This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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Hong Kong and Taiwan Threatened by the Dragon
Pro-Democracy candidates swept the November 2019 Hong Kong district elections, taking 90% of elected seats. While the legislator is heavily stacked against them and the majority of seats are filled by non-elected, pro-Beijing Communist Party legislators, the elections were seen as a de facto referendum on democracy which won in 17 of 18 districts. Beijing’s reaction was one of condemnation, with accusations of foreign interference and a reminder that Hong Kong is part of China and that it will never be a full democracy.
Across the Straits in Taiwan, the win was much celebrated. On January 11, 2020, when Tsai Ingwen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won Taiwan’s presidential election in a landslide, the people of Hong Kong cheered. The US sent messages of congratulations. And Beijing complained, “China expresses strong indignation and condemnation over such moves.” Beijing called the congratulatory message “a severe violation of the one-China…and a serious interference in China’s internal affairs.”
Steady Erosion of Democracy
Officially, Hong Kong is classified as a Separately Administered Region (SAR) of China, with its own currency, separate economy, passport, and theoretically more rights and freedoms than on the Mainland. Over the past year, however, Beijing has been steadily eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms, making even an election for a small number of powerless seats in the legislature a symbol of protest. Beijing’s engagement with Hong Kong is officially called “one-country-two-systems” an offer China has extended to Taiwan.
In spite of Taiwan being a high-functioning, multiparty democracy, with its own government, currency, passport, and army, it is only recognized as an independent country by 14 UN member states. Taiwan, unlike Hong Kong, is considered by China to be a renegade province which it vows to absorb. President Tsai Ingwen’s election victory confirmed what most people already knew, the Taiwanese have no interest in becoming part of China.
Hong Kong and Taiwan share a similar predicament, the threat of being gobbled up by the dragon. Many in Taiwan see the Hong Kong protests and violent crack down by Beijing as a warning not to trust any offers of continued sovereignty if Taiwan agrees to become a SAR. Usually, Beijing uses the term “peaceful reunification,” but after Tsai Ingwen’s resounding victory, Beijing became more aggressive.
During the coronavirus emergency, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stepped up their military patrols in the Taiwan Straits, more frequently violating Taiwanese waters and airspace. In late May, for almost the first time, an official statement was issued by the Communist Party saying Beijing would take Taiwan by any means possible, including force. China can do this under its Anti Session Law.
Taiwan has offered asylum to Hong Kong protesters who are being hunted by the Communist Party. While not officially backing Taiwan independence, the US Taiwan Relations Act states that if China attacks Taiwan, “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities.”
Democracy: A Short History of Taiwan
The Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan, on the island of Formosa, lies 130 Km (81 miles) from the Southeast coast of China. It borders on the East China Sea, Philippine Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. The population is 23,603,049, over ninety-five percent of whom are ethnic Chinese. The remainder belong to the 16 recognized indigenous groups, composed of Malayo-Polynesian peoples.
Han Chinese began living on the island during the 17th Century. In 1895, China’s Qing Dynasty suffered a defeat at the hands of Japan and was forced to cede the island to Japan, who ruled for 50 years. At the end of World War II, the island was returned to the Republic of China. The Chinese civil war between the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, KMT) and the communists had been raging since the 1930’s.
In 1949, the Communists captured mainland China, establishing the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT, along with about 2 million refugees, soldiers and loyalists fled to Taiwan. There they established the provisional capital of the ROC in the city of Taipei, vowing someday to regain their rightful position as the government of mainland China.
US-Taiwan Relations Restoring Democracy
In 1979, the US switched its recognition from Taiwan (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The US stressed, however, that it would continue to maintain cultural, commercial, and other relations with Taiwan. As embassies can generally only be located in the capital city of an independent country, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was established as an unofficial embassy in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei.
The US does not support Taiwan independence but regards continued, close relations with Taiwan as a significant part of its Asia policy to maintain peace and stability in the region. During the 1950’s and 1960’s the US provided economic assistance to Taiwan to help them develop. Taiwan no longer needs this assistance, however, because its average income of $25,000 per year puts them in roughly the top 15% of countries.
The Birth of Democratic Taiwan
From 1949, the country was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek as a military dictatorship under martial law, which lasted until 1980. In 1971, the United Nations recognized the PRC, but offered Taiwan dual occupancy of the seat. Chiang Kai-shek chose to quit the UN instead. In 1975 Chiang Kai-shek died and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, succeeded him as leader of the Kuomintang. The first opposition party was permitted to form in 1986 as the country slowly democratized. Chiang Ching-kuo repealed martial law in 1987 and died in 1988.
Originally, use of the Taiwanese language had been banned, but, as the years passed since 1949, less and less of the population identified with being Mainland Chinese. By the 1980s, there was already a second generation of children born to parents who were born in Taiwan. Consequently, use of the language was permitted even for broadcasting and in print media. Paradoxically, however, until today, the Taiwanese language has no official status in Taiwan. The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin and its first foreign language is English. This is in spite of the fact that over 81.9% of the population speaks Taiwanese, as compared to Mandarin, which is spoken by 83.5%.
In 1996 the first direct presidential elections were held. Simultaneously, PRC carried out missile tests in the Straits of Taiwan to intimidate voters into voting for the pro-unification party. U.S. President Clinton, invoking the Taiwan Relations Act, dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups into the region, forcing PRC missile tests to end early. Kuomintang (KMT) rule finally ended in 2000, when Chen Shui-bian, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected. The current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ingwen, who has served since 2016. is also of the DPP.
In a 2019 Survey, Taiwanese think tank Academia Sinica discovered that more than 73% Taiwanese did not want to unify with mainland China. Politics aside, just looking at Taiwan’s age demographics explains why very few, if any Taiwanese would feel a connection to China. As of 2018, only 14.5% of the population were 65 or older. To have been born in China, one would need to have been 69 or older in that year, making them an even smaller component of the population.
Next, for someone to have been raised by parents born in the Mainland, they would have had to have been born before 1979, and even then, their parents would have had very little, if any memory of the Mainland. For the average Taiwanese, Mainland China is a place they were taught to hate during the 50 years of Japanese occupation and during the roughly four decades of military rule that followed. Mainland China was a place they were taught to pity during the last two and a half decades of democracy. And in the past year of Hong Kong protests, China has become a place that people want no part of.
Trump and US-Taiwan Relations
The US is Taiwan’s second largest trading partner, granting Taiwan normal trade relations status, access to U.S. markets, Export-Import Bank financing, and Overseas Private Investment Corporation guarantees. Donald Trump is the most pro-Taiwan president in decades. As a symbol of his pro-Taiwan stance, in 2019 he moved the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) into a newly constructed $255 million dollar compound in Taipei, which now houses more than 500 employees, including military personnel.
This is the first time since the shifting of recognition in 1979 that uniformed US military personnel have been stationed in Taiwan. President Trump has shifted US China-policy from engagement to containment, while increasing US engagement with Taiwan. He has signed numerous bills in support of Taiwan, has increased arms sales to Taiwan, as well as increasing US Navy presence in the Taiwan Strait.
This author speculates that if the US officially decouples from China, President Trump may recognize Taiwan as an independent country. Many feel this would be the morally correct thing to do, as Taiwan is a democratic ally of the US and PRC is a communist antagonist. Recognizing Taiwan would be a very bold step because it would immediately sever ties with Beijing and could spark a war. It would take an especially brave president, who votes his conscience to make a righteous but potentially painful decision.