It is tragic, though perhaps appropriate, that the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been marked by the spilling of the blood. On October 1st, when the PRC was showing off its most advanced military hardware in Beijing, a Hong Kong police officer shot a demonstrator in the chest with a live round of ammunition. With the anniversary’s passing and with blood on the street, the contest between Hong Kong’s people on the one hand and Hong Kong and Beijing authorities on the other may be entering a new phase.
It has now been well over four months and the demonstrations in Hong Kong have shown no signs of petering out. The 70th anniversary celebration might have served as an inflection point, but the police shooting and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s invocation of emergency powers seem more likely to galvanize protesters than to deter them from taking to the streets. Nor is there much reason to believe that the authorities are willing to compromise in a meaningful way. Xi Jinping has exercised relative restraint thus far, but Hong Kong may not be out of the woods just yet.
There are no upcoming national holidays in China that Beijing is likely to see as a “deadline” for solving the unrest in Hong Kong, but it may not be China’s political calendar that dictates its approach to the semi-autonomous territory. Instead, Xi Jinping may be thinking about Taiwan’s political calendar as he considers how and when to resolve ongoing strife in Hong Kong.
Elections on the Horizon
Taiwan’s next presidential election is scheduled for January 11, 2020, and Xi Jinping is undoubtedly eager for Tsai Ing-wen to lose her reelection bid. Beijing has made its displeasure with President Tsai clear, both by word and by deed. The Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the State Council set the tone early on in a statement after the president’s inauguration speech, when its spokesman rejected the clear olive branches offered in her remarks, instead describing the speech as an “incomplete test answer.” In those same comments, the TAO spokesman asserted that in order to pass Beijing’s test, Tsai would have to confirm “adherence to the common political foundation of the 1992 consensus that embodies the one-China principle”—a political impossibility for the then-incoming president.
In the years since, Beijing has shut down a semi-official cross-Strait communication mechanism, restricted Chinese tourism to the island, prevented Taiwan’s inclusion in various international forums, stepped up military activities meant to threaten the island, and poached a number of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. Indeed, after the Solomon Islands last month severed ties with the Republic of China, Chinese state media threatened that if Tsai is reelected in January, Taiwan will lose all of its remaining formal diplomatic relationships.
When Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was trounced in last November’s “nine-in-one” local elections, it appeared she would have an uphill battle for reelection in 2020. Late in 2018, her approval rating was under 30 percent, while that of Han Kuo-yu, the surprise winner of the Kaohsiung mayoral election and eventual Kuomintang presidential nominee, was over 60 percent. Although these elections likely hinged primarily on domestic issues, the TAO was quick to claim that the KMT’s success was due to a desire among Taiwan voters for the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations.
But now, nearly a year after Taiwan’s last election, the tables have turned. During the first five months of 2019, Tsai Ing-wen was consistently behind in polls matching her against Han Kuo-yu: Han’s biggest lead in the My-Formosa poll, in February, was about 25 percentage points. In August, Tsai had a lead of nearly 19 points in the same poll. Nathan Batto’s aggregate polling shows Han with a 15 point lead at the beginning of May; at the beginning of October, it is Tsai with a 15 point advantage.
Xi Jinping’s January speech marking the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” in which he adopted a my-way-or-the-highway tone and tacitly linked the “1992 consensus” with a “one country, two systems” approach to unification, gave Tsai Ing-wen an early boost, as it justified the DPP’s wary approach to China and provided her an opportunity to portray herself as standing between the island’s de facto independence and submission to Beijing.
But it has been the events in Hong Kong that have helped give Tsai Ing-wen a leg up on Han Kuo-yu and dealt a significant blow to his hopes of winning the presidency. Beijing’s and Han’s essentially open mutual embrace—Han visited the Chinese government liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau and met with the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office in Shenzhen during a March visit to China—has tied him in voters’ minds to goings-on in the semi-autonomous city. Han’s efforts to distance himself from the actions of authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing—after protests started, he declared that “one country, two systems” would be implemented in Taiwan “over my dead body”—may have been too little, too late. Meanwhile, Tsai can point to Hong Kong and promise she will forestall such an outcome for Taiwan. Importantly, whereas Tsai’s consistent preference for keeping Beijing at arm’s length may have been an electoral vulnerability early in the year, it now appears to be a strength.
