Taiwan kicks off 2019 by refuting China’s “unification” threat

First, Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year turns out great for everyone.

That said, it’s a new year but not new rhetoric from China’s Xi Jinping. Thanks to him though, my first blog post of 2019 is about Taiwan and China. In a speech on January 2, Xi chose to make a grand demand that Taiwan “must and will” agree to “unification” with China. He also said reunification would be peaceful, yet warned about using military force (the irony). Xi also said that “Chinese don’t fight each other” which is actually wrong because Chinese have always fought each other. Just in the last century alone, there was the Civil War which saw the Communists come to power, the Cultural Revolution, which saw millions of Chinese die at the hands of other Chinese, and the Warlord Period of the 1920s, when China was carved up by Chinese warlords. Not to mention the infamous Tiananmen tragedy in 1989.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded afterwards on the same day by refuting this demand, and rightfully so. Tsai was adamant that Taiwanese did not want unification, especially not under the “one country, two systems” concept, which has already been applied in Hong Kong and which has not had a positive effect. Tsai further added that talks could be possible between Taiwan and China, but only if both meet as equals as sovereign states.

China has claimed Taiwan for a very long time and has made demands for Taiwan to “unify” in the past. This year though, Xi’s speech focused heavily on “unification,” which raises concerns that he might turn to military means to force the issue. After all, starting a war against a foreign foe to divert attention from domestic troubles and boost nationalism is something that dictators have done before.

China is going through a lot of domestic problems now, especially serious economic issues and an ongoing trade war with the US (though further tariffs have been suspended for 90 days). The Chinese authorities have intensified crackdowns on major churches and even student Marxist organizations, while continuing to detain at least a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. So it would be plausible to think that Xi is desperate and deluded enough to want to attempt an armed invasion of Taiwan. I personally don’t think there is a big chance of success for several reasons though (as do some experts), but Xi has shown he thinks highly of himself, given he made himself leader for life last year by abolishing presidential term limits.

But whether Xi’s tough talk on Taiwan might be just talk or a prelude to something much more serious, the reality is that Taiwan is a country. Only its people, the Taiwanese, can determine Taiwan’s future.

Recognizing China’s growing menace towards Taiwan and the world

It’s a little depressing keeping up with global and regional news, because a lot of it is negative. This is basically the world we live in. However, if one is Taiwanese or a supporter of Taiwan, as I am, the news is always bleak. This is because China has become increasingly aggressive and threatening towards Taiwan. From demanding dozens of international airlines to stop listing Taiwan as a nation on their websites to increasing military exercises around Taiwan to preventing Taiwan from hosting international sports events, China’s recent efforts to undermine Taiwan on the global stage have been ceaseless. However, rather than cower, Taiwan’s government, under President Tsai Ing-wen, have been defiant and continue to speak out against China. This is good, but it is only effective as long as the US stands by Taiwan and the international community grows some balls to do the same, which Canadian expert and staunch Taiwan defender J. Michael Cole urges here. But China’s bluster with Taiwan might be a bit hollow because China has a lot of major problems at home and abroad, including the trade war with the US and a growing awareness of China’s growing threat to the world order and regional stability.

Nevertheless, China has attempted to “erase” Taiwan from the global stage in several ways in just the past week:
China forced dozens of international airlines to change how they list Taiwan to putting “China” after Taiwan or dropping Taiwan and just keeping Taipei (Taiwan’s capital) on their website destination lists. The last holdouts, US airlines Delta, United and American Airlines, all made the change on July 25.

China forced the 2019 East Asia Youth Games to be stripped from the Taiwanese city of Taichung in a sudden move overturning a decision that had been made four years ago. The reason is that China was angered by a recent Taiwanese civil society groups’ attempt to lobby for Taiwan to participate as “Taiwan” in the 2020 Olympics. This is because Taiwan participates in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei” and is banned from using its own name due to China’s refusal to acknowledge Taiwan’s independence.

