China focuses on next great prize - Taiwan

The hottest selling item at Peking's state-owned Friendship Store these days is a triumphalist 1997 fridge magnet, showing two happy pandas painting the red Chinese flag on top of a Union flag. Another magnet shows a gloomy British bulldog, suitcases in hand, boarding a British flight out while a panda waves him off.

Patriotic fridge magnets aside, the countdown in China started in earnest at the stroke of midnight on Saturday as the electronic clock in Tiananmen Square clicked to show exactly 100 days to go. A group of about 200 students bused in from the People's University dutifully broke into song and waved flags in front of the clock, making up with enthusiasm what they lacked in spontaneity. And last night the main television station broadcast the final of a nation-wide quiz show in which mainlanders have competed against each other to demonstrate their extraordinary knowledge of Hong Kong trivia.

China's obsession with sovereignty, and the inviolable nature of the "motherland", has for months fuelled a surge in patriotic propaganda. Even the hardline Prime Minister, Li Peng, reportedly thinks the handover might justify lifting the normal ban on fireworks in Peking.

Yet this is one subject on which there is little gap between the official propaganda and the perceptions of ordinary Chinese. "There is a genuine patriotic sense that China is healing itself, that it is righting a historical wrong," said one Western diplomat. The British, and the possibility that they might have played some part in Hong Kong's success, have been written out of the official script. In a statement to mark the "100 Days to Go" milestone, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Cui Tiankai, last week declared: "Over the past 100 years, Hong Kong Chinese built Hong Kong into an international trade, financial and shipping centre, with the special diligence and intelligence of the Chinese people." No mention of any benefits of 150 years of British administration.

From an early age, Chinese schoolchildren are drilled in the heinous crimes of the British during the Opium Wars, and the unequal treaties which stole part of the motherland. A view of almost a priori sovereign rights is well absorbed, whether the territory in question is Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang or the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. All are deemed "inalienable" parts of China.

China's Defence Minister, Chi Haotian, recently urged the country to "make full use of this historic opportunity and mobilise the whole nation for education in patriotism and national defence". Such sentiments explain why there is unease in Hong Kong at a statement this month by Qian Qichen, the Chinese Foreign Minister, that school textbooks in the territory which do not confirm to China's "principles" will have to be "revised". As far as China is concerned, history is written by the sovereign power.

After 1 July, Hong Kong will become another Chinese "internal affair" in which other countries are not allowed to "interfere". Technically, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong's transfer, Britain still has a monitoring role through the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group which will exist, and will continue to meet, until 1 January 2000. The Joint Declaration is also registered at the United Nations as an international agreement, one which pledges that the "one country, two systems" arrangement will last for 50 years. In practice, however, there is little scope for formal international sanction of China if things go wrong.

For Peking, the spotlight of sovereign ambition will, after 1 July, shift to the recovery of Macau in 1999, and, more importantly, to Taiwan. Macau is far less of a trophy than Hong Kong. After the 1974 change of government in Portugal, Lisbon wanted to give Macau back to China, but Peking insisted that nothing could be given back which had not been taken away. Unlike Hong Kong's New Territories, there was never a formal treaty for Macau, so 20 December 1999 was arbitrarily fixed as the time when this corner of Chinese territory would be removed from "Portuguese administration". That date will mark an end to foreign government of claimed Chinese territory.

Taiwan is a different matter. Since the beginning of this year, all the main speeches by Chinese leaders have spoken of how, after Hong Kong is reunited with the motherland, it should be the turn of Taiwan, still formally considered a renegade province by Peking. In his funeral address for Deng Xiaoping, President Jiang Zemin said: "The Taiwan question will be settled eventually and the complete reunification of the motherland will certainly be achieved." The Prime Minister, in his annual state of the nation report this month, said: "The reunification of the motherland is an irreversible historical trend, and any attempt at splitting China, or at the secession of Taiwan from China, will meet with the firm opposition of the entire Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan."

Those Taiwan compatriots will be among the people most keenly watching developments in Hong Kong after 1 July, with every expectation that the reality of "one country, two systems" will not tempt them towards reunification with the Communist-run mainland.

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