By Dr. Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
At the southern tip of the Chinese mainland lie not one but two territories in conflict with the communist leadership in Beijing: Hong Kong and Taiwan. Those who have been following the news from the region since January of this year can see how the two conflicts have escalated – and a closer look reveals how they encapsulate a long-term strategic shift in Chinese thinking which threatens to destabilize the region in the long run.
In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping openly threatened the island nation with annexation in a speech if the Taiwanese did not yield and unite with the People’s Republic. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was indignant, and also knew she had the backing of more than 80 percent of her fellow citizens, along with the governments in Washington, Paris and Berlin. The Republic of China, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic have been in embroiled in conflict with each other since 1949. That is when the Communists’ civil war under Mao ended in victory, and the government and armed forces of the first Chinese Republic retreated to the island of Taiwan with the aim of retaking the mainland from there.
After a civil war, it is never easy to distinguish the victor from the vanquished. A look at the USA shows that even more than 150 years after the American Civil War, a rift divides the country: In the South, the monuments of the defeated side are still standing and their flags still fly. The question of who won the war is one thing. The emotional legacy and the question of a common future are another. With that in mind, one could call for the Taiwanese and Chinese to sit down at the negotiating table and come up with a plan for how to deal with each other in the future.
A look at Hong Kong shows why that is not so simple: The British colony was returned to the People’s Republic in 1997 with the stipulation that its distinctive cultural characteristics and principles, which include democratic self-government, would be maintained for fifty years. The People’s Republic pledged to do so and to respect the “Basic Law,” which functions as Hong Kong’s constitution. The slogan under which this was to happen was “One Country, Two Systems.” According to this, the autonomous region of Hong Kong would be something like the Basque Country of Spain is in Europe: part of the whole and yet something of its own. The Basques speak Basque and Spanish, they have their own cultural and culinary tradition, just as the Cantonese have their own language, culture and cuisine.
Under the same motto of “One Country, Two Systems,” Taiwan and the People’s Republic were originally supposed to come to a rapprochement according to an idea of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese reformer. Hence people in Taiwan have closely watched the implementation of the promise in nearby Hong Kong, and have been increasingly dismayed. From the time that President Xi took office at the latest, it has become increasingly difficult for citizens of Hong Kong to maintain the democratic self-government that is guaranteed by treaty. President Xi also adopted a harsher tone toward the Taiwanese. The cases of Taiwan and Hong Kong are treated differently by the international community, however: Hong Kong is without doubt a part of the People’s Republic, whereas the Republic of China, Taiwan, is recognized as quasi-autonomous. Beijing, on the other hand, sees the island nation as a breakaway province and bombards hotel chains and airlines with threats of being no longer permitted to operate in China if Taiwan is listed as a separate destination on their websites.
Although the cases of Hong Kong and Taiwan are different in important ways, both experienced turmoil in reaction to the rising pressure from Beijing in 2014. The political scientist Brian Fong from Hong Kong describes this with his “center-periphery theory”: When the center pulls in the reins, centrifugal forces rise on the periphery. Through demonstrations and the occupation of parliament, the Sunflower movement in Taiwan prevented the China-friendly KMT party from opening the country further to Beijing in 2014. In Hong Kong, students also demonstrated against Beijing’s suffocating restrictions. To protect themselves against the tear gas and water cannons, they opened umbrellas, hence the name “Umbrella Movement.” In Taiwan, the students were successful, with the currently serving president Tsai from the DPP coming to power in the next election. Beijing reacted erratically and has been trying to snub Taiwan wherever possible ever since. The leaders of the protest movement now work in parliament or study at Oxford or the London School of Economics. That the People’s Republic has other options in Hong Kong can be seen in the fact that the leading figures in the student protests there were sentenced to prison.
President Xi, unlike his predecessors, prioritizes ideology over economics. Only this can explain why he is steering the country toward confrontation with the periphery, to use Fong’s terminology. The infringement of the treaty governing the Hong Kong handover has serious consequences for China, as the country is now regarded internationally as an unreliable treaty partner. For this reason, Xi is also a weakened president. According to some observers, his appointment as “president for life” is therefore not a sign of strength, but of weakness. Deng Xiaoping, whose reforms mark their fortieth anniversary this year, certainly never presented himself like that, but as a person of authority.
The Chinese leader, who had been an outcast under Mao, was once asked why he was working with the Americans. His response at the time was that every country that cooperated with the USA was better off now than before. His gaze may have wandered to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan as he spoke. The same is true of the countries of Western Europe. Some in the “Middle Kingdom” may long for the times when economics was paramount. China’s economy is growing more slowly than expected. Nor does it help when state banks lend to firms in which the state itself holds shares. In this case, there are essentially no checks and balances any longer that would allow a realistic assessment of China’s economy from the outside.
But why did President Xi take this path? About this, it is only possible to speculate. In his book “What Is China: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture and History,” Ge Zhaoguang describes how the country has been pondering the question of where the center stops and the periphery begins for around a thousand years. Who belongs to China, what is China? President Xi appears to be leaning toward the side that gives priority to the Han Chinese ethnic group. Before he took office, however, the People’s Republic granted equal status to all 56 ethnic groups located in China, and thus to their cultures and customs. The question of identity, the separation from others according to the paradigm of “us against them,” pointing at supposed scapegoats: these have also gained entry into the People’s Republic. In this, China is part of a sad trend on a global scale. The consequences are not only economic turmoil, but also striving for autonomy, in the case of Taiwan, and for independence, in the case of Hong Kong. The frequency of news reports from China’s southern periphery is unlikely to decrease in the months ahead.
Dr. Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and an affiliate in the “In Defense of Democracy”-program by the F. D. Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard University. In the academic year 2017-2018 he was a visiting scholar in Hong Kong and Taiwan. @agoerlach