In another international sports-related incident, China is trying to prevent Taiwan’s delegation to the Gay Games in August from flying Taiwan’s flag. As I mentioned above, Taiwan is prevented from participating as “Taiwan” as well as flying its own flag at most international sporting events like the Olympics and football and basketball competitions.

Unbelievably, China also tried to strip Taiwan from hosting another international sporting event. Thankfully, the Asian Rugby Council rejected this blatant move so Taiwan will still be able to host the Asia Rugby Under-19 Championship in December.

Some of this might look petty and absurd, and indeed it is. But the problem is that often, such as with the airlines and with the Olympics, Chinese pettiness towards Taiwan is accepted and treated as fact. At every Olympics, for instance, there is no “Taiwan” but just “Chinese Taipei.”

I’ve never been convinced with Chinese leader Xi Jinping because I think his power and repressive policies mask a very arrogant, menacing and conceited mind. He has been very convincing in making a lot of people think of him as a great leader with grand plans like the Belt and Road/One Belt, One Road initiative (something I am very skeptical as well). As the trade war with the US becomes reality and China shows signs of weakness and concern, some people are starting to have doubts about Xi. This Australian expert wonders whether Xi has reached his peak.

Meanwhile, a Chinese Communist Party official also wonders whether China has become too overconfident and if its hubris has become too harmful to itself. Actually, the official wrote about this last September but it is still “trending on Wechat” now. Here’s the translated version of the article, which contains a lot of surprisingly candid points, at least for a CCP official.
Here is one very amusing except:

I still recall when the G20 meeting was held in Hangzhou in 2016, and everyone, whether officials or scholars, was saying that China had the “medicine” to cure the world of its economic woes. I remember this feeling that everyone was drunk and we were alone, that all nations were in decline and we were rising.
At this Belt and Road Forum some went even further, starting off on this drunken dream about how China now has “world leader” status.

This part, part of a lengthy critique of Xi’s Belt and Road, is pretty good.

Many of the glories [of “Belt and Road”] are just not real. To give just a small example, over the past few years, in order to meet the needs of relevant government departments, many works of classical literature, or works on political governance by Chinese scholars, have flowed out of China’s gates on a massive scale. Behind this push is a vast expenditure of state resources, but no real demand from the international market. This sort of clamor and enthusiasm is not based on any market logic, and it cannot continue indefinitely.

Back to Taiwan, here’s a very good take on how Chinese propaganda efforts has spread three lies amongst Taiwanese to crush their morale. These include that Taiwan is safe from attack from China; that if China did attack, it would be the fault of pro-independence leaders; and that in such an attack, Taiwan would quickly lose. The point of these lies is to make Taiwanese feel that they should do nothing to strengthen their country because it is perfectly safe and that if war did happen, Taiwan would certainly lose; and that any attack from China is not because of Chinese aggression, but the fault of Taiwanese. As the author Ian Easton says, this ignores the reality that the cause for tensions and the provocations are from China and that Taiwan’s military will make invasion a very difficult task for China.
It is important to understand this because only then will Taiwanese know that complacency and idleness will be fatal for Taiwan. As Easton says, Taiwan, with the help of the US, must prepare to defend itself.

Wise words indeed. These are dark times and much of the darkness for Taiwan is coming from the neighbor across the strait.

China enters a new “imperial” age

This week’s biggest news in Asia confirmed what many people have already been thinking. The announcement in China on Sunday that term limits on the presidency were to be scrapped effectively means that Xi Jinping can remain as leader indefinitely. The significance of this is not just that Xi can stay in power forever without stepping down, but that it ends a decades-long safeguard that was put in place by Deng Xiaoping specifically to prevent anybody from consolidating power like Mao Zedong by staying in power indefinitely.

