Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s (習近平) July 1 address during a ceremony commemorating the party’s 100th anniversary was not meant to reassure the international community. Heard all around the world, remarks to the effect that anyone who attempts to “bully, oppress, or subjugate” China “will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people” sent the signal that China has embarked on an unstoppable course of action, with the rules of the game to be increasingly defined by Beijing. China is now to be regarded as a great power in its own right, with the capability to defy, and to defeat, whomever stands in its way. Any such resistance to historical inevitability, Xi informed us, constitutes renewed attempts to “bully, oppress, or subjugate” China, a country that, he added, has never bullied, subjugated, or repressed others. When it appears to be doing so, it is instead waging defensive action against forces, both indigenous and exogenous, that are conspiring to “split” China or overthrow the universally beloved CCP.
In the same breath, Xi extended his “sincere greetings” to “compatriots” in Hong Kong and in Taiwan. By compatriots, the despot was presumably referring to any citizen who fully embraces the CCP’s designs on those societies. Those who stand in opposition, conversely, will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel, upon which they are bound to be smashed. The fate of Hong Kong in the past year, with the authorities’ crackdown on pro-democracy activists, elected legislators, and a free press is clear evidence that the party now means what it says—and that it has the self-assurance to defy international norms of conduct, even if such measures result in opprobrium and sanctions.
In the part of the speech discussing his party’s ambitions toward Taiwan, Xi stated that:
Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China. It is also a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation. We will uphold the one-China principle (一中原則) and the 1992 Consensus (九二共識), and advance peaceful national reunification. All of us, compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, must come together and move forward in unison. We must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward “Taiwan independence,” and work together to create a bright future for national rejuvenation. No one should underestimate the resolve, the will, and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Xi’s remarks about Taiwan did not depart from the party’s standard rhetoric: rather than attempting annexation of a sovereign entity, China is acting in a purely defensive manner, one that seeks to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Such language sees no logical contradiction between the need, on the one hand, to defend one’s territorial integrity and, on the other, to seek to reunify something with that which is already integral.
As with several other official pronouncements by the CCP regarding Taiwan, Xi’s comments were primarily aimed at a domestic audience. Unless Xi receives extraordinarily bad intelligence from his advisers and security apparatus, the leader must be conscious that but a tiny fraction of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people regard themselves as part of the “Chinese nation,” and even less favor unification with China. (Thankfully for Taiwan, China’s behavior in recent years has also made it increasingly clear to people worldwide that claims that Taiwan and China are one and the same—and that, as the party often says, only a small number of “separatists” within the Democratic Progressive Party and foreign allies are seeking to “split” Taiwan from the “motherland”—are downright ludicrous.)
The insistence of Xi and his party apparatus that “compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait” are united in their desire to defeat Taiwanese independence stems from decades of rhetoric to the effect that “reunification” is inevitable and that such a goal can only be accomplished thanks to the guiding hand of the CCP. When evidence that historical trends are in reality moving in a direction that is directly opposite to its purported inevitable destination, the party is therefore compelled to maintain the illusion. Anything else would demonstrate that the party has failed. And the CCP, especially under Xi, is portrayed as a party that is as infallible as it is indispensable—with past mistakes and excesses, which just a few years ago could still be acknowledged by the CCP, now being scrubbed from China’s collective memory.
Consequently, all that insistence on a shared desire for unity across the Taiwan Strait is falling on deaf ears in Taiwan. No matter how often that refrain is repeated, the CCP will not succeed in convincing the Taiwanese that their destiny lies with China. The message, therefore, contains an implicit threat, one in which the tiny percentage of those in Taiwan who favor unification with the PRC are the true compatriots, with the rest to be regarded as the enemy. Although the party cannot admit it, peaceful unification has been stillborn for quite a while, and any lingering hope that such an illusion could become reality was buried with the death of the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) formula in Hong Kong. More and more, it is the hawkish political commentators in China and the so-called Taiwan experts at Chinese educational institutions that channel Beijing’s true sentiment regarding Taiwan: that all attempts to create conditions suitable for “peaceful unification” have failed, and that the only other option is therefore to use the military to resolve the matter. (Of course, there is another option, which would be to admit that claims upon Taiwan are delusional, but in the current context nobody can safely advance such views in China.)
The very nature of the ceremonies at Tiananmen Square on July 1 epitomized the huge—and increasingly widening—gap that separates China from Taiwan. The sheer grandiosity of the event, replete with thousands upon thousands of carefully selected participants shouting as one and moving in robotic coordination was enough to send chills down the spine of anyone who maintains that the most important unit of society is the individual. Even in those occasions when one or a handful of Chinese made declarations during the ceremony (all facing a portrait of the man who is responsible for tens of millions of deaths of his own people), their theatrical and over-enthusiastic performance was a discountenancing caricature of authoritarian art, a departure from reality out of which nothing good can emerge. Above all this, of course, was the very idea that a political party could throw itself a party of such grandiose proportions, a reminder that party and state are not only inseparable, but that in fact the party stands above all. At the apex of that party stands one man, Xi, a god-like figure with the iron will of the past despots he seems to be modeling himself on—men like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who also had no compunction about atomizing humanity in their attempt to move and shape history.
It is hard to imagine that such a spectacle would find much appeal with the ordinary men and women on the Chinese street, so distant are its manifestations and ambitions from their everyday lives. The CCP has hijacked the Chinese state, warping it to its own image. In so doing, it imposes a choice: conformity or else. A shroud of fear has descended upon the Chinese public (not to mention China’s minorities), and most choose silence rather than confrontation with a party-state apparatus that will not brook non-conformity.
The Taiwanese people, however, still have a choice. One need only contrast July 1’s display of human-negating flamboyance with inaugural or national day ceremonies in Taiwan to see just how different the two societies have become. Anyone who still maintains that those two societies can reconcile their differences and form some sort of political union should be asked to watch the footage side by side. In one may be seen a smiling head of state who embraces diversity, tolerance, and democracy; we see choirs that, while singing in unison, retain the individuality of each participant; floats celebrating pro-democracy activists and intellectuals, both past enemies of the state; LGBT rights advocates; and members of the crowd spontaneously dancing. In the other may be observed a rigid, unsmiling tyrant whose delivery only brings to mind the color gray; and a mass of uniformity below him, moving as one, as if controlled by supercomputers (or fear). We see blatant imperial ambition, folly the likes of which has resulted in terrible excesses in the past.
Not even in the deepest years of martial law in Taiwan did the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) engage in such displays of dehumanization. By becoming a caricature, the CCP has ensured the loss of even those across the Taiwan Strait who, until recently, still argued that Taiwan (or the Republic of China, for some) and China could still find common ground and form a union in some shape or form.
No such union is possible, unless it is one that is imposed.
The main point: The contrast between Taiwan and China has become starker under Xi Jinping, under whose guidance the Chinese Communist Party, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, has completely lost touch with reality.