China has a lot at stake in getting its favored candidate across the line in Taiwan’s presidential election in January, so it’s strange that Beijing is doing so much to sabotage Han Kuo-yu’s chances.
Without a change in its approach, the Communist Party risks making the already difficult task of winning over the self-governing island next to impossible without force.
Over the past year, Beijing has single-handedly revived the electoral prospects of its political adversary, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.
At the turn of the year, Tsai’s approval rating was a miserable 24%. Now polls show her with more than 53% support versus about 31% for Han, whose Kuomintang is the natural ally of Beijing. That nationalist party retains deep ties to the mainland as the former government of China until it lost a civil war to the communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949.
China’s increasingly hardball tactics have helped to drive Tsai’s resurgence, along with its call for Taiwan to return to the fold on the same terms as Hong Kong. In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged unification talks on a “one country, two systems” model, saying the political impasse could not be passed from generation to generation and reiterating that Beijing wouldn’t promise to refrain from using force if Taiwan refused to discuss terms.
Tsai’s support leaped after she rejected the overture. This year’s unrest in Hong Kong has further boosted the popularity of Tsai, a vocal supporter of the protesters, who have complained of China’s encroachment on the former British colony’s autonomy and called for greater democracy.
Why has Beijing resorted to such a self-defeating strategy? China is a vastly richer and more powerful country than in the past, with a military that towers over Taiwan. It is also governed by a leader in Xi who has amassed more personal power than any leader since Mao Zedong. In this more confident and muscular era, the Communist Party seems determined to set its own path toward unification, taking little account of the views of naysayers.
The logic of Chinese politics in the Xi era makes a softer, more accommodating line from anywhere in the system untenable, unless it comes from the top. In turn, Xi himself is determined not to display any weakness on either issue, lest he should give his critics ammunition that can be used against him.
Under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, China displayed some sensitivity to Taiwan’s internal politics and kept a relatively low profile in Hong Kong. Under Xi, the opposite is the case. Far from finessing China’s position to reassure disillusioned Hong Kongers and influence Taiwanese voters, all the incentives in Beijing are pulling in the direction of being as tough as possible.
Through four months of unrest, the Hong Kong government has been powerless to respond to protesters’ demands without Beijing’s say-so. That paralysis has undermined a core promise from China, that the territory would run its own domestic affairs for half a century after the handover.
The “one country, two systems” formula was devised by Deng Xiaoping and once sounded like an ingenious way to win over Hong Kongers and bring them gradually and willingly under Chinese rule. Now it just looks like another form of colonization. It’s no wonder that the model is a turn-off for voters in Taiwan, where boisterous democratic elections and free speech have become an entrenched part of the island’s politics and society.
Amid the Hong Kong protests, the last thing the Communist Party should want is a rebuff from voters in Taiwan. Yet Beijing has shown little interest in modifying its stance. The inevitable result is that Taiwan has become even more alienated from China, while sympathy for the island’s plight in the outside world has grown.
China has been squeezing Taiwan on other fronts, stepping up a campaign to isolate the island diplomatically and launching an information war. It’s been taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook by overtly and covertly influencing the local media and community groups, taking control of some newspapers and television stations, and seeding money to candidates through temple associations.
This uncompromising approach is magnifying the risks of further miscalculations. Both sides have much to lose. Taiwan plays an outsize role in global technology value chains and is at the center of growing U.S.-China tensions and Xi’s long-term plans for his country’s revival as a great power.
A decisive victory for Tsai in January’s election might chasten Beijing and cause it to return to a more consensual strategy. But the example of Hong Kong doesn’t so far give much hope that Xi will change course. If China continues to double down, the eventual denouement for Taiwan may be far more dangerous.