During his speech at the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of “the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” on January 2, 2019, President Xi Jinping urged “compatriots in Taiwan” to “pursue national reunification.” Xi explained how “China’s reunification” does not harm any country’s “legitimate” interests, including their economic interests in Taiwan. Further, he claimed it will only bring more development opportunities to other countries, inject more positive energy into the prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the world, and make greater contributions to building a community with a shared future for humanity, to world peace and development, and even to the cause of human progress. Specifically for Taiwan, Xi promised that “private property, religious beliefs and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwanese compatriots will be fully assured.”
However, Xi’s promises are inherently undermined by the foundational concept in international relations theory that in the international system the “absence of a sovereign authority that can make and enforce binding agreements creates opportunities for states to advance their interests unilaterally,” as Columbia University Professor Robert Jervis put it. This essentially means that President Xi can promise something today, but go as far as unilaterally doing a little less, far less, or the opposite tomorrow. There would be little that Taiwan or others can do about it, especially when dealing with an authoritarian regime with a questionable track record on internal matters. Those who do not understand this basic principle put themselves and Taiwan’s political self-determination in danger.
The Day After Taiwan Cedes Political Self-Determination to China
In the same January 2 speech to Taiwan compatriots, President Xi further reiterated his vision for Taiwan’s “peaceful reunification” with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while upholding China’s “one country, two systems” formula. While originally formulated for Taiwan, this “one country, two systems” model has already been applied to Hong Kong. To this point, President Tsai Ing-wen forcefully replied in her response speech that, “The majority of the Taiwanese public also resolutely oppose ‘one country, two systems.’ This is the ‘Taiwan Consensus.’”
The people in Taiwan may choose to open its society, economy, and security to China. Though, at that point, because there is a lack of such a greater international authority in the global system to keep China to its promises, Beijing could do less than promised or even the exact opposite as promised and there is little to do about it. If the United Nations comes to mind as a form of world government that could act as an enforcer, it is important to note that it is far from being powerful enough to intervene in this type of situation. In addition, China has a permanent seat with veto power in the UN Security Council.
A better way to assess China’s future directions is to look at its past track record. Look to actions, not words and promises. A review of recent news reveals China’s possible future behavior and what could be in store for Taiwan under China.
Looking Forward by Looking to the Past
Hong Kong is the most comparable example to envision Taiwan as part of the PRC. In the mid-1980s, the CCP agreed to a treaty pledging not to interfere with Hong Kong’s laissez-faire capitalism for fifty years after 1997 in an agreement known as “one country, two systems.” It would allow Hong Kong to retain its independent civil service, judiciary, financial authority, border controls, and civil liberties. Lately, interference and intimidation have become more common, with routine phone calls from Beijing operatives to Hong Kong officials to keep them in line, Chinese security agents taking away dissidents, local newspapers being less probing, and judges pressured to pledge their patriotism to China.
The outcome appears not as good as the sweet sounding promises coming from China two decades ago before the Hong Kong handover from British rule. A Washington Post article written by Professor Victoria Tin-bor Hui put it well with the title: “20 Years Ago, China Promised Hong Kong ‘1 Country, 2 Systems.’ So Much for Promises.”
Beijing and Shanghai are arguably the best hypothetical case scenarios for Taiwan’s future as part of the PRC. Yet, millions of Chinese people living inin places like Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere have been blacklisted from flights based on their status in China’s social credit system. Closed caption TV camera monitoring surveillance systems in those cities and throughout China earned China Forbes’ title of “emerging high tech surveillance state.”
None of the above examples under the PRC authoritarian regime—Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai—are appealing to people in Taiwan who are accustomed to living under freedom, liberal constitutional democracy, and with political self-determination.
More of China’s Promises
As enticement, Xi promises that both sides of the Strait should enhance the free flow of trade, connectivity in infrastructure, exchange of energy and resources, and shared industrial standards. These would inherently be positive aspects of cross-Strait cooperation if they were not accompanied by political conditions from the PRC. Furthermore, they create dependencies in Taiwan that give China more economic and therefore political leverage over people in Taiwan. Becoming economically dependent on China causes more economic hardship for Taiwan when China decides to cut off Chinese tourism, rare earth metal exports, fruit imports, etc.
