Why Are Hong Kong and Taiwan Important? Why We Can’t Roll Over Beethoven

I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.

China’s Relations with the West: The Role of Taiwan and Hong Kong

Discussion of the United States’ relations with China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong can be framed as an issue of nationalism and national humiliation. Taiwan and Hong Kong are and have been crucial symbols of China’s emergence as a strong state in the international system, as evidenced by the huge clock that stood in the heart of Beijing in 1997 counting down the minutes to Hong Kong’s “liberation” from British rule and its return to China. Hong Kong and Taiwan have been neither simply prosperous territories whose possession would enrich China, nor merely strategic liabilities as loci for foreign powers threatening China.

Hong Kong and Taiwan are fundamental to the very legitimacy of the CCP and China’s government. They have constituted a continuing challenge to Chinese nationalism and China’s potential as a great power while posing the challenge of being models of what China could, should, or might be under a different form of government. From the Chinese perspective, so long as Hong Kong and Taiwan remain beyond China’s control, China’s century of humiliation at the hands of Westerners continues. This conviction, which the Chinese have shamelessly exploited in diplomatic negotiations and in propaganda outlets, has been hard for some of China’s interlocutors to understand. It has also constituted a reason for some, particularly in Washington and Tokyo, to keep Taiwan out of China’s grasp. But even those who do not have a hidden agenda might find that war with China over Taiwan is in fact possible, whether by accident, inadvertence, or design.

Early Encounters

There are critical historic dynamics at work here. China endured foreign exploitation long before it had developed a strong sense of nation and nationalism. When Europeans ventured abroad for trade and empire-building in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, China was in the line of fire. The territories of Taiwan and Hong Kong became critical pawns in the struggle between China and the West. The Spanish, Dutch and British posed early challenges to China’s fragile control of its core and its periphery, seeking to use Taiwan and Hong Kong as bases for commerce and military expeditions in the region. But not until the West arrived in force in the mid-nineteenth century did these territories constitute a danger to China’s development. Hong Kong became a prize during the ugly war fought between 1839–42 to compel China to allow Britain to sell opium to the Chinese people. The Treaty of Nanjing that settled that war became the first of a series of unequal treaties that undermined China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It gave to the British Hong Kong island, which was at that time a barren outcrop—the British consul who negotiated that provision of the treaty was summarily exiled to a post in Texas as punishment.

That territory was supplemented in 1860 by the Kowloon Peninsula, and then in 1898 by a 99-year lease on the New Territories. Hong Kong island is really a very small part of Hong Kong. The Kowloon Peninsula did not improve things much, but acquisition of the New Territories, which make up about 92 percent of Hong Kong’s territory, made it possible for Hong Kong to survive.

China found itself increasingly vulnerable to foreign incursions. Even more menacing, London managed to convert Hong Kong into an economic magnet, using Hong Kong’s extraordinary harbor. This undermined the livelihood of cities like Guangzhou along the coast. Then over time, Hong Kong became a political refuge for people dedicated to the overthrow of China’s government. At the end of the century, the weakness of China’s dynasty and the greed of the foreigners led to a “scramble for concessions,” partitioning China into spheres not effectively controlled from the center. It also brought to Asia a pattern of behavior that imperialist-wannabes had to follow. Thus Japan, which had had its own confrontation with the West, sought equality and security by projecting strength through territorial acquisition.

Twentieth Century Onwards

In 1894-5, Japan waged a war against China that was unexpectedly and spectacularly successful, allowing Japan to take Taiwan and make it part of the Japanese empire. Hong Kong and Taiwan would thereafter remain in foreign hands well into the 20th century, creating both practical and philosophical problems for the Chinese. Even after the communist takeover of the mainland in 1949, these problems were not resolved. Hong Kong survived as a Western enclave dependent for water and food on China, but ruled as a colony from London. Hong Kong thrived economically, became a host to a multinational expatriate community, and gave the West a military base as well as a center for espionage on the Chinese mainland.

One might imagine that China would not have permitted this to continue as its power grew and it consolidated its control over the mainland. But in fact China had too much to gain from Hong Kong’s being a British colony. In 1965 alone China earned $500 million in foreign exchange from trade carried on through Hong Kong. And so, even though others—for instance India—stood up against the imperialists and took back the colony of Goa that the Portuguese had planted along the Indian coast, and even though the USSR denounced the Chinese as cowards for not taking Hong Kong back, China bided its time, recognizing that having Hong Kong in British hands was better than allowing embarrassment or bitterness to dominate.

