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Is Xi losing his grip on Taiwan? Events in Hong Kong are encouraging Taipei's separatists

(Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)

(Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)

June 19, 2019   5 mins

Dominating the first 10 pages of Apple Daily and the first three of United Daily News, the protests in Hong Kong are well-covered in Taiwan’s newspapers. People here in Taipei are watching developments across the water with trepidation. What they see are warning signs of what might happen if the People’s Republic of China were ever to take control of their island.

There is only one exception in the media coverage. The China Times whose owners famously sympathise with Beijing – barely mentioned the Hong Kong protests at all. For most Taiwanese, such self-censorship is just another indicator of the ideological obedience expected by the Communist Party of China.

The official language of Taiwan might be Mandarin Chinese, the island may be only 100 miles across the sea from the mainland and its majority culture very similar to it, but the desire for political union is now a distinctly minority interest.

After 1949, when the nationalist Kuomintang lost the civil war and retreated to Taiwan, the party acted on the basis that it was the legitimate government of the “Republic of China” and would one day reunite the whole country under its leadership. Theoretically, that is still the basis of the country’s constitution, though few believe it.

With the Democratic Progressive Party currently in power, the political options now are more often expressed as a choice between the uneasy status quo and a move towards outright independence, despite the risk that might entail invasion by the People’s Republic. The older generation generally prefers the former and younger people the latter.

The more that Beijing gets heavy in Hong Kong, the more the mood in Taiwan turns towards the idea of independence. The idea of ‘one country, two systems’ provided the basis for Hong Kong’s reunification with the People’s Republic in 1997. In January, Xi Jinping proposed it as the model for Taiwan too. But the view here is that it is rapidly becoming a hollow lie in Hong Kong, so why would Taiwan entrust its future to the idea?

Mandy Hsiao-chuan Liao, Assistant Professor of Political Science at National Taiwan University has observed a change of mood in the island’s politics:

“A person advocating the possibility of ‘one country, two systems’ is now seen as a person who will sell Taiwan to China and denigrate Taiwan’s identity and values of democracy and freedom. As a result, the Hong Kong events have encouraged more young people to support a Taiwan identity separate from China.”

Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party must have known this, and yet they pressed on with moves to erode Hong Kong’s special status. Above all things, Beijing seems to fear disintegration; the ruling party is concerned that tolerating local diversity could unravel the country. According to Chi-Ting Tsai, Executive Director of the Centre for China Studies at the National Taiwan University: “One of the greatest fears among the Chinese leadership is fragmentation. There’s a concern that they can’t control what goes on in the provinces.”

But there is more to national unity than political control. President Xi also seems wedded to a vision of enforced homogeneity. In many areas of life, his leadership is enforcing policies based on the idea that there is only one way to be Chinese – that the majority culture must become the universal culture.

From the incarceration of up to a million Muslims in detention camps in Xinjiang province, to the suppression of Tibetan identity, to the imposition of policies intended to supplant the Cantonese language in Hong Kong, the aim appears to be the eradication, or at least the minimisation, of difference. Xi Jinping’s vision of national unity demands it.

In the past few years, members of the Politburo have repeatedly spoken of the need for ethnic minorities to follow the ‘five identifications’. They must identify with the motherland; with the Chinese nation; with Chinese culture; with the Chinese socialist road and with the Communist Party.

The same prescription applies to everyone else. In Hong Kong the battle has often focused on language. Most are proud to speak Cantonese and view it as their mother tongue, yet that is not how the national government sees it.

Ben Bland, the author of a recent book about young people in the former British colony, Generation HK, argues:

“Young Hong Kongers have put themselves on the front line of the current protests because they are fighting not just for their freedoms but for their very identity. The generation that has come of age since the handover in 1997 see themselves, first and foremost, as Hong Kongers, not Chinese citizens.”

That is anathema to the Politburo in Beijing.

In April 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced a ruling that 80% of the country’s citizens must speak the national language – Mandarin Chinese – by 2020. The Ministry’s ruling was an admission that almost a third of the population, around 400 million people, do not speak the nominally ‘national’ language. Instead, they speak regional ‘topolects’ – Cantonese, Shanghainese and others – that are mutually unintelligible. This diversity threatens the homogenisers. The campaign to impose Mandarin nationwide has been stepped up.

The reaction among the young bubble tea-drinkers in Taiwan has been to take greater pride in speaking their native tongues. Although they are taught Mandarin at school, they are increasingly proud of speaking the local topolect of Fujianese, even calling it ‘Taiwanese language’.

Enforced monoculturalism has formed a major strand of the Chinese nationalist project since its emergence at the end of the 19th century. The problem of how to define the ‘Chinese Nation’ – the ‘zhonghua minzu’ – has dogged thinkers and politicians alike for decades.

For long periods, under Soviet influence, the Communist Party was prepared to tolerate difference, delaying the creation of a single homogeneous nation into the far future. However, in the wake of the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, some Chinese theoreticians began to argue vociferously for a new approach: a ‘melting pot’ in which differences would be eradicated in the interests of national unity.

Xi Jinping seems to have listened to them.

During the 1990s, as orthodox communist ideology retreated, Communist Party pronouncements increasingly featured the word ‘nation’ alongside the more traditional ‘people’. Whereas the ‘people’ only included socialists, the ‘nation’ could include anyone, so long as they followed Beijing’s definitions of what the ‘nation’ believed. Since Xi’s coming to power in late 2012, the Party has doubled-down on national uniformity.

What should we call this new political ideology – one that features a single ‘core’ leader, insistent demands for national homogeneity, intolerance of difference, rule by party not by law, corporatist economic policies, a focus on discipline and an ideology based on racial exceptionalism – all backed up by a massive surveillance state?

China’s Communist Party has long talked of building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Xi Jinping now seems more interested in building “national-socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

As the Taiwanese argue about their island’s political future, what they see across the water fills them with concern. Xi Jinping’s problem is that the more worried the Communist Party becomes about national fragmentation, and the more it tries to impose national unity, the more it generates movement in the opposite direction.


Bill Hayton’s book The Invention of China will be published next year

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of The Invention of China, published this month by Yale University Press


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