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Xi Jinping's suppression of Hong Kong democracy pushes Taiwan further from China

Samson Ellis, Adrian Kennedy, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Even those in Taiwan who favor eventual unification “are attracted by the grand history, tradition and culture of China,” he added. “Very few of them are attracted by this repressive PRC regime.”

While Britain ruled much of Hong Kong under a lease that expired in 1997, Taiwan isn’t subject to any such legal arrangement. Proponents of independence say it should get to choose its own fate, arguing it was never fully ruled by the Qing dynasty, which ceded it to Japan in the nineteenth century.

“Only 25 years have passed, and what China promised in the past, ‘unchanged for 50 years,’ is no longer true,” Taiwan Premier Su Tseng-chang told reporters in Taipei on Friday. “We know that we should stick to guarding Taiwan’s sovereignty, freedom and democracy as China’s ‘one country, two systems’ can’t stand the test.”

Shifting sentiment in Taiwan, especially among younger generations that predominantly identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, has bolstered support for President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which asserts the island is already a de facto independent nation awaiting broader international recognition.

The KMT, which has never given up its goal of unifying with the mainland since fleeing to Taiwan in 1949, has also rejected “one country, two systems.” In 1987, then-KMT President Chiang Ching-kuo suggested an alternative to China’s model for unification called “one country, better system” — whereby the people of China and Taiwan choose which system of government they prefer.

But Xi isn’t budging.

“The concept of ‘peaceful reunification and one country, two systems’ is the best approach to realizing national reunification,” Xi said in a landmark speech on Taiwan in January 2019. “It embodies the Chinese wisdom that we thrive by embracing each other, gives full account to Taiwan’s reality and is conducive to the long-term stability in Taiwan after reunification.”


The speech was seen as a major turning point in recent cross-strait relations. Xi’s clear articulation of ‘one country, two systems’ as the only path the Communist Party is willing to consider punctured any illusions that Beijing may be willing to allow unification to occur under an alternative model more acceptable to Taiwan.

Yet since Xi’s speech, Taiwan’s economy has prospered, thanks to a response to the coronavirus that avoided a full lockdown and allowed growth and exports to expand, in contrast to some of the heavy-handed curbs seen in China. Taiwan’s economic growth in 2020 outpaced China’s for the first time in 30 years.

“Freedom, democracy and opposition to ‘one country, two systems’ have become common denominators within Taiwanese society,” said Christina Lai of the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica in Taipei. “This consensus means we have a comparative advantage compared to Hong Kong because Beijing has never achieved unification with Taiwan. That gives the Taiwanese public a really important role at the negotiating table.”

China has ended most contacts with the island, angered by Tsai’s stance that she is willing to sit down and talk only if Beijing drops its precondition that Taiwan accept it is part of “one China.”

Concerns about the island’s fate have grown in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The unexpectedly strong response to Moscow’s aggression by both Ukraine and the international community will have taught Beijing to plan well and avoid being underprepared, said Tsang from SOAS.

“The reality is that Xi Jinping will try to catch Taiwan through a combination of diplomacy and intimidation, and if diplomacy backed up by intimidation cannot work, then it will do whatever it takes, even using force,” Tsang said. “How can he achieve the China dream of national rejuvenation if he does not take what he calls the ‘sacred territory of Taiwan.’”

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