Mon, Oct 07, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Stephen Young On Taiwan: How China is trying to reelect Tsai Ing-wen

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.

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