Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 April 2024


China and Taiwan Would Make an Unhappy Family

Xi Jinping wanted to remind Taiwanese people about the benefits of unification with the mainland. Instead, his words have had the opposite effect. 




Every literature student will surely know this opening line from Leo Tolstoy’s famous opus, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Well, as happy families go, China-Taiwan relations are at their most acrimonious in recent years.

So when President Xi Jinping said nothing can stop a “family reunion” between the island and Beijing, it is hard to see that Taipei shares his vision. He wants to remind Taiwan its future lies firmly with China — that was the whole point of Wednesday’s historic meeting with the island’s former president Ma Ying-jeou. Beijing’s aim is eventual unification: Either peacefully, or by force. But if the Xi-Ma get-together was an attempt to convince 23 million Taiwanese of the merits of being part of China’s family, it fell far short of that goal.

China cut off cross-strait diplomatic contact in 2016, after President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party won a landslide victory. Tensions have risen even further since. In January, the island elected Tsai’s successor and current vice president Lai Ching-te, a leader Beijing called an “instigator of war.” There are the daily incursions by Chinese warplanes and ships in the Taiwan Strait, antagonizing and distracting the military even while it was focused on rescue operations in the aftermath of last week’s deadly earthquake.

Xi refuses to acknowledge that the Taiwan of today is not the place he wishes it were. Fewer citizens identify with being Chinese — the way that Xi and the Communist Party define it — than ever before, and the idea of what it means to be a distinctly Taiwanese person has been changing. That is not something Xi wants to accept. The Chinese leader invoked their shared history of over 5,000 years, saying that both sides of the Taiwan Strait “belong to the same Chinese nation,” according to state media reports following their meeting. “There are no knots that cannot be untied, no issues that cannot be discussed, and no force that can separate us.” For his part, Ma said a war between the two sides would be “an unbearable burden for the Chinese nation.

Xi is playing the long game. He is relying on the youth on both sides of the strait to bring people together, presumably in the hope that democracy in Taiwan is an experiment, and not a long-lasting state.

But this is a vision of the future that young Taiwanese simply don’t see. Since 1996, when the island held its first direct presidential election, voters have had the privilege of being able to freely elect their representatives. That also means being able to get rid of governments who don’t reflect their ambitions and desires. As several of the young people I met in Taipei earlier this year told me, that is something they will never give up: It is an essential part of being Taiwanese.

Another factor Xi should consider is that overwhelmingly, as this Brookings study from 2022 notes, they reject unification, so his calls for a return to the motherland are falling on deaf ears. There is a deep appreciation and respect for Chinese culture on the island — the antagonism toward unification comes from a rejection of the Chinese political system, and what that would mean if it were imposed on Taiwan.

Young Taiwanese don’t have to look very far to see what that might look like. Hong Kong is an ominous foreshadowing of what Chinese unification means. Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model did not work out as many had originally hoped. When the former British colony was handed over to the mainland in 1997, China pledged to preserve much of its unique character, and give it 50 years to enjoy many of the freedoms not found in mainland cities.

That changed dramatically in 2020, when Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law after a protest movement was put down. Critics warn restrictions are likely to increase under domestic security legislation that passed last month. And in a worrying reminder of what a Chinese-controlled territory might look like, a Reporters Without Borders representative was refused entry to Hong Kong this week after arriving to monitor the trial of former media mogul Jimmy Lai, the group said.

This future is precisely what the Taiwanese don’t want: A world built on China’s rules. So while platitudes and hearty handshakes make for a nice photo opportunity, they don’t reflect the realities on the ground. The last time Xi and Ma met, it was in Singapore in 2015 — when China’s economy was stronger, and Taiwanese identity was not as prominent an issue as it is today. The world has changed, since, on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As with any family, the ties that bind because of a shared history or culture do not mean those relations will survive. You can’t choose your family, and often, you don’t like them very much either.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

  • A Distracted US Is Worrying Taiwan: Karishma Vaswani
  • Taiwan Isn’t What’s Dividing the US and China: Minxin Pei
  • The US and China Are Waging a Cold War That Is Truly MAD: Niall Ferguson

Want more from Bloomberg Opinion? OPIN <GO> . Or you can subscribe to our daily newsletter .

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Karishma Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics with a special focus on China. Previously, she was the BBC's lead Asia presenter and worked for the BBC across Asia and South Asia for two decades.
Get Alerts

No comments:

Post a Comment