I’m worried about Taiwan. It’s true, my dear wife of 38+ years says I am an inveterate worrier, and perhaps — as usual — she’s right. But let me share with my readers the reasons for this concern:
Xi Jinping (習近平) has continued his rhetorical rumblings against the island state, but that isn’t particularly new. He can’t seem to help himself. He has set fuzzy deadlines for “resolving” the Taiwan issue, and has steadily increased the capabilities of the PLA to enhance its chances of a successful invasion. There seems to be a cottage industry among American analysts these days in projecting how and when the “People’s” Republic might launch an invasion. That’s understandable. It helps them make a living, and stimulates debate on an important topic.
The most troubling sign these days is the systematic and rather thorough destruction of the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s autonomy by Mr. Xi. This despite the solemn pledge nearly forty years ago by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) to then-UK Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher to allow the former colony at least fifty years of autonomy following the planned 1997 handover of Hong Kong. Even as Xi consolidates his hold on power on the mainland, he seems prepared to trash the last vestiges of the 1984 agreement. This despite it having been hailed at the time as a sign that post-Mao China was prepared to become a responsible global player following the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution.
Xi seems to be in a hurry these days, which is strange, considering he has unilaterally declared himself Emperor — excuse me, leader — for life. Since Xi is several years younger than me, he should — like me — have a good stretch of life ahead of him. Yet he appears to lack that rare quality of patience when it comes to pursuing his political objectives.
Let’s consider the evidence. First, Xi and his henchmen have been steadily destroying the vaunted autonomy of Hong Kong over the past year or so. It is painfully true that for the territory’s population, especially their youth, 2047 is no longer some distant abstraction. That date, it must be recalled, was set when Deng and Thatcher reached their 1984 agreement. The younger generation in Hong Kong has sparked a swelling movement in recent years protesting China’s encroachments and demanding greater freedom. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), for whom I once had a great deal of respect, has willingly acceded to Beijing’s increasing demands for what cannot be called anything else than the total Sinification (in the narrow sense of control) of the once vibrant economic and trade hub.
Maybe Hong Kong is not as important a trading hub as it once was. And yes, a free and vibrant Hong Kong could be seen by the autocrats in Beijing as a poor example for adjoining PRC territory in southeastern China. After all, for years the people of Guangdong have been training their television antennas toward Hong Kong to get more accurate news — as well as better entertainment. But to the suspicious leadership in Beijing, any crack in the facade of total control of opinion and action within the country seems to be unacceptable.
So why does Hong Kong matter to the 23.5 million people of democratic Taiwan, protected by 90 miles of open water and a robust economy of its own? Well, for starts, under Deng Hong Kong was supposed to be a model of the autonomy Taipei would enjoy if it ever acceded willingly to “reunification” with the mainland. So the systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms sends a dire signal of what might be in store for Taipei when Xi turns his avaricious eyes to the east.
Some suggest the Chinese leader’s aggressive moves are designed to solidify his hold on the party and country he leads. Perhaps he does feel an outside adventure will distract his colleagues and the broader masses from an economy beginning to slow down, tension in places like Xinjiang and Tibet, and maybe also dissatisfaction among Xi’s senior peers over his imperial ambitions. Even generally cautious Tokyo is signaling concern over the heightened threat against Taiwan, correctly seeing this as aimed at its own national interests. After all, Beijing also continues to put forth dubious territorial claims on the Senkaku Islands, and perhaps other parts of the Japanese island chain.
Xi cannot be blind to the growing willingness of the United States to bolster its commitment to prevent any attempt to attack Taiwan, through arms sales, diplomatic contacts and other measures. Washington realizes that the integrity of American pledges throughout Asia would be placed at risk if China recklessly moved to attack the island state and Washington did not respond forcefully. President Biden and his top strategists are focused on this problem, and have been sending clear signals to Beijing that it should exercise greater restraint.
I hope my concerns are overblown. I studiously follow the proliferating analyses that highlight the difficulty of any PRC attempt to invade my favorite Asian island and then secure a strong beachhead before moving inland. What is even more difficult to imagine — even without outside intervention — is the successful subjugation of the island and its people, now long used to the freedoms of a prosperous young democracy.
In closing, I will repeat that I am worried by China’s current policies. Now is the time to make it even clearer that the United States will not remain neutral if China launches an unprovoked attack on Taiwan. After all, few of us foresaw the rapid and relentless dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy by the impatient and tyrannical Mr. Xi. I say this as the only American diplomat over the past half century to have served as US representative to both Taiwan and Hong Kong. I would be delighted to be proven wrong. But for now I remain deeply worried.
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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