But yet, the move was not totally unexpected as Xi has been trying to follow in the footsteps of Mao, gathering up personal power, creating a personality cult and launching massive crackdowns on society while continuously limiting freedom of expression. However, though Xi might be a powerful leader, China’s most powerful one since Deng, but he is not a great leader. Cracking down on corrupt officials, which also conveniently got rid of lots of potential rivals and their followers; coming up with the grand-sounding but dubious Belt and Road “initiative”; as well as acting belligerent with the US, Japan and Taiwan might seem impressive to some Chinese, but in reality, demonstrates little. The more Xi consolidates power, the more stronger China might seem, but in the long run I think this will be detrimental to China. This move also puts China back in the very slim ranks of nations where unelected leaders stay in power for as long as they wanted, like North Korea and Cuba. Even Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe just stepped down last November after decades in power, and he actually won elections. Previously, the 10-year limit on Chinese leaders meant that China could claim to have a more professional and efficient leadership that was authoritarian but not dictatorial. Xi’s desire to stay in power beyond 10 years, without any limits, means that the leadership is now solely about him.

The announcement was made on Sunday in a lowkey manner, but as the news spread amongst Chinese people, the authorities were quick to begin censoring opposing opinions. Hilariously, they were paranoid enough to also censor keywords like “emigrate,” “migration” and “Winnie the Pooh.” In case you are wondering why a fuzzy, harmless cartoon bear would be banned from China’s online space, it’s because Xi kind of resembles Winnie. There are reports that Wechat and Weibo posts that were critical of this news have been deleted, as many Chinese who previously might have been neutral or silent towards domestic politics have become alarmed.

We are living in dark times with a reckless imbecile in charge of the world’s most powerful nation and a wannabe emperor in Xi leading the second-most powerful one. Just as how Trump’s victory occurred despite many Americans knowing that he would be a terrible president, Xi’s course of action took place despite the apprehension of many Chinese. Just as bad is that the people of the world, most especially Taiwan and neighbouring countries, might have to suffer as well.

Taiwan might have cause to worry the most because one of Xi’s goals is to unify China and Taiwan, by force if necessary. Never mind this is something hardly any Taiwanese wants, but given Xi has no qualms about using force  and repression on his own people, as well as Chinese with foreign citizenship, there is little reason to doubt he won’t hesitate using force on Taiwan. Taiwan will need to stay vigilant, boost its military and economy, and not back down on its sovereignty despite Xi and his regime’s threats.

The only positive I can see in all this is that Xi’s ambition is now out in the open, and people can now more clearly see the real nature of Xi and his regime.

Hong Kong’s miserable anniversary

July 1 was a major milestone for Hong Kong. Twenty years ago, it changed from British to Chinese hands and became the Hong Kong SAR. As a result, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was in town over the weekend, the first by him to Hong Kong. In addition, HK’s new leader Carrie Lam was also sworn in, taking over from Leung Chun-ying. But as with many other Hong Kongers, I felt very little joy or pride. I have little love for China and the Communist Party, and I see HK as having had mixed fortunes under China since 1997.

The authorities certainly understood the public mood as celebrations and decorations were muted. While there are a number of events and promotions related to the 20th anniversary of the handover, it seems that much of this has been met by a huge yawn or resignation. Who can blame people? Xi coming to town was met with probably the least enthusiastic response by people anywhere to a national leader visiting them for the first time.

On the contrary, Xi’s visit exemplified why China and its Communist regime are despised and feared. Xi appeared at certain events and his wife visited a few public places, but Xi did not speak to the public. His most notable comment was to warn Hong Kong about crossing a “red line” with challenging Chinese sovereignty and demanding independence. There was no recognition about the problems facing Hong Kong or any offer of political compromise such as opening up Hong Kong’s political system a little more. His speeches were littered with terms like the motherland and national humiliation and the Opium War. Because Chinese leaders are fond of publicly talking about negative actions committed by foreigners on China, whilst conveniently forgetting about Party atrocities like the Great Leap Forward or Tiananmen 1989.

However, as much as I dislike the Communist regime, Hong Kong cannot blame all of its problems on China. There is a lot of arrogance, greed and self-centered attitudes afflicting society, from top to bottom, as well as narrow mindedness. China may be vile at times, but it has also become a useful scapegoat. Local government officials and tycoons bear a lot of responsibility for Hong Kong’s sad state but sometimes it seems that many locals don’t hold them accountable enough.

