Anniversaries can serve multiple functions. For example when Taiwan commemorates the 228 Incident, there is a combined feeling of sadness over the sufferings following the events in 1947, joined with the resolve that such a tragedy should never be allowed to happen again.
This year, when Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) attended the 25th anniversary of the UK’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a different and strange mood prevailed. Even stranger yet was Xi’s explanatory narrative.
Those who had attended the historic event in 1997 could recall how festive it had been. Media were everywhere. Hong Kong was to have new leadership; the PRC had promised full democracy by 2017 and many were curious as to what “one country, two systems” would be.
Now, 25 years later, draconian measures prevail, numerous liberties have been lost, several media are excluded, and yet Hong Kongers are told to be happy. What went wrong? Had it all been a lie? And why is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accepting history books saying that the territorial lease to the UK never really took place?
There is more. While Xi repeated the twisted meme of China’s century of humiliation, he glossed over that in the 19th century, Hong Kong was really not part of China, it was part of the Manchu Empire.
The Manchus had conquered and imposed their rule on China, Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang from the 17th century on; they humiliated each with Manchu restrictions as they progressed. Thus even by the 19th century, Chinese were protesting with cries of “overthrow the [Manchu] Qing and restore the [Chinese] Ming.” Of course, in that process, Chinese also wished to ironically keep the lands that the Manchus had conquered.
Xi’s talk was clear doublespeak in spades and left many wondering: If such a rewrite of history could happen with the simple 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, what would 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bring?
How would that play out, especially if Xi has already indicated that he wants the PLA to consider him as Chairman Xi?
Two key factors stand out: First, how one-party states betray any true proletariat Marxism and second, how aging “Marxist” leaders cope with succession.
The history of one-party Marxist states is not encouraging. Lacking any true democratic process, power struggles evolve, especially in larger states such as Russia and China.
As those at the top age beyond previously normal limits, they simply refuse to let go. This has been true for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi. Why?
One reason might simply be hubris; each has the feeling that he, and he alone, has the ability to guide the state on its true course. Yet, while each might have had past importance, that does not mean that each will be important forever.
In addition, a different and stronger reason emerges. In making it to the top, each would have made enemies. If one gives up their ultimate power, those enemies can and will seek revenge. There is no graceful exit strategy as there is in democratic states.
For one-party state Marxists, the top ruler’s ultimate answer boils down to this: “The proletariat be damned, it is important that I stay in power if only for my safety and pride.” This also seems to occur when such rulers enter their “aging 70s.”
A look back in China’s history is telling. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) began the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966. He was 73 at the time and the country had already suffered his disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-1962).
Mao needed something to distract and deflect. The Cultural Revolution provided the nebulous, convenient target of the “four olds” — old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Under those four categories almost anything from the past could be branded as a target.
The Cultural Revolution, which caused much collateral damage, proved to be the perfect guise. For those enemies who Mao did not remove, he at least kept them at bay until his death. Furthermore, he created an atmosphere whereby no one could replace him. Xi is following that playbook.
Xi already has his enemies. The Mainland Affairs Council has revealed that at least seven attempts have been made on his life. His one-day trip to Hong Kong was the first time he had left mainland China over the past two years.
Xi is not ready to step down. From his youth, he can remember how his family’s past was discredited. During the Cultural Revolution, his family house was ransacked and his sister, Xi Heping (習和平), committed suicide. He does not want to go there again.
The Cultural Revolution gave Mao continued leverage to strike at his enemies. Putin, who is soon to turn 70, has decided to go all out and attack Ukraine on trumped-up charges. He is seeking his own distraction and legacy.
What does this spell for Taiwan vis-a-vis Xi? For Taiwan, 2027 is not that far away. Xi would be 74. With no heirs who he can count on, he has no other retirement plan. He would also be thinking of his legacy. Many past Chinese leaders have spoken of wanting to “settle the Taiwan question.” It would be a tempting crowning glory for Xi to follow that path.
The coming anniversary of 2027 is no joke to be taken lightly. However, Taiwan has its own part in this equation. It is crucial for Taiwan to let Xi know that if his hubris leads him to attack the fighting would not just be done on Taiwan’s soil, as fighting has been limited to Ukraine.
Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) has made it clear that Taiwan’s missiles can reach Beijing and the Three Gorges Dam. They can also reach any and all of China’s important coastal ports.
Unfortunately, some pundits in useful idiot-style might criticize this and say: “One should not provoke China.” Such talk is foolish. It should be evident by now that if the CCP can rewrite the historical narrative of Hong Kong, it would not need to find a provocation to attack Taiwan, it would invent one.
So while the years between now and 2027 promise to be troublesome, they must not be lost in preparation.
Taiwan is already in a much stronger position than Ukraine ever was. It must build on this forewarning and continue its preparations for whatever hubris and sentiment might be guiding Xi.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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