China’s opening up and economic reform era began in earnest in 1979 but the ideological shift would not have been possible had the United States remained an intractable foe, as it had been in the 1950s and 1960s.
A sticking point to fuller normalisation of relations was Taiwan. The Chinese wanted American troops off the island but Washington demanded that Beijing abandon its promise to unify with Taiwan by force if needs be. A compromise was struck. Washington acknowledged that “there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China” and Beijing guaranteed to strive for “a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question”.
These twin understandings were written down in black and white in Beijing’s ‘Message to Compatriots in Taiwan’ published on January 1 of 1979, the same day that China formally re-established relations with the US.
With the threat of military conflict removed from the Taiwan Strait two key things happened: the Americans moved military bases from the island a few months later and China dialled down the belligerent rhetoric in favour of concentrating on economic development, especially in its coastal cities.
Last week a high-level gathering was held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to commemorate “the 40th anniversary of issuing the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan”. Xi Jinping took centre stage to deliver an hour-long speech.
In this there was a notable change in language and tone – which got the attention of politicians in Taipei and diplomats in Washington.
To begin with, observers spotted a hardening stance from Beijing. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,” Xi said, stressing that “the long-standing political differences [over the Taiwan Strait] cannot be dragged on generation after generation”.
Adding to the warning, Xi called for the People’s Liberation Army to prepare for war “in times of emergency” during a meeting with military officials a few days later.
Exhortations like these aren’t entirely uncommon, of course. And Xi also pledged “utmost sincerity and greatest efforts” in its pursuit of peaceful reunification and added that the military would only target “external forces” or those seeking independence for Taiwan.
“We are all of the same family,” he said of the island’s residents, stressing that the “Chinese don’t fight Chinese”.
For a more peaceful relationship across the Strait, Xi also called for all parties to shape a “Taiwan plan” under the “one country, two systems” model.
When Beijing first formulated the latter policy in the 1970s, it was designed as a diplomatic solution to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. Instead this novel constitutional framework was first used in Hong Kong in 1997. It was employed to boost confidence that the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China would be shaped more by continuity than rupture; thus assuaging residents, investors and businesses.
The ‘one country’ bit denoted that post-1997 Hong Kong was a sovereign part of China, but the ‘two systems’ clause permitted the capitalist city to retain its way of life and a governance regime distinct from that of Communist China.
As such Hong Kong retained its English common law legal system, its own currency and taxes, its freedom of the press, and even the right to gamble on horseracing (illegal in mainland China to this day).
But Xi’s suggestion that Taipei now endorse the Hong Kong approach has not gone down well with Taiwan’s leader. The island’s president Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), rejected the overture outright.
“Here, I would like to call on China to face squarely the reality of the existence of the Republic of China,” she said in a televised segment, referring to the island’s formal title at home. She also said that the overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people are opposed to a “one country, two systems” model.
She has been equally dismissive of the so-called “1992 Consensus”, a tacit understanding between Beijing and Taipei that there is only “one China” (but disagreeing on who should govern it). “Do not mention the ‘1992 Consensus’ again since that phrase has been defined by China as the ‘one country, two systems’ mechanism,” Tsai insisted.
Of course, for many Taiwanese of a pro-independence slant, Beijing’s 1997 promise that Hong Kong would maintain a high degree of autonomy and a distinct way of life looks to be a failing experiment. “The implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong has deprived its people of freedom and the rule of law,” Kent Wang, a researcher at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies, wrote in a letter to the Financial Times this week. (As WiC has reported in recent years there has been much angst in Hong Kong itself over a growing encroachment from the mainland – especially when local booksellers were spirited across the border for interrogation but also over the co-location of mainland customs officials in Kowloon, the banning of a political party and a revelation this week by the Wall Street Journal that Beijing seems to have been bugging the phones of local journalists.)
However, other observers believe relations across the Strait are actually less strained than the headlines suggest. The DPP was heavily defeated in mid-term elections late last year – Tsai’s ruling party lost seven of the 13 mayoral and country magistrates seats it held (out of 22 available). That saw the central government in Taipei weakened, which left the island’s local governments more leeway to forge closer economic ties with the mainland.
Beijing wants to encourage this kind of sentiment. For instance, after the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Han Kuo-yu (see Red Star) ended the DPP’s 20-year reign in Kaohsiung to become mayor of the southern city, China promptly lifted bans on group tours going there to help boost the local economy.
Indeed, with Tsai weakened by the recent elections, Xi may have been using his New Year address to send a message to another important audience: the one in Washington. United Daily News noted that by revisiting Beijing’s ‘Message to Compatriots in Taiwan’ the Chinese president was warning the US not to do anything that would challenge the “one China” status quo – which has formed one of the main planks of Sino-US relations for four decades.
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