ONE of President Xi Jinping’s favourite party tricks is to send China’s fighter jets over what he considers the pesky renegade island of Taiwan so he can remind the citizens who’s really the boss.
Again and again in the days immediately before Taiwan’s election on January 13, China’s military planes flew low and loud across the island. A balloon of the kind China uses for spying also hung in the sky where everyone could see it — the kind the Americans shot down over South Carolina last year.
Xi’s message was clear: you belong to us, you must vote the way we want. Yet, despite the constant intimidation the people of Taiwan elected the presidential candidate China disliked the most, William Lai, who believes strongly in Taiwan’s separate identity from China. It showed how much the Taiwanese treasure their freedom from Chinese control.
Many Taiwanese do feel spooked into thinking where they should go if the Chinese invade their homeland. “We need to find a little place where we could turn to at a moment’s notice if we have to,” one family in Taipei wrote to me recently. Which of Britain’s big cities would suit Taiwanese immigrants best, they wanted to know. Manchester tops their wish list at the moment.
Xi regularly speaks about taking Taiwan by force, but it wasn’t always like that. China used to prefer to woo Taiwan in a peaceful way. Previous leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin worked harder on better, friendlier relations to encourage Taiwan to trust China and eventually merge with it. Deng and Jiang treated Hong Kong in the same way. “One country, two systems” was the formula China and Britain agreed on when the British, honouring the treaty of 1847, handed back the colony in 1997. Hong Kong would be a part of China but its freedoms would be guaranteed for 50 years. China under Xi broke this agreement after only 25 years.
The Taiwanese have watched this happening and they elected Lai, who they believe can be relied on to protect Taiwan’s separate identity. This is a stark reminder of another Mr Lai, who is also a thorn in the flesh of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media mogul who encouraged his newspaper, the Apple Daily, to support the huge demonstrations against the CCP in Hong Kong. Although Jimmy Lai is an immensely wealthy man who could have taken refuge anywhere in the world, he chose to return to Hong Kong at the age of 76 to face trial for the new crime of sedition. The CCP and its agents in Hong Kong seem really enthusiastic about keeping him in prison until he dies, basically for voicing his opinion.
In June 1997, I stood there in Hong Kong in the unrelenting rain watching the last British governor give back to China the pearl in its crown. We all feared for the perilous future Hong Kong faced but hoped the Chinese authorities would keep to their side of the bargain.
They did not. As I write, Jimmy Lai is fighting for his freedom in a courtroom in West Kowloon — a battle he, like Hong Kong itself, is almost certain to lose.
And what about the other Mr Lai, William, Taiwan’s newly elected president? Chances are that while he will keep his distance from China, he’ll be keen not to offend the CCP. He won’t demand total independence. Instead he’ll play along with Taiwan’s old ways of doing things: staying separate and trying not to provoke China into invading.
Xi is ready to crush Taiwan with military force if necessary. The question is when. You might think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would show China how dangerous it is to assume that because it’s got a huge army and navy, invading Taiwan would be a walkover. But now that Ukraine’s counter-offensive has failed and Russia is gearing up for another offensive of its own, maybe Xi will think he can succeed.
A lot will depend on whether Donald Trump gets back into power. Obsessed with America alone and playing to its introspective worldview, Trump seems unwilling to defend democracy elsewhere. If he becomes president again then it’s easy to imagine China invading Taiwan. But victory won’t be straightforward. Taiwan is an island and it’ll have plenty of warning of the invasion forces setting out to cross the 2,000 kilometres of sea from China. Countries such as South Korea and Japan, Britain and America will have to support Taiwan in whatever way they can, making it tricky for the Chinese forces to stage landings in Taiwan.
At a time when South Africa is concentrating on Israel’s attack on the Palestinians, South Africans should also be paying close attention to how matters unfold for China. President Cyril Ramaphosa is inclined to support China but now is as good a time as any for him to reconsider.
China is no longer the world-beating economy it used to be. Starting to show definite signs of decline, the country’s growth is stuttering, its property sector is in trouble, its banking system is deeply inefficient and its domestic debt levels are shooting up. Last year, China’s population dropped by two million — more than double the population fall of 2022, which was the first time it had fallen since the cruel Communist-engendered famine of 1961.
Most worrying of all, a quarter of China’s university graduates are unemployed. As South Africans know only too well, the inability of qualified young people to get jobs is disturbing. In a dictatorship like China, it can create untold political turmoil.
It would be prudent for Ramaphosa to focus on the mindset of Xi.
After Soviet Communism collapsed in 1991 the CCP carried out a lengthy investigation of why it happened. Their conclusion? That Mikhail Gorbachev had been too soft, too weak. Xi senses that he must not make the same mistake.
I’ve reported from Moscow, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan over the years and have got to know some of the citizens of these states, from street sweepers and academics to oligarchs and those in high office. Many of them have become friends. They make me wonder whether Xi is going to be any more successful than Gorbachev in overcoming the economic and social challenges his country faces. Xi’s problem is a serious one and it could involve each of us.
What Xi chooses to ignore is the age-old underpinning of what makes us all human: our desire to be free to make our own choices. Heavy-handedness only creates frustration and anger, yet internal discontent is the thing that frightens the CCP most. Xi has to show how strong and powerful he is, and invading his pesky little island may be the best way to do it. Taiwan’s genuine freedom really upsets Xi and the CCP. Their greatest worry is that it might start infecting the mainland. That is why they had to crush Hong Kong and why they may feel they have no alternative but to crush Taiwan.
That’s why this is such a dangerous time for Taiwan.
♦ VWB ♦
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