Xi’s promises are appealing to some people in Taiwan. Of course, China selectively favors those political leaders and businesses in Taiwan that support its politics, particularly regarding the so-called “1992 Consensus” that there is “one China and Taiwan is part of China” (whether China means PRC, the Republic of China or ROC, or something else). After the recent local elections in Taiwan, China has allowed some mayors and local leaders in Taiwan who are more supportive of China’s politics to export Taiwan’s local fruit, seafood, and manufactured goods to China. Perhaps enticed by the financial benefit of China’s favoritism, they see their gains today to simply outweigh others’ future risks, without thinking or caring about future implications for Taiwan.
Problems in Democracies Versus Autocracies
The United States and other western liberal constitutional democracies are not perfect either, but they do not suffer from the same top-down political problems of autocracies. The Chinese like to point out many problems afflicting democracies such as social instability, violence, corruption in the United States and the West. However, these problems are inherent in every society. In an authoritarian regime where information is controlled, such matters would be underreported for the appearance of social harmony.
Democracy certainly has its problems, but they are far from issues that arise from the top-down nature of an authoritarian regime, which is obsessed with controlling the population, controlling information, and preserving the dominant power of the regime. The key differentiation at the heart of the matter is that democracies operate through the bottom-up will of the people manifest through their elected officials. These officials in principle pass laws and policies that should reflect the preferences of the people who elected them. They willingly rotate in and out of power through free and fair elections, as well as peaceful transition of power. While there is also no international authority to enforce agreements when it comes to the United States, there is accountability through internal checks and balances within the government, and elections are a way for the people to keep the government accountable. In contrast, the people in Beijing and Shanghai did not urge their leaders to adopt a social credit system or Orwellian video surveillance. It was imposed upon them.
To this point, President Tsai further illustrated Taiwan’s democracy in her response to President Xi’s speech. Tsai said, “As a democratic country, all cross-Strait negotiations and talks must be through the Taiwanese people’s mandate and scrutiny.”
Therefore, one vocal proponent of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan is completely mistaken when he writes: “Beijing’s relations with Taiwan after unification will probably look more like Brussels to a European Union (EU) member state than it is with Hong Kong and Macau after their handovers.” This example is different in types since the EU is a representative democracy while China is an authoritarian regime.
In the same January speech, Xi fallaciously mentioned, “Chinese don’t fight Chinese,” as he explained how he thinks “peaceful reunification” is in the best interests of compatriots in Taiwan and the Chinese nation. He is neglecting the history of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s. Even today, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force regularly encircles Taiwan with its fighter aircraft and bomber flights. China has hundreds and possibly even thousands of CSS-6 and CSS-7 missiles “aimed” at Taiwan. Xi is downplaying the very real possibility that China could start a war in the Taiwan Strait. He clarified, “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures,” and that those options could be used against “intervention by external forces.”
The people of Taiwan, and Washington, should be skeptical of the promises coming out of China. In the international system, as mentioned earlier, the “absence of a sovereign authority that can make and enforce binding agreements creates opportunities for states to advance their interests unilaterally.” Scholars and diplomats devise ways to counter this feature of the international system through costly signaling of intentions, hand tying, third-party intermediaries but these are often more effective among small and less developed countries than with a UN Security Council member such as China, especially with high stakes as the CCP refers to Taiwan as one of its “core interests.” As much as possible, the leaders of Taiwan along with Taiwan’s international partners should strive to maintain Taiwan’s political self-determination—which is far more stable than the other possible alternatives—and especially avoid undermining it from within Taiwan by those who trust in words rather than actions.
The main point: The people of Taiwan, and Washington, should be skeptical of the promises coming out of China since the international system lacks a sovereign authority to make and enforce binding agreements. Looking beyond mere words, China’s actions in Hong Kong, and even Beijing and Shanghai, demonstrate Taiwan’s questionable future under China’s “one country, two systems.”