It was not foreordained that events in Hong Kong and Taiwan would be so linked, as there are important differences between the two. Taiwan has been effectively independent since 1949 and has been a full democracy since 1996. Hong Kong has never been independent and although it has democratic institutions, its government is not truly representative. Some independence-minded Taiwanese, moreover, have at times in the past intentionally ignored human rights and democracy issues in the PRC as a way of emphasizing Taiwan’s separateness.
But Hong Kongers and Taiwanese find their similarities difficult to ignore. The Chinese Communist Party poses similar threats to each island’s way of life and has for decades. Hong Kong and Taiwan, in effect, face a common enemy and have increasingly looked to the other to better understand the nature of that enemy and how to counter it. In 2014, for example, some Hong Kongers surely looked to Taiwan’s Sunshine Movement and drew inspiration from its success. Months later, the ultimate failure of the Occupy protests in Hong Kong helped clarify for Taiwan what political union with the PRC would mean. What’s more, this mutual observation at a distance has been matched with growing people-to-people links among leaders and activists. The politics of Taiwan and Hong Kong are now entangled and likely to remain so for the time being.
Taiwan’s Elections and the Threat to Hong Kong
Of course, it is still a long road to the January elections. Bad economic news, unforeseen events, or a change in candidate for the KMT (as happened in the previous presidential election) could lead to a change in Tsai’s fortunes. It is also unclear what tricks Beijing may have up its sleeve. Assuming it has not yet given up on a KMT victory, it might try to tip the scales by ramping up a misinformation campaign, putting the squeeze on Taiwan’s economy, or using its military to threaten the island—although all have the potential to be counterproductive from China’s point of view.
But if Tsai continues to put distance between herself and her opponent, Xi Jinping may come to assess that her victory is likely. That is when things may get dangerous for Hong Kong.
A Tsai victory would represent a clear and unambiguous defeat for Xi, who has made unification with Taiwan a key deliverable of his “China dream.” It would show, once again, that China’s leaders have little idea how to best manage relations with a democratic Taiwan and entirely ineffective in bringing the island back into the fold. Indeed, Beijing elites might well conclude that Xi Jinping’s approach has only made unification even more unlikely.
The unrest in Hong Kong, of course, is already making a mockery of Xi Jinping’s promise of a “harmonious” society in China. The movement in Hong Kong is not only advocating for a liberal vision in Hong Kong, but advocating against mainland China’s own system of governance and societal norms. In short, the demonstrators are openly defiant of Xi Jinping and of China’s authority over the city.
As Taiwan’s January elections approach, and if Tsai Ing-wen continues to perform well, will Xi Jinping be willing to sustain the dual embarrassments of a Tsai victory and Hong Kongers’ persistent intransigence? He can only significantly and confidently affect developments in one of these two places. And while compromise would be the easiest way to diffuse tensions in Hong Kong, it is not at all clear that Xi believes that would be a political winner for him in Beijing. If not, we could see the resort to force in Hong Kong that has been feared in recent months.
It is possible that Xi Jinping expects the consequences of using force would also be severe in Taiwan. He might believe that a violent crackdown in Hong Kong would deal a deathblow to his goal of uncoerced unification—though he surely recognizes that that goal is already on life-support as it is. In order to deter Xi’s worst impulses with respect to both Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Trump administration should make clear that it, too, sees developments in both places as intimately linked. Washington should convey to Beijing that if force is used in Hong Kong, President Trump will not only publicly restate former President Bill Clinton’s formulation that cross-Strait differences must be resolved “with the assent of the people of Taiwan,” but that he will go one step further: he will state American opposition, barring significant political reform in Beijing, to a “one country, two systems” arrangement for China and Taiwan.
Whether he lets the unrest continue, green-lights compromise, or resorts to force (which is sure to bring international opprobrium and, perhaps, economic consequences) in Hong Kong, Xi will be open to domestic criticism. How Xi appraises the risks of each course of action is an open question. The United States, at least, should make clear that the consequences for squelching the protests would be very high indeed.
The main point: If Xi Jinping assesses Tsai Ing-wen is likely to win reelection in January, his patience for upheaval in Hong Kong may wear thin.