Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made a new overture to Taiwan, suggesting a certain lack of patience over the island state’s reluctance to embrace his appeals for early reunification. Taipei’s democratically elected leader Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) quickly turned the appeal aside, highlighting again the differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Though bruised by local elections late last year that featured gains by the Kuomintang opposition, Tsai is gearing up to defend her presidency in elections scheduled for early 2020. Xi, of course, faces no such referendum from his own people, having continued to turn aside any calls for greater popular participation in the politics of the PRC, which remains in the iron grip of the communist party there.
President Xi continues to tout the virtues of “one country, two systems,” first hinted at nearly forty years ago by his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), following the shift of American diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Deng more formally rolled out the formula in early 1982, as he began negotiations with British Prime Minster Thatcher on the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. This concept however has been badly tarnished by recent moves on the part of the mainland to sharply curtail the freedoms initially promised to the people of Hong Kong.
I recently visited Hong Kong for the first time in five years, having earlier served as US Consul General there. On the surface, Hong Kong continues to prosper as a trade and financial center. But there is an undercurrent of gloom, as mainland promises of continued autonomy have been repeatedly undermined by words and actions from the north. Some international businesses are considering pulling their regional headquarters out of the territory, perhaps to the somewhat safer climes of Singapore, which still enjoys unfettered rule of law. Local Hong Kong activists are rightly concerned by the backtracking of Beijing’s promises to permit greater democracy in the former colony.
All this surprises me, because there is no danger of a real uprising in Hong Kong against mainland overrule. The stock market isn’t falling, and on the surface the city still projects a self-confident outlook. But Beijing’s backtracking on earlier pledges to permit greater self-governance, by directly interfering in the operations of the Legislative Council, sends an ominous signal. What is worse, this comes less than halfway through the pledged fifty years of autonomy that Deng had promised the people of Hong Kong.
So is it little surprise that sentiment in the truly self-ruling Taiwan is increasingly cool to Beijing’s blandishments? After all, Hong Kong was meant to demonstrate the fealty of the mainland government to the spirit and letter of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong that specified return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
At the same time, China has been busy ratcheting up tension with the rest of its neighbors, over territorial claims as well as trade and commercial questions. Ignoring the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that turned aside Chinese claims to the South China Sea, Mr. Xi has occupied and militarized several of the islands there and confronted US warships that dispute his dubious claims. No slave to petty rule of law concepts, Beijing has also engaged in blatant hostage taking of Canadian citizens following the detention of a prominent PRC businesswoman in Vancouver over a commercial dispute with the giant Huawei (華為) firm.
The biggest regional threat, however, centers around Taiwan. There is ample evidence that China has been interfering in local elections both through media interventions and efforts to coerce Taiwan citizens working in China to vote according to Beijing’s wishes and against the Tsai Government back home. Authoritarian regimes never seem to have much patience with neighboring democracies, do they?
China’s military buildup across the Strait is an ever-present threat to the democratic political system on the island. I was pleased to see that Washington recently sent two US destroyers through the Taiwan Strait, a sharp reminder that the United States remains Taiwan’s most stalwart protector against threats from the west. As this piece goes to print, there is a new effort within Congress to extend an invitation to President Tsai to address our legislature, a rare honor if it actually comes to pass.
One has to wonder what Xi will do next, to distract his own people from their lack of a voice in governance. Further complicating Mr. Xi’s “China Dream” are looming economic storm clouds hovering over the economy. It seems that after decades of rapid growth, the Chinese economy is stalling, just as an emerging middle class on the mainland seeks a greater voice in affairs there. Under these troubling circumstances, the rest of the world — the United States in particular — needs to continue speaking out with a strong voice to make clear the folly of any outside interference in Taiwan’s affairs.
Ambassador Stephen M. Young (ret.) lived in Kaohsiung as a boy over 50 years ago, and served in AIT four times: as a young consular officer (1981-’82), as a language student (1989-’90), as Deputy Director (1998-2001) and as Director (2006-’9). He visits often and writes regularly about Taiwan matters. Young was also US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Consul General to Hong Kong during his 33-year career as a foreign service officer. He has a BA from Wesleyan University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.
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