Written by Chris Buckley and Chris Horton
President Xi Jinping declared Wednesday that he wants progress on China’s decades-long quest to win control of Taiwan. But his proposal appeared unlikely to win over residents of the self-ruled island, who have seen Hong Kong’s freedoms in rapid retreat under a similar deal.
Xi stressed how vital unification with Taiwan is to his vision of Chinese national rejuvenation in his first major speech about the disputed island. The Chinese Communist Party regards Taiwan, a lively democracy, as a historical mistake — a piece of territory that should never have gained autonomy from China. And as an ardent patriot, Xi finds Taiwan’s separate status especially galling.
Xi did not lay down a timetable for absorbing Taiwan, which is something more hawkish voices in Beijing have urged. But as he nears his seventh year as president, he indicated that his patience had limits and that he wanted to bring Taiwan into ever closer political, economic and cultural orbit around China.
“That the two sides of the strait are still not fully unified is a wound to the Chinese nation left by history,” Xi said in his direction-setting speech in the Great Hall of the People. The political divisions between China and Taiwan, he added “cannot be passed on from generation to generation.
But even laced with this sense of urgency, Xi’s recipe for bringing Taiwan closer to absorption into “one China” appeared unlikely to win over many on the island, even after its president, Tsai Ing-wen — openly loathed by Beijing — suffered bruising electoral losses in November.
On the one hand, Xi threatened military force if Taiwanese leaders grasped for independence. On the other hand, Xi said that if Taiwan were to agree to unification, its rights would be ensured by the “one country, two systems” framework that Beijing used in Hong Kong after it returned from British colonial control in 1997.
But neither the threat nor the promised reward seemed likely to sharply weaken Taiwanese opposition to China’s demands, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at the Hong Kong Baptist University who studies relations between China and Taiwan.
“Xi Jinping’s approach is to use a bigger stick and to make the carrot sweeter,” he said in telephone interview.
But having seen Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms squeezed by Beijing in recent years, many Taiwanese people were likely to be suspicious of Xi’s offers, he said.
Under the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong has enjoyed legal autonomy since it returned to Chinese sovereignty, and residents of the city still have much wider freedoms than citizens in the rest of China. But publishing, news media and pro-democratic activism in Hong Kong have retreated in recent years, reflecting the growing weight of Chinese political pressures.
Virtually no section of the electorate in Taiwan would find “one country, two systems” an attractive goal, said Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham in Britain who studies the island’s politics. “Taiwan is not a colony à la Hong Kong, and it has everything to lose and nothing to gain from agreeing to it,” Sullivan said.
Even so, Xi had political motives to show that he was working to absorb Taiwan, Sullivan said. “Having unification as a national aspiration is incredibly useful for the Chinese Communist Party, which stakes its legitimacy on economic growth and nationalism,” he said. “The former is becoming more difficult to deliver, and so the latter becomes more important.
Few experts believe that Xi’s speech augured an eruption of conflict over Taiwan. But tensions could rise, especially as his speech jarred so much with comments from Tsai.
Taiwan and China have been at loggerheads, sometimes close to full-scale war, since 1949, when Kuomintang forces defeated by Mao Zedong’s revolutionary armies retreated to the island. But Beijing’s fears that Taiwan could embrace full independence have grown only since the 1990s, when the island moved to democratic elections that brought to life parties that rejected Chinese identity.
“Tsai and Xi are sticking to their positions,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is little reason to expect any improvement in cross-Strait ties as a result of these major statements. But there is also little reason to expect a crisis.
Xi’s speech marked 40 years since China set out a new approach to unification with Taiwan soon after the United States shifted diplomatic ties from the Republic of China — the name for the government on the island — to the communist government in Beijing.
But in a speech Monday, Tsai said Taiwan’s 23 million people wanted to maintain their self-rule, and she warned against reading the recent setbacks of her Democratic Progressive Party as a rejection of that principle. In November, the opposition Kuomintang, which favors closer ties with China, won mayoralties in Taiwan’s three most populous cities.
On Tuesday, Tsai promptly rejected “one country, two systems” as a basis for negotiations.
“Here I must reiterate that Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems’,” she told reporters in Taipei, the capital of the island, in response to Xi’s speech. “Democracy is a value and lifestyle cherished by the Taiwanese people.
The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also rejected Xi’s proposal. It said in an emailed comment that the Chinese government had already “gravely wrecked Hong Kong, that window into ‘one country, two systems’.
Xi portrayed Taiwanese as generally favoring unification with China. But only 3 percent of Taiwanese respondents in a survey published in August by National Chengchi University said they wanted unification now. An additional 12.5 percent said they preferred the status quo and eventual reunification.
But in his speech, Xi signaled that he would be willing to play a long-term game in an effort to gain acceptance, if not support, in Taiwan for China’s political goals.
“Compatriots on both sides of the strait are a family,” he said. “With the one-China principle as a bedrock, there are no obstacles to any political party or group on Taiwan interacting with us.
The Chinese government was willing to open discussions with politicians and representatives from Taiwan, so long as they opposed independence for the island and accepted Beijing’s formula for “one China,” Xi said. He also held out greater access to China’s vast and growing economy. China already accounts for more than 30 percent of Taiwan’s trade, and the promised links could appeal to some Taiwanese cities looking to speed growth.
Jason Hsu, a Taiwanese legislator who belongs to the Kuomintang, said Taiwanese voters were not likely to be directly influenced by Chinese overtures but were concerned about economic prosperity.
“Most Taiwanese voters are in the middle,” he said. “They care more about prosperity and managing the cross-strait relationship.
Analysts saw parallels between Xi’s proposals and the “united front” tactics that the Chinese Communist Party has evolved to divide, tame and co-opt potential opponents in China, Hong Kong and increasingly abroad.
“Behind the speech there is a clear intention, which is to intensify the united front work, to multiply the connections and bonds of dependence upon mainland China,” Cabestan said. “For someone who lives in Hong Kong, there are a lot of echoes of what’s happened here.
Still, Taiwan’s diverse electorate, economy and politics made it much more difficult for China’s divide-and-control approach to succeed there, he said. Tsai said that she would oppose any Chinese efforts to shape Taiwan’s decisions by recruiting support from local politicians and groups.
“There must not be meddling in the Taiwanese people’s elections through creating divisions and lures,” Tsai said in response to Xi’s speech. “It must be the government, or a public authority authorized by the government, that sits down for any talks.”