The "one country, two systems" principle is a Chinese political innovation unprecedented in world history.
In conventional practice, autonomous regions, federations and confederate states all must follow the same political and economic systems. Only under "one country, two systems", two distinct systems such as a socialist and capitalist system can coexist in a political union. This unique concept is workable only in China, because of the Chinese people's pragmatism, a characteristic which probably also explains their success in business and commerce.
The Chinese are generally more result oriented than being blind observers of rigid rules.
The generous offer of President Xi Jinping recently to respect the local way of life and a high degree of autonomy in Taiwan is illuminating. On Jan 2, Xi delivered an important speech to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. The historic occasion in 1979 coincided with the establishment of Sino-US diplomatic relations.
The key message of the 1979 message was to shift the basic approach of Taiwan from "liberation", which implies the possibility of violence, to peaceful reunification.
The situation across the Taiwan Straits has reached a delicate phase as the Chinese people chase their dream of reunification and national rejuvenation. This aspiration is rooted in history. Given the Chinese mainland's extraordinary achievements over the last 40 years and its ascendancy on the world stage in recent years, it is a dream whose time has come.
Xi's message helps understand the initiative. His address reiterated most of the long-known tenets and no sign of any significant shift in the mainland's policy. However, some points merit a closer look.
First, Xi repeatedly stated that the Taiwan question is a historical legacy of century-long Chinese miseries following the two Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, and national rejuvenation requires the reunification of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.
The message resonated with his pledge to make the Chinese nation a global power by 2050. In his three and a half hour speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, he stated that China plans to become a moderately prosperous society by 2020, a modern socialist country by 2035, and a global power by 2050.
While he stopped short of issuing a firm deadline, his remarks went further than his 2013 statement saying the political impasse between the two sides "cannot be passed on from generation to generation". It is worth remembering that throughout history, no country has become powerful as a divided nation. Thus Xi's implied determination to bring the Taiwan question into the country's fold under his watch is unmistakable.
Second, Xi proposed the creation of a body representing political parties and social groups chosen by people from both sides to conduct an extensive and in-depth study on cross-Straits relations and make institutional arrangements for promoting peaceful development and work toward reunification. While similar calls have been made before, this one is unusually explicit.
Third, Xi rejected the notion that the difference in systems between Taiwan and the mainland is an obstacle to reunification let alone an excuse for separation, when he warned against advocates of Taiwan independence and emphasized that the mainland reserves the right to use force, if necessary, against any move toward secession. He proposed that the people look at the principle of "one country, two systems" in the context of Taiwan's reunification with the Chinese mainland.
"One country, two systems" offers the only road map for the people across the Straits to peacefully resolve the current dilemma. The rejection of Xi's overture by Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on the pretext that Taiwan residents are opposed to the concept was not unexpected. But was it wise to do so?
The "one country, two systems" principle is the best possible option to bring about the two sides together with the minimum of harm. Both sides must exercise the maximum of tolerance, and expect hiccups to occur along the way.
They should bear in mind that they are all descendants of the same legendary creature long (dragon) and hence of the same family, with the same blood running through their veins.
The author is a visiting senior research fellow at Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
HONG KONG NEWS