OSAKA – Voters on the small island of Taiwan in late November gave an important lesson to their government and to Big Brother China watching from across the narrow strait that separates the island from the people’s republic on the mainland — hands off our democracy. Was Chinese President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping listening? Does he understand?
Xi’s policies in the other island territory of Greater China, which is within his grasp, suggest that he wants to have no truck with true democracy. Protesters in Hong Kong demonstrating for democracy with democratic characteristics, rather than communist ones, were given not the slightest concessions. Strongman Xi demonstrated his preference to being the emperor of “one country” rather than the benign master of “two systems” and the high degree of autonomy pledged to Hong Kong under the agreement between China and the United Kingdom in 1984.
Last week also saw the effective end of the protests in Hong Kong as police removed barricades, leaders of the Occupy movement surrendered to the authorities. And student Joshua Wong gave up his hunger strike. Commentators claimed this meant that it was game, set and match to China.
That may be a premature verdict on Hong Kong. But on the larger map of Greater China, bringing Taiwan back into the fold is the bigger prize for Beijing, and the voters of the offshore island demonstrated overwhelmingly that they prefer to change their government, especially if they think that it is getting too close and cozy with Beijing.
If Xi prefers his imperial presidency to understanding or caring what people in Taiwan and Hong Kong believe, the prospects for peace and prosperity of the region will be difficult. Even if he is prepared to show more understanding of Taiwan than he has shown for local feelings in Hong Kong, there will be difficult times ahead.
In the long march of history. Beijing has more often not been the ruler of Taiwan. The name “Taiwan” is an aboriginal one and the island was inhabited by people of Malay-Polynesian origins until the 14th century when settlers arrived from southern China. These were not colonists for Imperial China, but people fleeing taxes or difficult local conditions.
Only in 1683 did the Qing dynasty finally gain nominal control of Taiwan after Spain, the Netherlands and the outgoing Ming dynasty had ruled it or parts of it. Turbulence was still the real rule, with “uprisings every three years, rebellions every five years” against the corrupt Chinese rulers.
Taiwan was made a province of China in 1887, but eight years later the mainland ceded Taiwan to Japan “in perpetuity” under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Some Chinese officials expressed relief at no longer having to police the “land of the brown robbers.”
Historically Beijing could hardly justify its eternal claims to Taiwan. However, this is sensitive territory, not least because when the Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the coming of the People’s Republic in 1949, the ousted Kuomintang (KMT) forces of Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan to lick their wounds and continue to claim to be the true Republic of China, responsible for all of China.
A consensus reached between Taiwan and the mainland in Hong Kong 22 years ago states that there is only “one China” but that each can have its own interpretation of what China stands for, allowing the two sides to set aside political differences to carry on with talks.
After the death of Chiang, Taiwan engaged in a rambunctious struggle for democracy. Today the president is elected by universal suffrage, with the next election due in 2016. The national assembly and local mayors and councils also enjoy full democracy.
Taiwanese democracy is not always peaceful, and the assembly has suffered occasional disruptions, sometimes involving intruders, sometimes by its own members practicing fisticuffs.
The people of Taiwan evidently like to shake things up when they are unhappy with their rulers, as they did last month when they swept the KMT from power in cities and towns.
In Taipei, the capital, a surgeon and independent political neophyte won 57 percent of the vote. The results were so bad for the KMT that Taiwanese President Ma Jing-jeou resigned from the leadership of the party. Most of Taiwan will now be governed by mayors who are members of or allied to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The people have spoken. But life gets tricky. Local economic factors undoubtedly play a part in local elections. But the widespread view that Ma had gotten too close to the mainland was undoubtedly important, not least because of real fears that local jobs are being lost to China. Unemployment among those between 20 and 24 years old in Taiwan is 14 percent. Taiwan was one of the original four “tiger” economies before China opened its doors, and is still ranked 29th in the world with per capita income of $38,200 in purchasing power parity terms. But economically life in the shadow of China’s roaring success is tough.
Politically affection for China is wearing thin, and a record 60.4 percent this year considered themselves to be “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese,” up from fewer than 50 percent when Ma was first elected in 2008. Only 32.7 percent described themselves as “both Taiwanese and Chinese,” a record low.
Taiwan is now gearing up for presidential elections where the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, defeated in 2012 by Ma, must fancy her chances.
In the past, the DPP, which does not have the KMT’s baggage of having been the ruler of all China, has flirted with the dream of independence. This might seem logical since, after all, Taiwan is not physically part of China. Politically and socially the two have drifted further apart; economically there are close ties of trade and investment, but the two economic systems are far apart.
But declaring independence would invite Beijing’s wrath: It has threatened it would declare war and take back Taiwan by force, an outcome that would also have grave implications for the U.S. with its commitment to support Taiwan in the event of attack.
One real problem is that Xi does not understand that people want more than material prosperity: They want freedom to think for themselves and enjoy or suffer their own decisions.
In Hong Kong, Xi has placed his faith in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ling, who is like a humorless puppy nodding obediently to whatever Beijing orders.
Hong Kong’s people resent Beijing’s policies of enriching local tycoons and sending free-spending mainlander tourists. Indeed, Hongkongers increasingly accuse the noisy newcomers of driving property and other prices sky-high.
In an October survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a mere 8.9 percent of Hong Kong people identified themselves solely as “Chinese,” down from 32.1 percent in 1997 when China resumed control of Hong Kong from the U.K. Two thirds of Hongkongers said they were Hong Kong Chinese, but 26.8 percent described their loyalty as to Hong Kong alone.
Hong Kong does not have a choice, as Xi has made clear. But Taiwan does, and voters have shown that they are in no mood for Xi’s dictatorship.
Everyone should be concerned about the rise of the Strongman without a sense of humor. Last week China banned the use of puns, warning solemnly that their use — widespread in earthy Chinese speech — could lead to “cultural and linguistic chaos.”
Bah, humbug, you might, rightly, say. But Xi does not brook contradiction and he has some big guns.
Kevin Rafferty, a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University, previously worked at the World Bank.
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