The regular not-so-friendly exchanges between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen are a part of political life in East Asia. In fact, the world is likely to see more of them if Tsai wins the January 2020 presidential election in Taiwan. Instead of getting stuck in the conventional way of thinking and analysis, it might be rewarding to adopt a contrarian way of looking at the relationship, now clearly at a stalemate. It may offer new insights into this ongoing saga, lower the geopolitical temperature and soothe the capital market.
Whatever the polemics, maintaining the status quo is the most realistic and the best approach for both Mainland China and Taiwan, at least in the foreseeable future. However, the status quo faces some thorny issues. Let me just discuss four of them, namely the sales of weapon systems by the US to Taiwan, the occasional calls for political independence by hardliners of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the tendency of Beijing to “contain” Taiwan, and the need to exercise wisdom in running Hong Kong.
Short of a miracle, it is just a matter of time before Taiwan will be reunited with the Motherland. So, time is on the side of the Mainland. Beijing can afford to wait and should resist any temptation to achieve the re-unification by means of force. At the same time, for those who have observed the many-faceted progress made in the Mainland since the reform initiated by the late Deng Xiaoping, the people in Taiwan can also wait. They must wait for the gradual improvement in freedom and liberalization in tandem with economic modernization on the Mainland. In other words, the status quo is a win-win standoff. Bearing this is mind, thinking along contrarian lines might open up new perspectives in looking for solutions to the three issues.
On the issue of weapon sales, I suspect some top people in Zhongnanhai and in the Chinese military establishment are happily sipping maotai whenever they are informed of impending weapon sales to Taiwan. Though they would not stop the routine protests by angry spokespersons of the Beijing government, they would secretly welcome the transfer of American weapon systems to Taiwan. The reason is pretty simple. Since Taiwan will one fine day become reunited with the Mainland, this is a most wonderful way to acquire American military hardware via the “backdoor”. And better still, this happens without Beijing spending a single cent.
The issue of political independence is even easier to deal with. I remember once giving a talk more than ten years ago on supply chain management at a Taiwanese university in a stronghold city of the DPP. Towards the end of Q&A, a student, running out of relevant questions, asked me to comment on the independence movement. I confessed that I was a novice in political science and could therefore only offer a commonsensical answer. Imagine that the DPP were reckless and foolish enough to go ahead and declare independence, which major country would recognize the independence? For sure, none. And if Beijing was smart enough not to surround the island with war ships and to threaten it with missiles, the world’s opinion would turn against Taiwan. Taiwan would be more isolated than ever. It is an illustration of the famous adage, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.”
Beijing should be encouraged to keep enticing young Taiwanese talent to work in the Mainland with even more preferential terms than what they are already doing. This way, it will build up goodwill among the current generation of Taiwanese working in the Mainland whose influence and number will gradually grow, along with their confidence in and attachment to Mainland China. Some of those who have benefited from their Mainland sojourn may become an increasingly powerful political force by themselves. In time, they will become increasingly vocal and speak of the benefits of reunification. Their voice, in time, will effectively counter those groups pushing for independence. Their platform will overwhelm the independent advocates in due course. In doing so, they will help to ease the eventual reunification without firing a shot.
The current saga in Hong Kong sparked off by the proposed extradition treaty is even worse than the umbrella movement. It has politicized the youth and sowed seeds of mistrust that is bound to infect their counterparts in Taiwan.
Of the four issues, the trickiest one is the tendency on the part of Beijing to turn the screw on economic life in Taiwan. Given the vast disparity in the size of the economies of the two sides, it is tempting for the much bigger economy to use it to pressure and make life difficult for the smaller economy. During the period of former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, Beijing planned to achieve de facto reunification through economic ties and more direct influences. It tried to influence public opinions through the mass media. Having seen how all these well-designed attempted ended up with Taiwan electing the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen as president, Beijing switched to the strategy of economic encirclement.
A more far-sighted approach is to give as much space as possible for Taiwan to make full use of its potential for technological and managerial innovation, to unleash its entrepreneurial spirit. Just consider how the Mainland has benefited since the reform in 1978 from the store of technological know-how and management skill built up over the years in Taiwan. To starve the goose that lays the golden eggs is not a very clever strategy. And don’t forget that at the end of the day, Taiwan will return to China.
The fourth issue is the one being played out in Hong Kong and that makes world headlines now. The “one country two systems” as designed by Deng Xiaoping is not just meant to smoothen the transition of Hong Kong during the 50 years after the 1997 handover. It has a much bigger goal, which is to serve as a showcase of how Beijing would run Taiwan should the two sides agree on reunification. However, what transpired during the twenty-two years after the handover of Hong Kong has generated much unease or even fear in the hearts of millions of Taiwanese.
Things proceeded pretty well until 2014. The year saw the birth of a movement for greater democracy in September known as the “umbrella movement”. Hong Kong has a deeply rooted culture of moderation. The annual mass gathering held to mark the June 4 Tiananmen incident, for example, has always proceeded without trouble. Even the Falun Gong, outlawed on the mainland, are allowed to operate in Hong Kong, albeit with some restrictions. The protest in 2012 against national education was resolved quite amicably.
With this background, the whole world was taken aback by the sight of a peaceful, festive movement degenerating into street clashes between protesters and police, with some ugly scenes. It is important to recall that September was just two months ahead of the 2014 local elections in Taiwan.
The street scenes in Hong Kong formed an important factor in swaying voters in Taiwan to dump Kuomintang candidates in favor of DPP in the local elections. This was a prelude to DPP’s success in the presidential election, which gave Taiwan its first woman president.
The current saga in Hong Kong sparked off by the proposed extradition treaty is even worse than the umbrella movement. It has politicized the youth and sowed seeds of mistrust that is bound to infect their counterparts in Taiwan. It has definitely damaged the cause of reunification of Taiwan and the Mainland. At the very least, Beijing should draw lessons from the two sad events, and instead of handling issues from a position of strength, learn to do so from a position of wisdom.