As Hong Kong’s leaders signaled that they were opting to wait out the pro-democracy protesters on its streets in hopes that the disruption of everyday life would eventually turn public opinion against the activists, the wider implications of the standoff are being felt all along China’s periphery.We noted on Monday that President Xi Jinping had made waves in Taiwan by saying out loud what has been China’s obvious (but nevertheless strategically unspoken) policy since at least 1992: that he considers “one China, two systems” to be the best way to unify the two countries, and that he hoped both sides would curb secessionist tendencies and work towards the dream of unity. It’s one thing to let such a bold pronouncement fly when things are otherwise going well. But with “one China, two systems” under direct fire in Hong Kong, the timing of Xi’s pronouncements is puzzling at best.J. Michael Cole at The Diplomat does an admirable job of unpacking what could be going on:
One possible explanation is that Beijing understands that [current Taiwanese President and head of the KMT] Ma has been neutralized by both the Sunflower Movement and the pressures arising from the 2016 elections. There are already signs that Beijing has been bypassing the KMT and dealing directly with influential leaders at the local level across Taiwan. Initial research by some Taiwanese academics, who recently discussed their work with this author, has yet to draw a full picture of the network upon which the PRC relies to funnel money and influence into Taiwan. Nevertheless, enough is known to positively state that the liberalization that has occurred under Mr. Ma has created manifold opportunities for Chinese officials, investors, and intelligence agents to inject money into Taiwan in return for political favors. […]Another explanation for Xi’s otherwise counterintuitive move last week is that Beijing is seeking to force the KMT to deliver more political concessions by playing the more Beijing-friendly parties (Yok’s, Hsu’s, Chang’s) against Ma’s party, though Beijing’s ability to do so would be severely undermined by the lack of appeal that those parties have with Taiwanese voters.Two other options present themselves. One is that Xi’s advisers are so bad as to believe that Taiwanese indeed share the “dream” of unification the Chinese leader was referring to last week. Given the deeply flawed nature of authoritarian regimes, this wouldn’t be the first time that the man at the top was denied intelligence that contradicts his views of the world. Another possibility is that the crises in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, added to pressures that are unknown to us given China’s opaque system and signs that Taiwan is “slipping away,” may have combined to create a sense of panic among the CCP leadership, forcing it to emit edicts that threaten to undo years of calibrated policy on the Taiwan issue.
Understanding what is going on between China and Taiwan is just as important as following the drama in Hong Kong—perhaps even more so. We recommend you read the whole thing.