China/Taiwan politics: Hard prong, soft prong
- Content Type
- Country Data and Maps
- Economist Intelligence Unit
- No abstract is available.
- Politics, News Analysis
- Political Geography
- China, Taiwan
Banyan: Hard prong, soft prong
China is getting tougher on Taiwan's government. It is also luring its people
WHEN is a country with its own territory, laws, elected government and army not a country? Answer: when China deems it so. In recent days Chinese officials have ordered foreign businesses, including airlines operating flights to China, to "correct" websites that list Taiwan as a country, as well as remove images of the island-state's flag. Censors even shut down the Chinese website of Marriott, one of the world's biggest hotel chains, for a week as punishment for categorising Taiwan as a country in a customer questionnaire (the firm caused additional offence by putting Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet in the same category, which--to be fair to China--they are not).
China's rabidly nationalist netizens have even called for a boycott of Marriott. But more than losing business, foreign operators in China fear running foul of sweeping new cyber- and national-security laws. Among much else, these prohibit anything deemed to "damage national unity". The apologies issued by some operators were party-speak. Marriott said, "We absolutely will not support any separatist organisation that will undermine China's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Delta airlines apologised for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. Zara, a European fashion chain, even promised a "self-examination".
For Taiwanese, it is more proof that China is out to squeeze them until the pips squeak. The Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, but considers it a sacred mission to bring the island under its control. China threatens force should Taiwan formally declare that it will remain independent for ever. The party views even "peaceful separation" as an abomination.
China mixes bullying with blandishments. The bullying, of which the move against foreign websites is part, is meant to shrink Taiwan's diplomatic space and exert psychological pressure. Since Tsai Ing-wen became the island's president in May 2016, China has shut down high-level contacts across the Taiwan Strait that had burgeoned under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Unlike his Kuomintang (KMT) party, with its historical roots in China, Ms Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party aspires in its charter to formal independence. The president herself, a pragmatist, has made plain her goodwill, by promising from the start that she will not rock the cross-strait boat. The independence clause lies dormant. She blocked attempts to expand a new referendum law to allow plebiscites on matters of sovereignty, including on Taiwan's official name (the Republic of China).
But for China none of this is good enough. It views the referendum law as a step towards a vote on independence. It has even attacked laudable new legislation aimed at redressing human-rights abuses that occurred during the years of KMT dictatorship. China sees the bill as an attempt to erase all sense of a Chinese identity among Taiwanese: in those days, the KMT was proud of its Chinese nationalism, even though it hated the Communists. Above all, China is furious with Ms Tsai for refusing to acknowledge the "1992 consensus" between the two sides: that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to a single China, and that they agree to disagree what exactly China means.
So Taiwan is in the doghouse. Some policymakers were relieved that China's leader, Xi Jinping, did not suggest he would get even tougher with it when he spoke at a big party gathering in October. Even so, his uncompromising remarks about Taiwan drew the longest applause of anything he said. Soon after that meeting, he told President Donald Trump that Taiwan (not North Korea's nukes) was the most critical issue in Sino-American relations. Mr Xi talks of China's "great rejuvenation" by 2049. That surely implies the return of Taiwan to the fold by that date.
The pressure continues, then. On the diplomatic front, the 20-strong band of countries that recognise Taiwan is bound to be whittled down further, following Panama's switch to China last year--Honduras, Palau and St Lucia could be next. Earlier this month China reneged on an agreement with Taiwan by announcing four new commercial air routes that run either close to the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait or close to Taiwan's main offshore islands. Taiwan described this unilateral move as a threat to air safety and to the island's security. But it is powerless. Taiwan is not a member of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, whose Chinese head previously ran the civil-aviation authority that declared the opening of the air corridors.
China has been flexing military muscle, too. Since 2016 its warplanes have carried out "island-encircling" patrols. China's state media have published images of these, with Taiwan's mountains in the background. A recent exercise in northern China involved storming a full-sized mock-up of Taiwan's presidential palace.
Come on over sometime
All this is out of the old playbook. Mr Xi's innovation is to single out young Taiwanese and to pile on the blandishments. Colleges offer Taiwanese teachers better pay than they could get in Taiwan. Chinese provinces are opening research centres aimed at young Taiwanese. In the southern city of Dongguan, Taiwanese tech entrepreneurs can get free startup-money and subsidised flats. Over 400,000 Taiwanese now work in China. The young in particular are crossing the strait in droves.
Lin Chong-pin, a Taiwanese scholar and former senior official, calls this Mr Xi's "soft prong". In some respects it seems to be reshaping attitudes towards China. It does not help Ms Tsai that she has failed to make much progress on her promise to create more opportunities for the young. Taiwan's economy remains sluggish. The young think older generations get the better deal. But she gets the blame for tricky cross-strait relations more than Mr Xi does. A recent poll even shows Taiwanese feeling more warmly towards Mr Xi than to Ms Tsai. They do not admire China's political culture. But Mr Xi may be nurturing a reluctance among young Taiwanese to bite the hand that feeds them.
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