Hong Kong is the Canary in the Coalmine: Why We Must Take Xi Jinping’s Words Seriously When It Comes to Taiwan

Written by Dennis Kwok and Johnny Patterson.

Image credit: 104年11月7日 馬英九總統出席兩岸領導人會面 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

Those of us who have long advocated for Hong Kong often stress the importance of our city’s freedom to the rest of the world. Hong Kong, in our view, has never been what American analysts called a “boutique” issue, a local concern with few implications for the wider world. Rather, we have always urged the world to see Hong Kong as a bellwether for freedom in the Asia-Pacific region. If Hong Kong fell –and clearly, it has fallen— China would soon turn its eyes to Taiwan.

A little more than a year after the introduction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, Taiwan does indeed seem to be the next target of an increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy. PLA warplanes now regularly breach Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, often more than 150 in a row. At the same time, Taiwan has invited US marines to help shore up the island’s military forces. Throughout all of this, the aggressiveness of the rhetoric surrounding these issues continues to ratchet up.

When examined in the context of what has happened to Hong Kong, there is no way to interpret these events except to realise that the status quo in Taiwanbuilt on a foundation of the “1992 Consensus” and American “strategic ambiguity”—is soon coming to an end, if it has not already. This is likely to have major ramifications both geopolitically and for international businesses.

In our full policy analysis paper, which will soon be published later this year, we will examine in depth all these issues emerging from the Hong Kong experience that are relevant to Taiwan. Our intention is not to imply that the Hong Kong and Taiwan situations are identical or that the dynamics in each situation will play out in the same way. Taiwan has been a frozen conflict for decades, and there are many elements unique to the island’s politics that do not have direct parallels in Hong Kong. However, we perceive several key lessons that those watching Taiwan must draw from events in Hong Kong.

Chief amongst these is the fact that policymakers must take Xi Jinping’s words seriously and should not underestimate the influence of Chinese nationalism on his foreign and domestic priorities. Hong Kong provides a window through which to understand the modus operandi of Xi Jinping’s Communist Party. In Xi’s China, political priorities trump all others – the Party’s actions make sense within the system but may not to outsiders. Therefore, Xi’s words should be taken literally and seriously. His intentions are more avowedly nationalistic. He has brushed off the ‘bide your time, hide your strength’ mantra, which guided the foreign policy of his predecessors and their approach in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Hong Kong people were concerned by the content of the 2014 State Council White Paper on Hong Kong. Still, few analysts and commentators took it sufficiently seriously even though it introduced the concept of “comprehensive jurisdiction” to Hong Kong. This was a wholly new interpretation of the One Country, Two Systems model, which posited Beijing’s total authority over all matters in Hong Kong, from legislation to administration. In hindsight, it was clear that the writing was on the wall from this moment onwards. Whether through the National Security Law, Extradition Bill or some kind of Article 23 legislation, Xi Jinping’s China was set on silencing dissent. The rest of the world should have taken his words more seriously. Hong Kong should now be a canary in the coalmine for those looking at Taiwan.  

Of course, it is not only in Hong Kong where the Chairman has followed through with his hardline, nationalist words. In internal party speech, Xi urged his CCP comrades not to shy away from struggles and conflicts, arguing that on important questions, they must not be afraid to draw their swords (敢於亮劍). Under Xi’s leadership, the CCP has certainly demonstrated this spirit in its policies towards crushing Hong Kong and Xinjiang, the militarisation of the South China Sea, the blatant hostage diplomacy over the Canadian Michaels, wolf-warrior diplomacy, and much more.

So, turning to Taiwan, what has Xi Jinping said? The CCP views it as central to the rejuvenation of the Chinese civilisation. For China to remain a “divided nation” simply does not sit well with Xi’s narrative and vision. Of course, rhetorically, these sorts of lines have been part of the discourse for some time, preceding the current leadership. However, the tone has changed. PRC officials have recently signalled that they are looking towards changes in the language of the Taiwan Strait policy. Sun Yafu, the former director of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, recently announced that several policy changes are on the table at this year’s 20th Party Congress. The first of which involves rebranding the PRC’s cross-strait strategy as “the Party’s Overall Strategy for Solving the Taiwan Issue in the New Era (新时代党解决台湾问题的总体方略).” We are yet to see the substance of this “New Era” policy. However, it is eerily reminiscent of the painful lesson over the language change and the policy direction towards Hong Kong in the State Council’s White Paper issued in 2014.

