Advocates of democracy in Hong Kong notched an impressive victory in their long-running fight with the People’s Republic of China last weekend when the city’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, indefinitely shelved a controversial extradition law in response to mass protests that saw as many as a million people in the streets at their height. It’s a devastating setback for Lam, but less so for China and its leader, Xi Jinping. Thanks to China’s tight information controls, there’s little risk of unrest spreading to the mainland. And while Chinese leaders would like to accelerate Hong Kong’s integration into the Chinese political system, the territory is becoming more economically (and physically) integrated every day, and its special semiautonomous status is due to end in 2047. China has been waiting since the 19th century to take full control of Hong Kong, and it can afford to be patient for a little longer.
Chinese leaders may feel more concern over the implications the events in Hong Kong hold for what the country considers another of its wayward provinces: Taiwan.
Taiwan has been involved in this latest round of Hong Kong tensions from the beginning. The extradition law was proposed in response to a gruesome case in which a 19-year-old Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, admitted to strangling his pregnant girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing and stuffing her body in a suitcase while the two were on vacation in Taiwan. Chan returned to Hong Kong before he was arrested, and because the city has no extradition treaty with Taiwan, he couldn’t be sent there to face murder charges. He was instead tried for money laundering for using Poon’s credit cards.
But rather than pursue a narrowly tailored law that would apply to this case, Lam pushed a broader bill that would allow selective extradition to a number of countries including China. The bill was widely seen as a Trojan horse that would undermine the city’s political independence.
Notably, the law was not supported by the government of Taiwan, the country it was originally supposed to apply to. Mass rallies in solidarity with Hong Kong were held in Taipei over the weekend, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen decried the “evil law,” saying Taiwan would not join any extradition treaty that implies it is part of China. She has strongly supported the protesters:
Politically, the timing of the crisis works quite well for the nationalist Tsai, who just fended off a primary challenge from the even more nationalist former Prime Minister William Lai and is facing a tough reelection fight this January.*
Taiwan has maintained de facto independence since Chinese nationalist forces relocated there in 1949 after their rout by Mao Zedong’s communists, but Beijing still considers it part of its own territory and has sought to bring it back into the fold. Lately, China has been pressuring the few countries that still have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan to cut them off and has stepped up military exercises in the region. Hard-liners in China’s military are reportedly frustrated with what they see as an overly cautious approach to Taiwan’s continued defiance.
Taiwanese leaders have been wary about declaring full independence for fear of provoking Chinese retaliation, but Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party strongly opposes closer unification with China. The party that founded modern Taiwan, the Kuomintang, now ironically promotes closer ties with Beijing. While most Taiwanese oppose reunification, most also now see it as inevitable, given China’s military and economic strength.
On Jan. 2, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a major speech on Taiwan policy, which included both carrots and sticks. Xi called reunification inevitable and did not rule out the use of force to achieve it, but he also suggested Taiwan could maintain its autonomy under a “one country, two systems” arrangement like the one in place in Hong Kong since 1997.
The speech backfired, leading to an immediate surge in support for Tsai after her party had suffered a setback in recent local elections. “That was a message to her and her team that beating up on China can be very helpful in boosting her support,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After the past week, suffice to say, “one country, two systems” looks even less appealing—and resistance to Chinese rule looks just a tiny bit less futile.
Glaser says that from Tsai’s point of view, the images coming out of Hong Kong are “even better” than Xi’s controversial remarks. “This isn’t just a speech. It’s reality.”
The Taiwan-China showdown has significant implications for the U.S., too. While America has not formally recognized Taiwan since normalizing relations with the People’s Republic in 1979, the U.S. has maintained unofficial relations with the island and provided it with significant support in the form of arms sales.
This support has increased under the Trump administration, amid the overall deterioration in U.S.-China relations. Trump broke protocol by accepting a phone call from Tsai during his transition period. He recently signed legislation, which passed with significant congressional support, encouraging U.S. officials to make high-level visits to Taiwan. The Navy has stepped up frequency of the passage of ships through the Taiwan Strait. And the administration is proposing a new $2 billion arms sale to the country. These visible displays of support, over Beijing’s furious objections, have emboldened Taiwan’s nationalists. (In a sign of just how confusing U.S. foreign policy can be in the Trump era, the president recently held an unusual White House meeting with Terry Gou, the billionaire Foxconn chairman who is running for president of Taiwan on a pro-China platform.)
All of this bears watching, if only because an invasion of Taiwan may be the scenario most likely to lead to direct military conflict between the U.S. and China. Despite Xi’s warnings, that still seems unlikely for the moment. But what the past week’s events in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s show of solidarity have demonstrated is that the People’s Republic has a major soft-power problem. Given China’s stunning economic success and rapid rise to global power, it shouldn’t be this hard for its leaders to make the case for unification to places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, given their shared history and culture. One wonders when China’s leaders will run out of patience and resort to more extreme measures.
Correction, June 18, 2019: This article originally referred to the former prime minister of Taiwan as William Tai. His name is William Lai.