BEIJING — As if Beijing didn’t have enough challenges to deal with. There’s the continuing unrest in Hong Kong, ongoing conflicts with the United States and a steadily slowing economy. Now strongman leader Xi Jinping also has to deal with the fact that Taiwan has loudly and clearly rejected China’s desire to take control of the island.
Following an election Saturday in which independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen won an surprisingly decisive victory, China’s ruling Communist Party has returned to its usual dismissive bluster.
Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) used “dirty tactics” and exposed “their selfish, greedy and evil nature,” state media and academics charged in almost word-for-word unison. State mouthpieces have accused the United States of interfering in the election — despite numerous examples of Chinese disinformation — and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that people who split Taiwan from China will “leave a stink for 10,000 years.”
This response was very similar to Beijing’s reaction to protests and a recent anti-mainland electoral rout in Hong Kong, which the party has repeatedly blamed on the “black hands” of “hostile foreign forces” led by the United States.
The question now is how do Chinese leaders respond to this overwhelming rejection from Taiwan, coming on the heels of a similarly overwhelming rejection from Hong Kong?
Just as Beijing has not softened on Hong Kong, nor will it lower its ambitions when it comes to Taiwan, Chinese analysts say.
“Even if Taiwan lacks the ability to push for unification at the moment, it doesn’t mean that our Taiwan policy is a failure, nor that our efforts at unification are unreasonable,” said Zhang Nianchi, a Taiwan expert at the Shanghai Institute of East Asia Studies.
“We should think about how to demonstrate the advantages of unification [to Taiwanese]. We are not doing enough now but will definitely have some changes in the future,” he said.
American analysts say Xi has responded in the past by tightening his grip, not relaxing it.
“I can’t see Beijing doing a fundamental rethink of its Taiwan policy in a way that comes out with more tolerance,” said Jude Blanchette, head of China studies at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“That doesn’t compute with how we see Beijing reacting in other areas where it’s messed up, like in Hong Kong. The changes there have yielded a scrapper,” he said, referring to Xi’s recent decision to replace Beijing’s top man in Hong Kong with a loyalist used to dealing with tough situations.
In many ways, the situations in Hong Kong and Taiwan are very different. Hong Kong is officially part of China, albeit under a “one country, two systems” framework that is supposed to provide it with a degree of autonomy.
But Taiwan is not. It has existed as a self-ruled island since 1949. China has repeatedly vowed to take control of Taiwan, by force if necessary, and Xi has set 2049, the centenary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China’s, as a deadline for what he calls “reunification.” (Never mind that Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic.)
In some ways, however, the two situations are the same, at least from the Chinese perspective. Xi and his cadres seem unsure of how to deal with the anti-mainland sentiment in both Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Military action is difficult in both places. Hong Kong is a major financial capital and a conduit for much of China’s business dealings with the world. Sending in troops or tanks would send investors scuttling.
Taiwan, for its part, is backed by the U.S. military, so China might risk a confrontation with a force that wields much more firepower.
A commentary carried by the Xinhua state news agency also warned the United States not to encourage Taiwan to move toward independence. “Otherwise, you risk lifting a stone only to drop it on your own toes,” it said, using a Chinese idiom.
Then there’s popular sentiment and generational change. Beijing’s efforts to influence young people in both Hong Kong and Taiwan — through patriotic education in the former and disinformation in the latter — have only increased hostility toward the authoritarian government and served as a warning about China’s intentions.
But it may be China’s full plate that restrains it for now.
“I think the Chinese look out at that set of problems they have — ongoing protests in Hong Kong and the slowdown in the economy and continued friction with the United States — and they don’t need a crisis with Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, head of the China Power Project at the CSIS.
Although China and the United States are due to sign a “phase one” trade deal on Wednesday, the trade war is far from over, and U.S. concerns about Chinese technological development and global expansionism remain.
China is also wary of raining on its own parade. It is focused on domestic events, including the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party next year and its pledge to have eliminated poverty in the country, followed by hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022.
“They have a big domestic agenda,” Glaser said. “So, it’s hard to make an argument why it would be in China’s interest to conclude that the situation is so dire that they need to use force now in order to achieve unification.”
Instead, analysts expect Beijing to bide its time. After all, Tsai is term limited and cannot run again. The Communist Party leadership may spend the next four years trying to ensure that a candidate from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang can mount a better case for both the presidency and the legislature next time around.
In the interim, it can ratchet up the economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan.
The most obvious effort to hurt Taiwan’s economy so far has been a ban on individual tourists traveling to the island, but that could also have been designed to stop Chinese from witnessing a flourishing, Mandarin-speaking democracy in full swing.
Still, Taiwan’s economy has been growing solidly, especially compared with similar countries in the region, and its stock market is also up. Taiwan’s GDP per capita is three times that of the mainland.
Nevertheless, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, has warned that Taiwanese should “tighten their belts” because the economy is “in utter disorder.”
On the diplomatic front, China has been using its financial clout to peel away Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners, most recently the Solomon Islands and Kiribati. Only 15 countries, all of them small, still recognize Taiwan, and Tsai’s government is trying to keep it that way.
China has also been sailing war ships through the Taiwan Strait in a show of force, another practice that is expected to continue.
It is also likely to continue blaming foreign interference for resistance to Beijing’s integration plans, said Clayton Dube of the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute.
“The rhetoric has three audiences,” he said: “In China to reassure both the powerful and the governed that the line on territorial integrity is bright red; to remind Taiwan and Hong Kong of that bottom line; and to try to intimidate others (countries, businesses) into complying with both real and symbolic requirements to acknowledge Beijing’s claims.”
But most analysts expect Beijing to wait until conditions are more propitious before doing anything more audacious.
“This is especially the case given that the U.S. deters China from attacking Taiwan, and that with Trump, we just don’t know what he might do. He’s unpredictable,” said Daniel Lynch, a professor of Chinese politics and foreign policy at the City University of Hong Kong. “So the positive side of that kind of unpredictability is that [Beijing] won’t want to push him. He might want to bomb the Great Wall or something.”
China might figure it can wait 10 or 20 years. Maybe the United States will not be so interested in Taiwan, or maybe it will be much weaker than China, Lynch said.
The problem with waiting, however, is that generational change is happening, and it is happening fast in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“They’ve already lost Taiwan,” said Lynch. “One country, two systems is a bankrupt concept, and the DPP’s resounding victory on Saturday proved it was bankrupt.”