis Kwok, a former member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and scholar in exile at Northeastern, started his political career in 2006, he believed that “one country, two systems,” a constitutional formula of Hong Kong’s relationship with China, would work.

A decade later, completely disillusioned, he began traveling in his capacity as a lawmaker to places like Washington, D.C., London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels to draw attention to China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“I told people who we engaged with that you should care about Hong Kong, not for some purely altruistic reason, but because after the fall of Hong Kong your next issue that will land on your desk is Taiwan,” Kwok says. “And that is true right now.”

Kwok shared his thoughts on China’s policies, “the fall” of Hong Kong and concerns about the future of Taiwan with the Northeastern community during an event last week on the Boston campus. The conversation was moderated by Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy and director of the Center for International and World Cultures.  

Kwok, 45, served two terms on the Legislative Council from 2012 to 2020, holding a post of the deputy chairman of both the House Committee and the Panel on Administration of Justice and Legal Services. He was also a founding member of the pro-democracy liberal Civic Party in 2006 that supported democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law. 

In the first decade of 2000s, Kwok says, Chinese leadership was considered competent, pragmatic, and focused on economic development and becoming a member of the World Trade Organization. China’s slogan used to be “Hide your strength, bite your tongue.”

When Xi Jinping became the president of the People’s Republic of China in 2012, Kwok says, he changed the direction of both domestic and foreign policy, assuming a much more assertive approach.

“We are seeing the kind of authoritarianism that Chinese people have not seen in decades,” he says. “And I think we are in for a very difficult time for a long period.”

China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, Uyghurs’ human rights violations and abuse in Xinjiang province, trade sanctions against Australia, “wolf-warrior diplomacy,”or forceful defensiveness over any international criticism, are all examples of Xi’s worldview that is now being expressed in policy, Kwok says.

“Rejuvenation of the Chinese civilization” became Xi’s slogan, he says, which equates with integration of Hong Kong and reunification with Taiwan. 

“Mao founded the People’s Republic of China. Deng Xiaoping made it rich, he [Xi] has to make it great,” he says. “In order to secure that lifetime presidency, he has to have a political legacy. I firmly believe that for him the reunification with Taiwan will be the political legacy that he is seeking after.”

In 1984, China and the United Kingdom signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in which the U.K. agreed to transfer Hong Kong, its colony of more than 150 years, to China in 1997. In exchange, China had to guarantee that Hong Kong’s economic and political systems would remain unchanged for 50 years after the handover.  

The release of a white paper in June 2014 by the Chinese Central Government in Beijing signaled changes in the China-Hong Kong relationship under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Kwok says. The document reaffirmed China’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, which meant total control over every aspect of Hong Kong’s society, he says. 

Next, the Occupy Central Movement started mass protests over the failure of the legislature to deliver a universal suffrage package to the Hong Kong people. Beijing was pushing for an unconstitutional package that provided for the mainland to approve candidates before Hong Kong elections, Kwok says. 

In February 2019, the Hong Kong government introduced the Extradition Bill that would have allowed extraditing people to mainland China to face criminal charges. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents participated in a protest against the bill on June 9, 2019, and continued to protest until November 2020. 

To quell protests, China passed the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It’s 66 articles criminalized secession, or breaking away from China; subversion, or undermining the authority of the central government; terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces.

Pro-democratic members of the Legislative Council protested the law as a crime against free speech and arrests, Kwok says. According to the BBC, hundreds of protestors, activists and former opposition lawmakers have been arrested since the law went into force.

Together with other 12 opposition candidates, Kwok was disqualified by Beijing from running in the 2020 Hong Kong legislative election. 

The next year, the Chinese central government unilaterally changed Hong Kong’s electoral system and established a committee to screen political candidates based on their “patriotism.”

Kwok says that during the 2019 protests one of the biggest slogans was “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan.” 

Taiwan was ruled by the Chinese Qing dynasty from 1683 to 1895. It became Chinese territory again in 1945 after 50 years of the Empire of Japan’s rule. 

In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalistic head of the Republic of China, moved his government from the mainland to Taiwan, while losing the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communist Party forces. On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China with its capital in Beijing, while Taiwan remained under the control of the Chinese government. 

Taiwan is the holy grail of China politics, Kwok says, and a very important piece of political gamesmanship for China’s leaders. 

“Anything could happen over the Taiwan Strait,” Kwok says. “I am not optimistic at all about the stability in the region.”

Taiwan is de facto an independent sovereign country, he says, that has continued to develop since 1949. It has a stable population, civil government, elections and its own army.

“There is a lot of similarity with the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Kwok says. “A lot of people thought Putin wouldn’t do it. But they got to understand that dictators, such as Putin and Xi Jinping, have this unpredictable personal motivation that is really driving their decision.”

If China proposes to Taiwan the same “one country, two systems” deal that didn’t work out for Hong Kong, he says, the Taiwaneese politicians will refuse it as they won’t be able to sell this offer to the Taiwaneese people. 

“No one in the Taiwaneese political system will say they are for unification [with mainland China],” Kwok says. 

Australia, Japan and other Asian-Pacific countries are extremely concerned about the situation in the region, he says. They need the U.S. to put pressure on China to preserve stability in the region. 

If China attacks Taiwan, the U.S. military forces in the region in Guam, Philippines, South Korea and Japan will be inevitably dragged into the conflict, Kwok says. That is why Xi is trying to push the U.S. out of the region, he says.

At the same time, if the international community wants to help Taiwan, Kwok says, it needs to ask Taiwanese people what they want to do because “they are the ones who will be doing the fighting.” 

His advice to Taiwan—be nuanced in your approach.

“Take Xi’s words seriously and literally, do not dismiss it as communist rhetoric,” Kwok says.

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