Xi’s Determination and Taiwan’s Challenge

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry on Taiwan, but that doesn’t mean he’s unstoppable. The sooner Taiwan’s people understand this, the better prepared they’ll be to scuttle his plans
Peter Enav

Xi Jinping (習近平) is arguably the most dynamic Chinese leader since Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who left the scene nearly 40 years ago. In less than two years in office, the owlish-looking Xi has undertaken a ruthless purge of political opponents, consolidating his power amid an anti-corruption drive that has targeted “flies and tigers” alike, though not his own family, which according to a Bloomberg News report from June 2012 is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Committed to pulling the plug on China’s long running (and increasingly creaky) state-owned enterprise-led growth model, Xi has encouraged a much more consumer oriented, less export dependent economic approach, despite fears of slowing GDP and potentially destabilizing unemployment.

It remains to be seen just how far he will move ahead with his reformist agenda (among other things, the politically potent SOEs have yet to respond to his challenge) but he cannot be faulted on the boldness of his vision. Compared to predecessor Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), he is innovative and forward looking, a man in a hurry to change things.

Reflecting his impatience, Xi is also making waves (quite literally) on the foreign policy front, engineering a series of bilateral confrontations with traditional and emerging U.S. allies in the western Pacific, mostly over China’s irredentist claims to territory in the East and South China seas. Some analysts criticize Xi for creating an “anti-China” alliance where none existed before, but this view seems short-sighted, particularly given the continuing inability of the U.S. to provide the supposed alliance with the assurances it needs to confront Chinese power head on. Unless and until Washington can get its act together, Xi’s assertive policies will likely come up trumps, not least because countries like Vietnam and the Philippines will necessarily begin to understand their own military limitations and start making accommodations with Beijing’s rising power.

Given Xi’s dynamism, it is probably not surprising that he has shown little inclination to indulge increasingly negative public opinion in Hong Kong, where he is giving short shrift to the “two-systems” component of the bi-furcated formula adopted at the time of the territory’s reintegration into China in 1997. Xi has made it clear that what really counts in the former British colony is not this dodgy liberalism, but a proudly patriotic approach focused on a communist-led “one country,” even if that means abrogating the understandings supposedly reached between Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and Margaret Thatcher in the run-up to the handover 17 years ago.

By almost every conceivable metric, Hong Kong is becoming much more like China and much less like the quasi-democratic polity that Britain had in mind for it under the provisions of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution for the territory meant to ensure civil and political rights there through 2047. An obvious example of this is press freedom, where the few remaining bastions of independent journalism (like Apple Daily) are coming under increasing commercial pressure from China lickspittles like HSBC and Standard Chartered to ditch their critical views and get with China’s program.

Perversely however (at least from China’s perspective), many in the territory are still not on board with the “one country” vision, and are now pressing ahead with a distinctly liberal agenda, including free elections for Hong Kong chief executive, rather than the big business-abetted vetting process that Beijing wants to continue. Push may well come to shove on this long simmering issue sometime later this summer, when China skeptics plan to launch a renewed “Occupy Central” campaign, aimed at securing the democratic future they think they have a right to. But no one should have any illusions about their prospects for success. A Chinese leader who thinks nothing of flouting international law in the South China Sea or placing well entrenched political opponents under humiliating house arrest in Beijing will not be put off by several thousand democratic activists in Hong Kong, particularly when he has the People’s Liberation Army on call to deal with any spillover that the local police can’t handle.

Xi’s attitude was neatly underscored earlier this month, when China published a new Hong Kong “white paper,” which contained strong suggestions that Beijing would begin interpreting the Basic Law without recourse to its international commitments or the assurances it provided to Hong Kong’s people in the 1980s. More than anything else, the “white paper” demonstrates that Hong Kong’s already precipitous slide toward absolute Chinese control will only gather momentum, and the last vestiges of the two-systems approach to Hong Kong governance will gradually fade away. This will be Xi’s legacy to future generations of Hong Kong people, most of whom would now welcome a return to the unfettered rule of law regime that was taken away from them in 1997.

All of this of course has huge implications for Taiwan, which has been the apple of China’s recidivist eye for the past 65 years. Having already resisted Chinese aggression on any number of occasions (on the eve of the Korean War, for example, or in the tense run-up to the island’s first direct presidential elections in 1996), many Taiwanese have come to believe they are somehow invulnerable to continuing Chinese threats to their sovereignty, a view abetted by their special geographical circumstances (otherwise known as the seemingly defensible seas of the Taiwan Strait), and the presumed readiness of the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s aid, regardless of the circumstances.

This is not really the place to try to deconstruct their arguments, except to say that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has been moving decisively in China’s favor for more than a decade now, and that American willingness to save Taiwan from China cannot be taken for granted — either now or in the future.

What can be said however, is that compared to Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin (江澤民) or even Deng Xiaoping, all of whom encouraged the belief that achieving Chinese control of Taiwan was not necessarily a compelling priority, Xi Jinping is impatient to move the island ever closer to formal integration with China, regardless of the costs. The first sign of this came in October 2013 when Xi told former Taiwanese vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) in Bali, Indonesia, that China would not wait indefinitely for Taiwan’s leaders to agree to integration. “Increasing mutual political trust across the Taiwan Straits and jointly building up political foundations are crucial for ensuring the peaceful development of relations,” the official Xinhua news agency paraphrased Xi as saying. “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

Over the following several months Xi placed increasing pressure on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to step up the pace of cross-strait economic integration and begin a political dialogue aimed at beginning the process of political integration. Among other things this pressure appears to have played a major role in Ma’s ill-conceived attempt to rush the trade services agreement through the legislature, despite a political climate that was becoming more and more hostile to his policies.

Most recently, Chinese officials like Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Fan Liqing (范麗青) have taken to repeating their traditional formula that the Taiwan issue “must be decided by all Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots,” which among others things begs the question of why the Chinese people should be permitted to have a say in the affairs of someone else when they are denied that right themselves. But logical inconsistencies aside, the most interesting aspect of Fan’s statement was the alacrity with which it was condemned by Taiwanese officials on both sides of the island’s deep-seated political divide — not only people from the Democratic Progressive Party and other China skeptics, but Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) heavyweights including Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) and Greater Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) — all of whom insisted that Taiwanese and only Taiwanese would rule on Taiwan’s future, and that China had no right at all to try to impose its will on Taiwan.

The vehemence of their comments was due in large part to the transformative power of the Sunflower Movement, which has awakened millions of Taiwanese from their extended political torpor and taught Taiwanese politicians from across the ideological spectrum that an open-ended embrace of China is no longer electorally profitable. That is a lesson that voters will need to press home in the run-up to mayoral elections later this year, and even more important, during the presidential campaign of 2016. Particularly in light of Xi Jinping’s aggressive Taiwanese timetable, any failure to do so will inevitably open the door to the kind of political future that few on the island want to think about. Keeping that future at bay begins with action at home, and the time to start it is now.

Peter Enav was the head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.

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