I am not sure if Xi Jinping (習近平) is dumb, or just stubborn. But he sure seems to be trying to ensure that President Tsai (蔡英文) gets her second term come 2020. The Chinese communist strongman has been consistently trampling on his own predecessors’ vaunted concept of “one country, two systems,” as he awkwardly responds to events in Hong Kong. Though perspicacious observers in Taiwan were never much drawn to this idea, first laid out by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) forty years ago, it did to some appear to be an opening to consider a very special relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The focus on reform and opening launched by Deng after he rose to become the de facto leader of the PRC caught the attention of the world. After nearly thirty years of Maoist rule, focused much more on puerile politics than sound economic practice, it was time for a change. Perhaps it was Deng’s youthful time in Paris, or something about his own bitter experience during the Cultural Revolution, but this first generation Chinese communist understood that a system that could not provide economic hope to its people was never going to be on very solid ground.
Deng of course had his authoritarian streak. One need look no further than Tiananmen, 1989, for proof of that. But as he looked around East Asia in the late seventies, he had to be aware of the growing economic gap between China and its neighbors. The resulting “reform and opening” drive resulted in several decades of double-digit economic growth, vaulting the People’s Republic into the forefront of East Asian economic powerhouses after a long hiatus.
Deng showed a more moderate approach to relations with his neighbors, particularly Japan and South Korea. Notably, he also sought to ease cross-strait tensions. He openly vowed to use Hong Kong as a showcase for his “one country, two systems” concept, with dual goals in mind. He wanted to ease western concerns over the impending return of Hong Kong to PRC sovereignty after 1997. This was not flighty idealism. Deng realized the significant role the British colony played in his own reform policies. Both as a financial center and a vibrant trading post, Hong Kong played a role way beyond its size in the opening up of the Chinese economy through the last two decades of the 20th century and beyond.
China clearly preferred the Kuomintang to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but under Deng and his successors, Beijing was willing to work out some practical measures to improve cross-strait relations, no matter who ruled in Taipei. So his second goal was to signal reunification could wait, so long as Taiwan showed some tolerance toward China’s bottom line on independence. Successive DPP and KMT administrations obliged, while cross-strait trade and tourism flourished.
Enter Mr. Xi. Perhaps it was his sense of entitlement as a Red Princeling, whose father had been a comrade of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) in a political system where connections always outweighed merit. Xi won the consensus of his Politburo colleagues to assume the top job in 2012, then systematically whittled away the power of any potential rivals. A startling moment came when the ambitious Xi declared his intention to do away with term limits, and essentially appoint himself ruler for life.
The idea had long been that Hong Kong’s benign treatment after its formal return to PRC sovereignty would win over skeptics in Taiwan to the idea that reunification with the mainland was a safe proposition. I suppose you could argue that Xi was taken by surprise when the people of Hong Kong rose up in noisy opposition to attempts to curtail the former colony’s special status. But he shouldn’t have been.
The fact is that Hong Kongers had come to embrace as their right the idea that their more open system would not be tampered with by Beijing after 1997. The rude awakening these past several months continues to roil the territory, with no sign of a graceful exit. I harbor nothing but respect for Hong Kong and its young protesters, who know they are fighting for their future.
But back to Taiwan. Six months ago, Tsai faced an internal challenge to her second term. Meanwhile the KMT seemed confident one of its stalwarts could unseat the DPP incumbent. In fact, several leading Blue politicians seemed capable in early polls of besting Madame Tsai.
I believe events in Hong Kong this summer sobered the swing voters in Taiwan to the dangers of a KMT leader willing to forge closer political ties to Xi’s China. The intransigence of the mainland toward protestor demands in Hong Kong reinforced the danger of trusting the island nation’s future to the will of unelected leaders in Beijing. Recent polls suggest Madame Tsai could beat any of the potential KMT candidates. The ever-savvy tycoon founder Terry Gou (郭台銘) was being realistic when he abandoned his quixotic quest for the Presidency just a few weeks ago.
Madame Tsai has played a cool hand throughout this tumultuous time. She has focused on good governance, rallied her party behind her, and let the actions of Beijing be her best campaign booster. Why trust a feckless pan-Blue candidate unduly wedded to closer cross-strait ties when a seasoned champion of Taiwan democracy and independence is on the ballot?
We still have nearly four months to go before Taiwan voters cast their ballots. But at this point I believe the Presidential election is Madame Tsai’s to lose, with no clear rival polling close to her. Xi should take a victory lap, since his own clumsy handling of Hong Kong has been Tsai’s best campaign sticker.
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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