EDITORIAL: The myth of Xi’s overture to Taiwan

Sat, Jan 19, 2019 - Page 8

As hard as it is to see a majority of international media stories about events in Taiwan hinging on what China’s opinion and/or reaction is/will be, which almost inevitably is deemed “angry,” it is even worse to see opinion pieces by academics and pundits that treat Beijing’s political discourse as rational.

This has never been more true than with analyses or commentaries about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) political or economic programs and proposals, whether they involve cross-strait relations, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, or his Belt and Road Initiative ambitions.

Inevitably, the onus is placed on Taiwan and the Taiwanese to be more open to dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and to accept Xi’s view of China’s “manifest destiny,” as if the past three decades of events in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China are simply dust motes to be swept under the rug.

Two opinion pieces that appeared in the Washington Post this week bookend this problem: The first, by Zhu Zhiqun (朱誌群), a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, was about Xi’s Jan. 2 speech on Taiwan; the second was by democracy activists and Demosisto members Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) and Jeffrey Ngo (敖卓軒), who discussed China’s latest assault on rights in Hong Kong.

Zhu sought to convince readers of Xi’s reasonableness, claiming that he had made a significant policy adjustment by proposing to involve Taiwanese “in developing a new model for Taiwan” and adding a “level of self-determination for Taiwan into the unification model.” Xi’s proposal that representatives of different Taiwanese parties and others discuss cross-strait relations with Beijing and make political arrangements for Taiwan’s future was “the most intriguing and innovative part of his speech,” as it would kick-start “the unification process by sidestepping the unpopular governing party,” Zhu said.

Taiwan could use its democracy to shape China’s future, as Taiwanese preconditions would put Beijing under pressure to move toward democratization, he wrote, as if the same argument has not been repeatedly made since the late 1980s, despite all evidence to the contrary. It has become a tenet of political science and international relations, much as the myth of the great Chinese market captivated foreign companies and governments for more than 100 years, and is just as fictitious.

What Zhu tries to paint as a new flexibility in China’s “one country, two systems” model is really just an extension of the CCP’s “united front” strategy, which it used before and after Hong Kong’s handover to influence the territory’s residents — and Taiwanese. As Wong and Ngo wrote: “Beijing is not going to be able to resolve its relationship with Hong Kong, Taiwan or any other group in contention until the ruling Communist Party realizes that it must respect the people before demanding respect from them.”

Xi might be willing to pretend to listen to the views of the “average” Taiwanese and pretend that their voices could help shape Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan, but he has shown through his actions toward democracy activists in Hong Kong, Uighurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and Chinese struggling to get the CCP to follow the Chinese Constitution that he will not brook any dissent or alternative viewpoints.

Xi and his predecessors have shown no willingness to countenance even a hint of real democracy: Efforts since the 1990s to make some village elections or local party congresses slightly more open or competitive proved to be little more than shams designed to ameliorate grassroots unrest.

The problem is not, as Zhu seems to think, that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her government rejected Xi’s proposal without “much deliberation”; it is the continued inability of Xi and the upper echelons of the CCP to understand how the world has changed outside their Zhongnanhai mausoleum.