Finally, and only when the impending end of the 99-year lease threatened to undermine the colony’s prosperity and political stability, serious negotiations were undertaken between China and Britain regarding the future. At that point the British, not appreciating the full significance of the nationalist symbolism of Hong Kong, naively believed the Chinese might be willing to leave Hong Kong in their hands, working out a deal whereby sovereignty returned to China but the people who really knew how to run Hong Kong would hang on to it. But the Chinese would have none of that. They insisted upon ending that relationship. China’s encounter with the West was in fact about to turn a sharp corner.

The 1984 Sino-British agreement decisively rolled back British control and severely minimized London’s continued participation in the territory. China put into practice a policy that had been announced the previous year, in 1983, by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a policy of “one country, two systems” intended to facilitate unification with Taiwan. The Chinese decided that in order to demonstrate the brilliance of the concept, they would put it into effect vis-à-vis Hong Kong. Once the fact that the concept worked so well had been established, they thought, it would facilitate the return to the mainland of Taiwan, as well. “One country, two systems” made Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China, ostensibly autonomous, leaving only Hong Kong’s foreign relations and defense policy in Chinese hands, while keeping all internal, economic affairs and such things under the control of Hong Kong authorities.

In reality, however, Beijing exercised a veto, stifling the progress Hong Kong had made toward democratic governance that had been launched by the British only a few years before the turnover of the colony, a little bit late but nevertheless put in place. Democracy has not been eliminated from Hong Kong, but it has been much delayed. The current expectation is that the first direct election of the chief executive might occur no sooner than 2017. Meanwhile, China has tolerated activities in Hong Kong not permitted in China. For instance, every year in June people in Hong Kong go out in the streets and demonstrate in commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre; they go out in the street to object when China tries to change the rules on, for instance, residence in the territory, and people are free to practice any religion they want. Falun Gong, which is not permitted on the mainland, is practiced in Hong Kong. So Hong Kong today struggles with its identity both as an international entrepot and as a Chinese city seeking to help shape China and not be swallowed up by it.

Taiwan has posed a similar, but also quite different problem for China. Although the Japanese were ousted in 1945 when the Nationalist Chinese (the Kuomintang) took over the island, Americans became the decisive economic, social, military, and political force on the island. Taiwan therefore became home to what Beijing would consider a rump regime protected by the key capitalist enemy country in the world. The U.S. made it possible for the government in Taiwan to defy Beijing through the Korean war, the Vietnam war, throughout repeated Taiwan Strait confrontations, throughout the Cold War and then the Cold War’s end, through the era of normalization, and even after diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei ceased to exist and the U.S. recognized Beijing.

The U.S.-Taiwan relationship has not always been a happy one. Washington and Taipei work together cautiously and reluctantly, harboring different goals and almost perpetually distrustful of each other. In 1957, at presumably the height of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, the U.S. ambassador was sitting at a heads of mission meeting in Hong Kong explaining to U.S. ambassadors from all over the region how well the Americans and Chinese on Taiwan got along, how smoothly the government was functioning, only to have someone run into the room, hand him a message saying that the safe from the American embassy in Taipei had just landed on his car in the parking lot below an embassy window and there was a massive riot going on in Taiwan. Why was the riot happening? Ostensibly because a Chinese had been killed by an American and the American jury had let the serviceman off. But in fact, it was because the government in Taiwan was angry. It was angry that the Americans were not helping them attack the mainland, it did not like the quality and quantity of arms sales, and it did not like that the Americans lived in isolated enclaves and refused to interact with their neighbors. So the relationship, even at the strongest moment, was fraught with all kinds of crosscurrents that made it a difficult relationship.

One example of how the Americans mistrusted the Chinese on Taiwan is the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, devised under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. The idea was that the U.S. would not tell anyone what it might do in a moment of crisis because it did not want the mainland to look for gaps in the guaranty so it could attack. But similarly, it did not want the government in Taiwan to think it had a free hand, that with American support it could do what it wanted and attack the mainland. So instead the U.S. refused to commit to what it might do in the event of a military clash.

This wary partnership managed to keep China at bay decade after decade. Indeed, even after the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the PRC, the U.S. Congress stepped in and insisted on passage of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which in addition to facilitating economic, social, and cultural exchange, explicitly provided Taiwan the ability to defend itself. It did not require the U.S. to defend Taiwan—that was a step too far. But it did require the U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan so that Taiwan could defend itself. It also said that the U.S. had to maintain military forces in the region around Taiwan capable of coming to Taiwan’s defense if the president decided to do that. So it was a guaranty—a “partial guaranty,” but an important one. And it made it possible for the U.S. to sell Taiwan’s military a variety of advanced weaponry on a regular basis—not always what was wanted, usually at excessive cost, and often more important as symbols of American support than as useful weapons Taiwan might employ against the mainland. In some cases Taiwan never learned how to operate the equipment, never assembled or deployed it. But it did have a palpable symbol of American support for Taiwan’s continued existence.

