Hong Kong shows Taiwan what unifying with China really means

The surest marker of a nation’s preferred international order is its treatment of its own citizens. All states make ethically questionable choices, particularly when faced with acute crises — the oft-cited case of Japanese internment during World War II is a prime example. Just nations, however, are reticent to harm their own citizens in the absence of existential political threats. By contrast, the Beijing government deems millions of its own citizens direct threats to its own survival.

China is conducting a systematic campaign against Muslims in East Turkestan, combining the old East German Stasi-style continuous surveillance with ethnically and religiously-targeted internment on a scale not seen since the Holocaust.

The economic and political freedoms of Hong Kongers so threaten the Chinese Communist Party that it has deployed more than 12,000 People’s Armed Police — essentially an army dedicated to internal security — to the island, where they have waged a multi-month campaign to suppress protesters. Any distinct way of life — whether grounded in faith or cherishing individual freedom, political deliberation and representation — is viewed as an existential threat to a Chinese regime which relies on information control, political centralization and theft to survive.

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Based on these grounds, Taiwan presents an even greater threat to China than Hong Kong or Uighur identity.

Taiwanese citizens enjoy a quality of life and individual freedoms equivalent to any in the West. Most important, despite decades of war and the subsequent specter of cross-strait invasion, Taiwan abandoned authoritarianism and embraced democratic governance, a basket of ideas at which China’s rulers tremble.

Taiwanese observers are likely to recognize that China would treat them no better than it treats Hong Kongers. Indeed, absent the need for domestic political optics, Taiwan can expect any Chinese “reunification attempt” to be brutal and remorseless.

China’s unashamed political coercion against Taiwan constitutes a warning sign of future conflict. Diplomatically, China has used its economic strength to bully smaller nations into recognizing Beijing rather than Taipei as China’s legitimate government. Six nations over the past four years have de-recognized Taiwan, whittling down its formal diplomatic contacts to 14. The Holy See is the only European state to recognize Taiwan; only 47 states maintain unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As Chinese influence expands in Latin America and Oceania, this diplomatic isolation is unlikely to be reversed.

One would think that, considering China’s population and territorial scope, Taiwan would be overlooked by China’s rulers: Taiwan’s population amounts to 1.65 percent of the mainland’s. But Taiwanese independence would constitute an even greater threat to Beijing’s legitimacy than the “One Country, Two Systems” approach governing relations between Hong Kong and China. Such Taiwanese sovereignty as is recognized by the international community threatens Beijing’s claims to pan-Chinese legitimacy, while proving that Chinese citizens can govern themselves. By contrast, a Taiwan that remains de jure Chinese bolsters Beijing’s claim to leadership of all Han Chinese.

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Hence China’s interference in Taiwanese domestic politics.

Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election pits Democratic Progressive Party incumbent Tsai Ing-wen against Kuomintang and People First party challengers, both of whom support a better relationship with the mainland and categorically oppose independence. China has compromised some Taiwanese media; such major Western media sources as Reuters have reported recently on mainland successes in paying some Taiwanese media outlets for untruthful accounts of business opportunities in China. Reuters highlighted a Taiwanese official’s comment that Chinese interference is “using our press freedom to harm press freedom.” Bloomberg Businessweek noted in October that “researchers, government officials, and lawmakers in Taipei all say that China is pursuing a new tactic in the runup to Taiwan’s January 11 presidential vote: election meddling.”

China also uses economic pressure. It has ceased issuing tourist visas to mainlanders, crippling an industry previously worth more than 8 percent of Taiwanese GDP. It simultaneously increased incentives for Taiwanese immigration to the mainland, offering outsized public benefits to Taiwanese citizens who obtain mainland residence permits. China has leveraged its economic development against Taiwan’s previous area of comparative advantage — high-tech production. By forcing Taiwanese employers to cut wages to keep pace with lower Chinese prices, it has sought to undermine Taiwanese living standards.

Despite Chinese manipulation, voluntary reunification with the mainland is unlikely. Particularly after witnessing Hong Kong’s fate, Taiwanese likely will be skeptical about any possible Beijing guarantee to honor Taiwanese domestic political and economic autonomy.

China has persistently refused to exclude force to achieve its “reunification” with Taiwan. It is no understatement that the primary mission of China’s armed forces is the conquest of Taiwan; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts multiple yearly exercises simulating an invasion of Taiwan, explicitly indicating that the drills are intended to intimidate the so-called “breakaway province.” China’s missile arsenal is, in part, designed to saturate Taiwan’s air defenses and destroy its air force on the ground.

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Since November 2016, Chinese H-6K strategic bombers have circumnavigated Taiwan several times per annum. Notably, the H-6N, the H-6K’s more advanced cousin, will be capable of carrying air-launched cruise missiles; in an assault on Taiwan, these H-6Ns could target a reinforcing U.S. carrier strike group long before American forces could engage the PLA over the Taiwan Strait. Most recently, the PLA Navy’s second carrier battle group transited the Taiwan Strait, less than a week after the USS Chancellorsville, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, did the same.

Hong Kong stands as a warning to Taiwan, along with all Asian nations — surrender your independence to China at your own peril. However, one of history’s great ironies is the manifestation of courage despite the most terrifying circumstances. Hong Kong’s protesters face the Gauleiter’s boot. They nevertheless stand and fight, barricading streets, making improvised weapons, pressing bows and arrows into service. On Nov. 18 protesters attempted to help besieged students in Hong Kong Polytechnic University escape riot police while coming under fire from tear gas. As soon as riot police disperse, protesters tear bricks off major roads and scatter them along approaches to university campuses.

Mainland China hopes to convince Taiwan that resisting unification is tantamount to suicide. Taiwan faces a choice: slavery or survival. Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan need not improvise its weapons; with the help of its friends, it can meet steel with steel.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank focusing on U.S. leadership in global affairs, and is director of its Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.