Nationalism and Xi’s political ambition are arguably the most influential factors on the PRC’s policy over Taiwan. Other considerations, such as taking over the manufacturing capabilities of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited (TSMC), are at best subsidiary and certainly not central to Beijing’s calculations. Hong Kong demonstrates that Xi now perceives the Chinese economy as resilient enough to withstand economic shocks and even capital flight if they serve geopolitical ends. Chinese nationalism is in the process of killing Hong Kong – the so-called ‘golden goose.’ On matters of national sovereignty, economic concerns are secondary.

The 1978 Joint Communique between the United States and the PRC states that “neither [China or US] should seek hegemony in the Asia Pacific region….” Forty-three years on, this is precisely how the two countries feel about each other’s intentions. The United States (and its allies in the region) sees China’s military expansion into the South China Sea, the aggressive takeover of Hong Kong, and threats against Taiwan and over the East China Sea as acts with hegemonic intention. On the other hand, Xi’s China sees the need to implement its own version of the Monroe Doctrine by pushing United States interests out of the Asia-Pacific region at a time of ‘Western decline.. Chinese scholars believe that China’s new world power status cannot be reconciled with United States dominance. This has caused the United States and its allies such as Japan and Australia to see the importance of defending Taiwan from the perspectives of their own security interests.

Analysts considering the likelihood of military conflict must not underplay the importance of domestic political needs in Xi’s calculations. Politically, Xi will most certainly be able to achieve his aim of securing a third term at the next Party Congress to be held in November 2022. He will use this interim period to consolidate power by putting party members loyal to him in all the provinces and military and building a Central Committee and Politburo with pure loyalists. Xi had, in part, failed to achieve this goal in the 19th Congress in 2017. The continuous purge in the upper ranks of the CCP elites is a sign that there are still disloyal elements within. At the moment, we believe there is no domestic political need for Xi to take over Taiwan by force immediately. And there are far too many risks, in light of the recent developments over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the international response, for Xi to do anything radical over Taiwan from now until the 20th Congress in November this year. The Beijing leadership is certainly watching the developments in Ukraine closely, learning from it. Still, it is far too early to tell how Ukraine will impact Beijing’s thinking over Taiwan. However, the united international response against Russia’s invasion must have surprised the leadership in Beijing.

Supporters of the Chinese regime would often point to the ‘historic’ fact that China was never hence will not be an expansionist power. Leaving aside the historical inaccuracy of that claim, the reunification of Taiwan is not regarded as foreign expansion in the minds of the Chinese leadership. In their minds, there is nothing ‘foreign’ about the island of 23 million, which has always been part of China (a claim which many Taiwanese people are diametrically opposed to, especially amongst the younger generation). This point is important to understand as this is how the Taiwan question is framed in the Chinese political mindset. The same goes for the takeover of Hong Kong in 2020. They believe it is in their right to do so.

Of course, we are talking here about military conflict, and the situation in Ukraine shows that any action of this kind could lead to serious sanctions being imposed by the West and a much tougher resistance from the Taiwanese. So, naturally, this will have some bearing on calculations. But the Ukraine conflict has also demonstrated that international governments and businesses should not underestimate the overriding force of domestic political priorities, personal political ambition, and a nationalistic worldview when considering the calculations of authoritarian despots who have made themselves President-for-life.

Dennis Kwok is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, Ash Centre and a Distinguished Scholar at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service. In 2012, he was elected as the member of the Legislative Council (LegCo) in Hong Kong representing the legal profession and was re-elected for a second four-year term with a 69% majority of votes. In LegCo, the main policy areas that he has focused on include access to justice, human rights protection and the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong. He oversaw the development of legal policy issues including the independence of prosecution decisions, the development of the legal profession and legal education.

Johnny Patterson is the co-founder and Policy Director of Hong Kong Watch. Johnny was the founding Director of the organisation between 2017 and 2020 and is currently responsible for overseeing the organisation’s research and policy work. He has authored a number of Hong Kong Watch’s in-depth reports and is a regular commentator on Hong Kong and business and human rights in China in international media. He is working with Dennis to establish the China Risks Institute which will launch in spring 2022.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan-Hong Kong Connection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s