After the TRA, also in 1982, the U.S., under enormous pressure from China to stop selling arms, came to an agreement with the mainland to limit sales. But Washington also turned around and gave Taiwan six assurances designed to say that even though we have to deal with the mainland, your security is still among our highest priorities. For example, the U.S. would not discuss weapon sales to Taiwan with Beijing in advance. It had not negotiated and would not renegotiate the TRA. It had and would not mediate between Taiwan and China. The idea was not to have the people on Taiwan lose heart and have the whole thing potentially collapse.

More than that, President Ronald Reagan, who had gone into an arms agreement with Beijing only reluctantly and felt that these six assurances were very important, also signed a secret one-page memo that immediately went into the NSC safe, which said that should the military balance in the Taiwan Strait change (at this point Taiwan’s military was much more effective than that of China), the U.S. would resume full-blown arms sales to keep Taiwan in the game. So the U.S. very much committed here militarily to Taiwan’s survival.

Taiwan, of course, also became a democracy—a young and unruly one, but one nurtured by Americans. The U.S. in fact had been responsible for keeping Chiang Kai-shek’s autocracy in power on the island and permitting all kinds of human rights abuses. But it also helped to educate and broaden the horizons for those willing to challenge the regime and move the island toward democracy.

For China, the development of democracy in Taiwan came as a rude surprise, as did the resilience of the population on the island and the continued power of Taiwan’s military. All of this was a surprise because in 1971, when Henry Kissinger arrived in Beijing to launch normalization, he brought with him a package of concessions. He said—without negotiation, without having to be pressured or pushed by the Chinese—that the U.S. would end its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, withdraw American forces from the island, and break diplomatic relations. I would argue that Kissinger gave away too much too fast, not simply selling Taiwan out but also falsely raising China’s expectations that Taiwan would soon collapse. When that did not happen, the Chinese once again felt betrayed by Westerners who had come to Beijing carrying false promises.

In the decades since then, China’s sense of itself as a burgeoning great power, increasingly wealthy and modernizing its military, has been coupled with changes in Taiwan. Not just its democratization or the popular perception of “one country, two systems,” but also the evolution of a distinct Taiwanese identity that is different from the Chinese vision of the people on the island as being just a different group of Chinese. In the early years after the Chinese came to the island, they followed a variety of social and cultural customs designed to perpetuate the sense that the island was simply another part of China. Thus the official language from the mainland, Mandarin Chinese, was the official language in Taiwan. The history Taiwanese studied was not the history of Taiwan but the history of China. The geography they learned was the geography of the mainland. So being Taiwanese, both subtly and not so subtly, was indicated to be second-class, inferior. They were to be made to want to be Chinese and part of a greater China.

That has changed in many ways, to the dismay and anger of the government in Beijing. China’s leaders have rallied people on the mainland in nationalistic demonstrations against changes in Taiwan, demonstrations that are not just against the authorities on the island, but also against the U.S., which is portrayed as a Western power that has once again undermined China’s legitimacy, authority, and nationalism.

China has sought to intimidate, to divide and conquer, and even to bribe Taiwan’s people into renouncing independence, even if they are unwilling to embrace unification. In 1996 China fired missiles in Taiwan’s direction after the democratically elected president of Taiwan made an unofficial visit to his alma mater, Cornell University, which the Chinese considered potential American recognition of Taiwan as an independent political body. It passed an anti-secession law designed to make the independence of Taiwan illegal and therefore justify anything China might do to stop moves toward independence. And trade deals worked out between China and Taiwan in recent years constitute something akin to bribery. Many of them are aimed specifically at commerce, agriculture, and industry in the southern part of Taiwan, the stronghold of pro-independence forces. This sends a message that if you want trade and prosperity, you had better not support the political parties that represent independence.

In response to all these changes, China has returned to the beginning, demanding help from the West to resolve the struggle that the West, after all, began. Europe forced China to recognize its maritime responsibilities, attacking it from the sea and stripping off territory that China had not considered important while it faced inland, aimed at the Mongols and the Manchus. Today, with Hong Kong a special administrative region of China, Taiwan is the only important irredentist issue that continues to roil Chinese nationalism.

