Why the Taiwanese want nothing to do with Mr Xi
Imagine living under the daily threat of having your hard-won democracy snuffed out by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party.
It’s not a thought experiment for Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, nor for any of the proud democracy’s 23 million citizens. It’s their reality.
Every morning, Wu and the other members of President Tsai Ing-wen’s national security council wake up to find out: what has Xi done this time?
“We understand that the threat is there and the threat is getting more serious,” Wu tells Inquirer in a wide-ranging in-person interview in Taipei in Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“We have been watching the Chinese infiltration attempts, hybrid warfare, disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and all that.”
Then there are the military exercises. Last Sunday, Beijing sent another 27 warplanes to menace the island. That makes more than 800 military flights this year – more than double last year.
This sortie included, for the first time, a Y-20 aerial refuelling tanker, part of Beijing’s efforts to project military operations further from China’s coast.
The next day, China circulated footage of the maiden voyage of its navy’s new amphibious assault ship, which had set out from Shanghai. The enormous ship includes a landing deck for helicopters and plenty of room below for amphibious tanks.
In other words, it is purpose-built for an invasion of Taiwan.
Xi has ordered that another two be delivered by the party-state’s giant military construction firms within a year.
There is nothing new about Beijing’s bellicosity. Communist Party leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao have warned that any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would be grounds for a military invasion.
“This threat appears more realistic in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre,” wrote Wu, then a budding political scientist, in his 1989 PhD thesis at Ohio State University on Taiwan’s democratic future.
More than three decades on, Xi still speaks of Taiwan as the Communist Party’s rightful spoils after winning the Chinese Civil War, which most historians date as ending in 1949.
People in Taiwan – which has never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China and is now one of the world’s most successful democracies – have a very different opinion.
Life in Xi’s China is creepily familiar for many in Taiwan. Taiwanese born before 1987 grew up in a martial society where the wrong political ideas would get you thrown in jail – or worse.
Take Wu, who is now 67. His uncle, a democracy advocate, was jailed for 12 years during the martial rule of president Chiang Kai-shek, who dominated the island for the three decades until his death in 1975.
Chiang, who as China’s leader helped the allies win World War II, retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.
Generalissimo Chiang had hoped it would be a tactical retreat, until he could launch a counter-attack to reclaim mainland China from, as he put it, the “communist bandits”.
Life in Chiang’s Taiwan was far from the nightmares Mao oversaw on the mainland, which included the world’s deadliest man-made famine and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. But it was a regime that, if in place today, would be unlikely to score an invitation to US President Joe Biden’s democracy summit next week.
“The nature of the (Chiang) regime could best be characterised as quasi-totalitarian or tight authoritarian,” wrote Wu in his 1989 thesis.
Read in 2021, the descriptions could well apply to China today.
“Under the rigid system, Chiang was the highest leader in the state, commander-in-chief of the military forces, the chairman of the ruling party, and the final arbiter of the government policies. The president was worshipped as a godlike figure … a saviour star of the Chinese nation.”
Wu can remember his mother being so scared about political discussions that she would leave the room when they came up in family dinners. And he can also remember the pervasive fear – at his school, at his family home and at Taipei’s National Chengchi University, where he did his undergraduate study.
“During those terrible years, I had to keep looking back to see if there was anybody following me,” he tells Inquirer.
Martial law ended in 1987 and the Taiwanese freely elected their first president in 1996.
“It’s another miracle that we live in today,” says Wu.
Today’s Taiwan has more than earned its invitation to Biden’s democracy summit. Indeed, few attendees next week have such a remarkable story to tell.
The Washington-based research centre Freedom House gives Taiwan a score of 94 out of 100, based on a measure of political rights and civil liberties. That puts it just below Australia (97/100), but well above most of the 100-odd countries invited to Biden’s summit, including America itself (83/100).
Xi’s China is on the other “not free” end of the spectrum. It scored 9/100, as will tend to happen when you send millions of people from minority groups into indoctrination camps, command all media to follow the party line and create a cult around an all-powerful leader.
Not surprisingly, polls find that Taiwanese people have close to zero interest in living under Beijing’s rule. It is a reality the Chinese Communist Party refuses to accept, and Xi is the tone-setter for this delusion.
“Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation,” he told Biden during their November virtual meeting.
Xi treats Taiwan’s democratically delivered mandate as a provocation – rather than a sign that, perhaps, not everyone wants to be ruled by his party.
In 2016, he suspended all diplomatic contact between Beijing and Taipei after President Tsai Ing-wen refused to endorse the idea of a single Chinese nation after she was elected.
As Australians know well, Xi isn’t one for dialogue unless it is entirely on his terms.
Instead of talking, Xi unilaterally proposed for Taiwan a “one country, two systems” formula, modelled on Hong Kong.
That idea – unpopular on announcement in Taiwan – was then completely discredited across Taiwan’s political system as, months later, Beijing launched a sweeping crackdown on Hong Kong. Tsai was re-elected in a landslide in 2020.
Xi’s propaganda machine continues to struggle against the clear desire by Taiwanese to continue to be self-governed.
Communist Party-aligned researchers say the huge body of polling showing sweeping opposition in Taiwan to rule by Beijing has been rigged.
“By badmouthing national reunification through the polls, they try to manipulate public opinion on the island,” Li Zhenguang, professor and deputy director at the Institute of Taiwan Studies under the Beijing Union University, this week told the party-controlled Global Times.
Li blamed “Western anti-China forces” and Foreign Minister Wu’s Democratic Progressive Party.
Beijing has singled out Wu personally for its unpopularity among Taiwanese.
Last month, he was one of three officials in Taiwan’s governing party sanctioned by Beijing for, in the party-state’s words, “fanning up hostility across the Taiwan Strait and maliciously smearing the mainland”.
“Many people (in Taiwan) regard it as a badge of honour,” Wu says of his sanctioning, which included vague threats of criminal prosecution.
He worries that Xi and his comrades have recited their propaganda about Taiwan so many times that they actually believe it.
“That is going to create danger in this part of the world,” he says.
“It’s not in their interest. It is not in our interest. And it’s not in the interests of the rest of the world.”
Read the first part of The Australian’s interview with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister here:Taiwan seeks closer ties with Australia amid China aggression