On Sunday, May 24th, Police in Hong Kong arrested at least 180 demonstrators as thousands protested China's newly proposed national security law for the special administrative region last week. While support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has grown internationally, Beijing has warned that the central government will not compromise on sovereignty.
After China proposed the law for Hong Kong, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately stated that Washington “strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties.” In a nod toward Mr. Pompeo, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “It’s time for the United States to give up its wishful thinking of changing China and stopping 1.4 billion people in their historic march toward modernization.” As tension between the U.S. and China escalated over Hong Kong, China firmly pledged to impose new national security laws on the city "without the slightest delay."
The response was very similar to Beijing’s reaction to Taiwan. A couple of days before proposing the national security law in Hong Kong, Beijing denounced President of the Republic of China, Tsai Ing-wen's second inaugural address, and her vision of the island’s future. Despite the fact that President Tsai’s inaugural address was more conciliatory toward the People's Republic of China (PRC) than many pro-independence supporters hoped, “Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences,” Tsai said. Taiwan’s call for coexistence did not get a warm reception from China. Specifically, China responded by intentionally dropping the word "peaceful" from its annual statement regarding reunification with Taiwan for the first time in decades. Now, adding the newly unveiled plan to clamp down on Hong Kong, the last pure land with limited freedom, China is not only moving toward the brink of a new Cold War with the U.S., but also pushing people in Taiwan further away from it.
With the extremely negative impression and the favorable international political climate, many pro-independence supporters in Taiwan wish that President Tsai will have the courage to lead the island further apart from PRC. For DPP voters, Taiwan’s independence has never been so compelling. However, it would be unrealistic to believe that the whole world will provide unconditional support to Taiwan as most countries are not ready for a costly break up with China. In fact, Taiwanese are not ready either.
Uninterested in political debates with China, most people in Taiwan have no problem taking the position that doing business with their Chinese counterpart is “just business,” including politicians and supporters within President Tsai’s pro-independence camp. Furthermore, according to a survey conducted by National Chengchi University’s Election Study Centre in Taiwan, over 85 percent of Taiwanese citizens support maintaining the “status quo” with China, although many of them are now leaning toward a future permanent separation from China. Also, a recent report from Pew Research Center found that even though only 35 percent of people in Taiwan rated China as favorable, more than 50 percent of Taiwanese actually support closer economic ties with the mainland. While voters support Tsai’s stand, the economic benefits seem to place an uncrossable stop sign in front of the de jure independence.
As the relations between the US and China have sunk to new lows during the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s cautious response and sensitivity about the dynamic between the two powers is highly necessary. People in Taiwan must start listening to each other and try to form practical consensus within the country on how to deal with the international reality, otherwise the support and reverence with which Taiwan claim to enjoy during the global pandemic would be nothing more than the excuses for others to take advantage of. For instance, the recent pricy arm sales and Taiwan’s largest chipmaker, TSMC, invests in the US, clearly indicate that Taiwan is inevitably entangled in the escalating conflict between the two powers.
As many believe that siding with the US would benefit Taiwan, cutting off the whole relationship with the influential China certainly brings no good to the island. Furthermore, while it is incorrect to argue that the US would forsake its leadership position and abandon all their friends and allies at a time of global change, this is perhaps the first time in more than a century when the world is not expecting the leader in the White House to lead. Those advocating for the “bandwagon” policy which encourages a closer tie with the US are uncomfortable with the fact that the support from the US will never be unconditional. In fact, the world is very vulnerable to prevent or respond to the efforts of an aggressive, non-democratic power, China, to dominate the post-pandemic world.
While some suggest Taiwan should not worry about China’s provocation, Taiwan needs to know that even if the chances of a military confrontation are low, coercion is inevitable and Taiwan must prepare for every eventuality. Riding on the wave of her popularity and the incumbent’s media dominance, President Tsai will continue to have the upper hand over its opposition parties in setting agenda for Taiwan. However, by betting on the US and other democratic allies to check on China’s unification threat, the current favorable climate people perceived from the filtered media bubble may not last too long.