Rejuvenation and reunification: What is Taiwan’s role for China?

December 14, 2017 09:02
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said  “achieving China’s full reunification” was “essential to realizing national rejuvenation”. Photo: China Daily

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th congress of the Communist Party of China drew international attention to China’s vision of its emergence as a “great modern socialist country” by the middle of the century.

But little attention has been focused on what Xi considers to be a prerequisite for realizing the rejuvenation of the nation. This prerequisite is the “reunification” of the country or, in other words, the absorption of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China.

The theme of the congress, according to Xi, was to “remain true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind”. That is to say, the party must abide by its founders’ views when it was established in 1921.

From the very beginning, Xi said, “Our party was deeply aware that, to achieve national rejuvenation, it was critical to topple the three mountains of imperialism, feudalism and bureau-capitalism that were oppressing the Chinese people and realize China’s independence, the people’s liberation, national reunification and social stability.”

So, national reunification was a key goal since the party’s birth, since parts of China had been seized by foreign countries.

Since then, both Hong Kong and Macau have been returned to China by their former colonizers, Britain and Portugal. From Beijing’s standpoint, it is necessary to bring Taiwan, too, back into the fold. Taiwan had been part of China until 1895, when it was ceded to Japan.

However, there is a huge difference between Taiwan today and Hong Kong and Macau up to the 1990s: Japan gave up Taiwan in 1945 after losing the war and the island returned to Chinese sovereignty. For more than 70 years, Taiwan has been governed by Chinese, not foreigners.

It just happens that these Chinese are not communists.

So, while Beijing likes to present the situation as the reunification of China, it is actually a case of Beijing’s desire to spread communist rule. Imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism are not involved. Times have changed since 1921.

Nonetheless, last year, at the 95th anniversary of the founding of the party, Xi delivered an address in which he said that “advancing the process of China’s peaceful reunification, and accomplishing this great cause, is a prerequisite for realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

At the party congress in October, Xi again said that “achieving China’s full reunification” was “essential to realizing national rejuvenation”.

No mention was made of the fact that South Korea was modernized without unification with North Korea, or that West Germany became a fully modern country before, not after, unification with East Germany.

Terming reunification a necessary prerequisite to rejuvenation is a false premise. It is simply an excuse for Beijing to threaten Taiwan with a timetable for unification by saying that the goal for rejuvenation is 2050.

Within China, there appears to be considerable support for such a timetable. In July, Zhou Zhihuai, former director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, called for a unification timetable during a symposium on cross-strait relations.

In Taiwan, however, there is little interest in unification. A poll taken in June showed that three-quarters of people in Taiwan think that the island and China are two separate countries, with only 14 percent believing that they are parts of one nation.

Xi at the 19th congress continued to voice support for “peaceful” reunification and did not mention the possible use of force. However, as Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, the Chinese leader in his long speech dropped the previously standard assertion that Beijing placed hopes on the Taiwan people as a force to help bring about unification.

“To not reiterate the commitment to ‘place hopes on the Taiwan people’ could be … significant because past statements suggested that Beijing would take into account the views and sentiments of those people,” Bush said.

This shift in Beijing’s position could well reflect the victory of Tsai Ing-wen in the Taiwan presidential election last year. After all, if the people of Taiwan elected the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party as president, how can they be trusted by Beijing?

Instead, it seems, such people must simply accept their fate.

China today depicts itself as a responsible country, playing a leading role in the modern world. Yet, at the same time, it is threatening the 23 million people of Taiwan with possible use of force to bring about a “reunification” that they don’t want.

Is this what the world expects of a modern, responsible country?

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.