Why ‘one country, two systems’ won’t work for Taiwan

January 10, 2019 18:42
Though most Taiwanese people are against seeking independence, those who are in favor of getting reunited with the mainland still only make up the absolute minority. Photo: Reuters

On Jan. 2, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered an important speech in Beijing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan”. 

According to Taiwan media, Wang Yang, chairman of the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), was supposed to give the speech, as was the original arrangement. 

However, after the Kuomintang (KMT) pulled off a surprise victory in Taiwan's local elections in November last year, Xi immediately seized the opportunity and decided to make the speech himself. 

Unlike his predecessors, Xi not only tried to appeal to the patriotic emotions of the Taiwanese people in his speech, but also put forward a solid roadmap towards cross-strait reunification. 

He stressed that peaceful reunification and “one country, two systems” are the best ways for mainland China and Taiwan to be reunited. 

Immediately after his speech, however, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen held a press conference in Taipei and asserted that there is absolutely no way that Taiwan would ever accept “one country, two systems”. 

Tsai also firmly stated that the overwhelming majority of the Taiwanese people are against the idea, and that this is the consensus on the island. 

Even the relatively pro-Beijing pan-Blue coalition isn’t interested in the “one country, two systems” principle either. 

Taiwan’s former president Ma Ying-jeou said he could not see any condition for reunification at present. 

A high-ranking KMT figure who wanted to stay anonymous also said Beijing must recognize the fact that “one country, two systems” simply has no market in Taiwan. 

Even the re-elected Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who earlier floated the notion of “one family” in reference to the two sides, is brutally honest about the fact that at present, reunification with the mainland is pretty much not accepted in the mainstream public opinion in Taiwan. 

For 40 years, Beijing has time and again misjudged the political situation in Taiwan, and ended up indirectly becoming the inadvertent “super cheerleader” for pro-independence candidates in Taiwanese elections. 

In the run-up to the 1996 Taiwanese presidential election, for example, the top Chinese leader at the time, Jiang Zemin, ordered a massive ballistic missile test in the Taiwan Strait. 

But Beijing’s coercive moves completely backfired, and as a result, independence-leaning Lee Teng-hui took 54 percent of the votes and became the first ever popularly elected president in Taiwan. 

Then in the 2000 presidential election, Beijing once again made the same mistake by resorting to coercion, and, as a consequence, sent Chen Shui-bian, the candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), into office. 

It is indeed very important for Beijing to learn the lessons of the past and avoid making the same misjudgments – notwithstanding the catastrophic loss of the DPP in the recent "nine-in-one" elections. 

The DPP’s defeat doesn’t mean the opposition KMT is popular among Taiwanese voters. Nor does it indicate that public opinion in Taiwan is shifting towards reunification. 

Instead, what we can only tell from the DPP’s defeat is that the Taiwanese people are getting increasingly disillusioned and impatient with Tsai, who has continued to press ahead with highly unpopular policy initiatives over the past two years of her presidency. 

Suffice it to say that Taiwanese voters simply had no choice but to cast their votes for KMT candidates, because compared with the ruling DPP, the KMT at least appears to be “the less rotten apple”. 

Another thing that is noteworthy about the recent Taiwanese elections is that a lot of the winning KMT candidates are actually not traditional pan-Blue political figures. 

For example, Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected KMT mayor of Kaohsiung who has publicly endorsed the “1992 Consensus”, has repeatedly stressed that he will stay focused on reviving the economy while setting aside the issue of Taiwan’s independence or reunification with the mainland. 

Han even went on to criticize the KMT to which he belongs for being too politicized. 

Based on my observations of the current sentiment in Taiwan, I would say that even though most Taiwanese people are against seeking independence, those who are in favor of getting reunited with the mainland still only make up the absolute minority. 

Worse still for Beijing, even among the minority who are for reunification with the mainland, only a very tiny percentage of them are in favor of the “one country, two systems” framework. 

In recent years, news has often got out that Xi is determined to achieve the “historic mission” of reunifying with Taiwan during his term in office. 

What our Beijing leaders should be alert to is that, in the absence of proper conditions at this point, they could risk provokingfierce backlash from the Taiwanese people if they decide to press ahead with their reunification bid. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 5

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor