Geese, Canaries and Swans: The Ornithology of Hong Kong


Hong Kong is a goose that lays golden eggs for China. Now, the respected historian of China, Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, has raised the question in Newsweek of whether it may also be a canary in the coal mine for all of China. The U.S. government should heed the implication of Wasserstrom’s ornithological musings: the student protests in Hong Kong could seriously affect U.S. strategic interests by foreshadowing events in Taiwan.

The importance of Hong Kong city as a global financial center—the Golden Goose—has diminished in proportion to China’s own economic modernization and the rise of Shanghai as an international financial hub. Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” model continues to give it a certain cachet that lures expatriates and foreign businesses. Moreover, despite an erosion of their freedoms at the margins, the people of Hong Kong have shown remarkable resiliency, vigorously defending the core human rights granted them under the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration. As Wasserstrom points out, they have exercised their muscles, beating back a 2003 attempt to impose a draconian anti-subversion law and a 2012 bid to impose “patriotic” education on Hong Kong’s students. Today, the streets of Hong Kong are clogged again, this time by protesters demanding broader democratic participation in the selection of the city’s chief executive.

The Golden Goose is alive, if tarnished. But the more compelling bird metaphor for Hong Kong today may be that of the canary in the coal mine with regard to the Beijing-Taipei relationship. As Hong Kong students and democratic activists test the boundaries of Beijing’s tolerance, the people of Taiwan are enjoying a front-row seat on the action. As Ted Galen Carpenter wrote recently in The National Interest, the Taiwanese are watching Hong Kong with growing concern. Taiwan’s leaders have been edging closer to Beijing for years, forging deeper economic, communications, and travel links, and moving from “track two” unofficial ties, towards more “track one” party and governmental relations. Still, the people of Taiwan remain leery of “mainlandization,” and have explicitly rejected the “One Country, Two Systems” formula that Beijing favors as the basis for unification. Their reticence is directly tied to their assessment of China’s willingness to respect the human rights they won in arduous struggle against Taiwan’s own authoritarian regime. Beijing has a long way to go before it will really enjoy the trust of the people of Taiwan. The denouement of this fall’s protests in Hong Kong will affect Taiwan’s assessment of China’s “air quality” as much as the pollution meters on the roof of the U.S. Embassy.

This should be a subject of concern for U.S. policy makers.

First, the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act stipulates that the human rights of the people of Hong Kong “are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong.” If the President determines that Hong Kong “is not sufficiently autonomous” to justify its special privileges under U.S. law, he can issue an executive order suspending those provisions of law (e.g. special trading rights, access to technology, travel, etc.). In other words, if China infringes on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Washington reserves the right to garrote the goose. While the President is not likely to invoke this authority, a violent crackdown that costs the lives of many protesters could very well lead to Congressional calls for action.

Second, the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square already badly damaged the long-term prospects for a peaceful unification of China and Taiwan. The message then to Taipei was clear: China cannot be trusted to respect the democratic freedoms enjoyed by the people of Taiwan. Rash moves in Hong Kong today will have a similarly negative effect on China-Taiwan relations, eliminating any prospects for peaceful unification for decades This could have potentially dire consequences. It was not so long ago that China and Taiwan were at loggerheads. Indeed, when I began my career in government as an Asia pol-mil analyst at the State Department in the late 1980s, the Taiwan-controlled island of Jinmen (aka Kinmen or Quemoy) was a purely military outpost, and it was not uncommon for Chinese and Taiwanese forces to lob artillery shells at each other. China’s launch of ballistic missiles to “bracket” Taiwan in 1996 prompted a robust U.S. military response and led to calls by some U.S. lawmakers to reinstitute the U.S.-Taiwan military alliance. If the Hong Kong situation ends with a bloodbath, tensions may rise dangerously across the Taiwan Strait.

Washington has more than a passing interest in the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. In lieu of the alliance, it is U.S. policy under the 1979 Taiwan Relation Act (TRA) to consider any attempt to determine Taiwan’s future by other than peaceful means to be of “grave” concern to the United States. Moreover, the TRA obligates the U.S. to provide “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” And although China’s rise has shifted the strategic balance in East Asia, diminishing Taiwan’s relative economic clout and undercutting its political leverage in Washington, Taiwan continues to enjoy strong support on Capitol Hill, and many strategists argue that China’s growing military capabilities underscore the importance of U.S.-Taiwan security ties. A conflict between Beijing and Taipei remains one of the few fuses that could ignite a war between China and the United States. If Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Officer Leung Chun-ying and his masters in Beijing fail to find a peaceful solution to nearly a month of street protests, they will not only imperil the goose and the canary, but may even summon a black swan.


Frank Jannuzi is President and CEO of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. He has previously served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and at the State Department and is an adjunct instructor in the MA in Global Security Studies Program in Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.


Photo credit: Pasu Au Yeung