BY PETER LOFTUS
On Nov. 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou met in Singapore. This was significant because it was the first time that the leaders of these two nations have met since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Their seemingly amicable interaction might lead one to mistakenly believe that cross-strait relations are on a solid footing. The potential for Taiwanese reunification with the Mainland, however, is possibly further away than at any other time since Ma Ying-Jeou took office in 2008. The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong has proven that the “One Country, Two Systems” formula is untenable, and the Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan has demonstrated the latent skepticism of Taiwanese towards further economic dependency on the PRC. Demographic and political trends in Taiwan only further the potential for divergence.
A major cause for the lack of faith in Beijing’s intentions originates with its failure to fulfill of its promise to grant universal suffrage to the people of Hong Kong. In the “Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984,” Beijing agreed to handle foreign affairs and defense for Hong Kong, while granting the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy.” Although the agreement stated that Hong Kongers would receive universal suffrage in 2017, Beijing decided to create a committee of 1,200 pro-Beijing elites to screen and approve candidates before the people could vote. Although everyone in Hong Kong will have the right to vote, what kind of election will it be if all the candidates are first selected by the central government? This decision, taken in September 2014, incited large protests among Hong Kong’s population. At the high point of the movement, it is estimated that over 100,000 people participated in the demonstrations in the Central Business District and Kowloon.
So how is this political event in Hong Kong relevant to Taiwan? It is important because the “One Country, Two Systems” formula was the most likely method to peacefully reunify Taiwan with the Mainland. Ultimately, the most important factor in cross-strait relations is the opinions of the Taiwanese people. With this reneging on the promise of genuine democracy in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese have reason to be skeptical of China’s willingness to keep its word.
Although it occurred before the Umbrella Revolution, the Sunflower Movement in March and April 2014 is indicative of the Taiwanese people’s lack of trust in China. In an act of defiance towards the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), Taiwanese students protested what they perceived as Taiwan’s drift towards the Mainland by occupying the Taiwanese legislative building. Their opposition was directed at the Cross-Strait Trade Services Agreement, which many of the students argued was negotiated in secrecy, and would further increase Taiwan’s economic dependence on the Mainland. The Sunflower Movement was a fairly pointed indication that the Taiwanese are wary of being economically dependent on China.
Aside from economics, other trends have the potential to drive relations between Taipei and Beijing further apart. Year after year, the older generation of Taiwanese citizens who feel a strong connection with the Mainland are giving way to younger Taiwanese who have never felt such a close association. Exacerbating this trend is the fact that the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ying-wen is expected to be elected president next year. Although Tsai has publicly stated that she does not intend to push for formal independence, she is clearly in favor of Taiwan keeping its distance from China. In fact, the original KMT candidate, Hung Hsiuh-chu, was replaced last week because, among other things, she was perceived as being too pro-China for many Taiwanese voters.
Since the reunification with Taiwan is of great importance to the Chinese Communist Party, it would be beneficial to contemplate under what conditions this might be possible. With the “One Country, Two Systems” formula thoroughly discredited, are there any other options? Some argue that one scenario for reunification is if Mainland China were to democratize, in which case the Taiwanese people might be amenable to the cultural, economic, and security benefits of reunification with China. A second scenario would be if the PRC were to implement a Melian Dialogue-style scenario, in which Beijing demands that Taiwan capitulate, or face a military offensive. Although these scenarios might be overly simplistic, one can only hypothesize as to what would be required for a reunification to take place.
Although it may be difficult to decipher how Taiwan might be peacefully reunified with the Mainland in the near term, one thing is for certain. Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong have made it less likely that Taiwan will voluntarily reunify with the Mainland any time soon.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Article title changed to “The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Myth” at 3:26 GMT on 19 November 2015. Also, Democratic People’s Party was changed to Democratic Prorgressive Party.