Hong Kong has a tough job on its hand, with having to handle growing Chinese interference, not to mention threats such as what Xi uttered, while having to tackle its domestic societal and economic problems.

The historic and hollow Ma-Xi meeting

History was made on Saturday when the presidents of China and Taiwan for the first time ever. Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping shook hands, had a private talk, then had dinner in Singapore in a first for the heads of the two countries. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the meeting provided no outcome other to reaffirm the prevailing state of affairs – China claims Taiwan is part of it, and peace and cooperation will only happen if Taiwan accepts that.

This is what Xi had to tell Ma: Nothing can separate us [Taiwan and China]. We [China and Taiwan] are one family, we must work to rejuvenate the Chinese nation.

While the Chinese side agreed on a protocol where both presidents greeted each other as “mister” and no national flags were displayed, there was no conciliatory gesture. Xi basically reminded Ma that China still claims Taiwan and there is no room for Taiwan to be an independent body in the international arena. Ma put forward a five-point proposal, one of which was to revitalize the Chinese nation. If there was any doubt about China’s stance, the Chinese state media cleared it up in unambiguous terms.

The good thing is the general Taiwan public were not taken in by this charade and will not have their views shaken by Xi. Taiwanese online media outlet Ketagalan had a few good editorials on the meeting, specifically that the meeting represents a fading sense of reality for China and the pro-China elements in Taiwan. Xi Jinping can go on and on however much he likes about Taiwan being in the same family as (belongs to) China, but Taiwanese for the most part have moved on from that and are increasingly willing to assert their own identity.

After the two leaders met, Ma held a press conference with the media. China blocked this on their broadcast. Meanwhile, Xi didn’t even bother, delegating an official to address the press conference by reading from a lengthy speech.

There is still time to go before Taiwan’s presidential election take place in January, and Xi is set to stay in office until 2022. But it would be interesting if, as the Ketagalan article suggests, rather than mark the existing state of affairs, this meeting heralds a new era – that of Taiwan being confident of its own identity and going on its own path.

Rise of Xi and his big dreams

Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has this indepth story of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, detailing his humble past, his rise, and his reign as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, though not necessarily in a good way. It’s an interesting piece which paints him as a formidable leader with a humble past during which his father experienced political persecution and Xi was sent to a rural village as a teen. Xi has not been shy in exercising his power, carrying out a protracted anti-corruption crackdown whilst also increasing censorship and arrests of activists, among other things. Xi has a lot of big dreams and ambitions, such as creating cross-continental economic initiatives and multilateral institutions in which China will play a leading role.
For example…

A lot of attention has been put on China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and its success, even though it has not actually started. This is because China, which proposed the AIIB, a multilateral institution that will fund projects across Asia, was able to attract the likes of the UK, Germany and France to join, despite opposition from the US. The broader implication is that the AIIB will be a sort of rival to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, existing multilateral institutions that are “led” by the US and Japan. These two countries have notably held back from joining, with Australia, which the US also tried to persuade against participating, that is yet to join.

One of the AIIB’s intended purposes is to fund the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which comprise land and maritime infrastructure projects across Asia and between China and Europe in an attempt to recreate the ancient Silk Road- vast, intercontinental connected trade networks. It sounds incredibly ambitious, though for China’s leadership, no doubt it will be a success that fuels trade and prosperity across Asia and be a “win-win” situation for everyone involved. There are numerous challenges in getting other countries to be involved and allaying security concerns, as well as that the whole plan sounds very vague and promises big but lacks specifics.

China released an action plan about the entire initiative at the end of March, which you can see here.

There will be a lot of funding involved from China which has promised $40 billion for a Silk Road Fund, and at least $50 billion for the AIIB. In addition, there is the New Development Bank or BRICs bank, which China has also promised over 41$ billion for.

The US may have made an incredible misstep by trying to stop the AIIB, but it is also too soon to call it a success. China’s new initiatives sound impressive and promise big, but I’d rather wait a little longer for more specifics before I’m convinced.