The Chinese are nervous; they look at the now lame duck President Chen Shui-bian as someone so irresponsible that he might do something crazy between now and the time he leaves office in May (Ma Ying-jeou, elected in March, assumes office May 20). So Chinese delegations to Washington keep explaining how the U.S. must step in and keep Taiwan’s president under control. This is quite a change. If China long felt that the West came in and forced China to do things it didn’t want to, now we have China coming to the U.S. trying to force Americans to do things that they don’t want, because of this historical event where Taiwan (and Hong Kong) was taken away from China and undermined Chinese nationalism.

Whether Taiwan is eventually absorbed, remains separate, or becomes independent, and how that result is achieved, could end up triggering the first hot war between nuclear armed great powers. That could happen by accident, by mistaken policies, or by design. Much as Americans might say, “That’s crazy, why would we want to go to war over Taiwan?” it’s very possible. We should all be thinking about that and teaching our students why this is an important problem that they need to understand if we are to avoid that frightening future.

As China Strengthens Grip on Hong Kong, Taiwan Sees a Threat

The sweeping new security law in Hong Kong has further eroded what little support there was in Taiwan for unifying with the mainland.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has long tried to convince Taiwan that unification was a historical inevitability, alternately enticing the democratic island with economic incentives while bluntly warning that any move toward formal independence would be answered with military force.

Now, the incentives are gone and the warnings seem more ominous following Mr. Xi’s swift move to strengthen China’s grip on Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory that only last year he held out as a model for Taiwan’s future.

The new security rules for Hong Kong that China passed this week — without input from the city’s Beijing-backed leadership — have made Mr. Xi’s promise of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework seem hollow. And it has raised fears that China will move more aggressively to bring Taiwan, too, under its control.

“Hong Kong has become less free, so our sense of fear has increased,” said Chen Po-wei, a Taiwanese lawmaker who supports independence. “Because of China’s nature, there is a high possibility of conflict.”

Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, has shown a penchant for provocative actions, especially lately, with the world distracted by the devastating spread of the coronavirus.

In recent weeks, China has buzzed Taiwan’s territorial airspace almost daily. It accused Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, of carrying out a “separatist plot” by speaking at an international democracy forum. It has warned the Taiwan government to stop providing shelter to Hong Kong political activists, who are flocking to what they call the last bastion of freedom in the Chinese-speaking world.

“Part of the game is making people in Taiwan feel helpless and trying to direct their frustration against leaders in Taipei,” said Matthew P. Funaiole, a senior fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Funaiole said Beijing was also looking at how the United States and other countries would respond. “We’ve seen plenty of examples of China testing and prodding and doing just enough to stay below the threshold of eliciting a strong response from the U.S.,” he added.

The repeated pledges by Ms. Tsai to preserve the island’s sovereignty now set the stage for even greater tensions in the months ahead. Mr. Xi’s attempts to rein in dissent in Hong Kong have only heightened a sense of crisis and galvanized pro-independence forces who have pressed Ms. Tsai to do more.

Ms. Tsai won re-election in a landslide in January over Han Kuo-yu, a candidate who had pushed for closer relations with China. Last month, voters in the city of Kaohsiung, where Mr. Han was the mayor, recalled him.

survey in May by Academia Sinica, a research institute, found that only 23 percent of Taiwan residents regarded China as a “friend of Taiwan,” compared with 38 percent a year earlier.

“We are very disappointed that China is not able to carry out its promises,” Ms. Tsai said on Tuesday after the Hong Kong security law was passed. “It proves that ‘one country, two systems’ is not feasible.”

The possibility of a military conflict between China and Taiwan remains remote, experts say, because the costs for Beijing would be extraordinary, including significant casualties and damage to its international standing. Yet the two sides are moving farther and farther apart, with little appetite for compromise.

Trade and tourism have dropped significantly, as Ms. Tsai’s government has sought to deepen economic ties, if not diplomatic ones, with sympathetic nations.

Demonstrating a rocket launcher during military exercises in southern Taiwan, in an undated photo released by the Defense Ministry.
Demonstrating a rocket launcher during military exercises in southern Taiwan, in an undated photo released by the Defense Ministry.Credit…Taiwan’s Defence Ministry, Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As always, Taiwan’s defense turns on the question of American support. The United States is committed to providing help for Taiwan to defend itself, and the Trump administration has cleared the way for the sale of weapons to the island, including F-16 fighter jets.

Doubts have emerged about President Trump’s personal commitment to Taiwan, especially as he tries to hold together a trade deal with China. In his new memoir, John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said the president had repeatedly belittled the island’s significance compared to the mainland.

“One of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, ‘This is Taiwan,’ then point to the Resolute desk and say, ‘This is China,’” Mr. Bolton wrote, referring to the desk in the Oval Office. “So much for American commitments and obligations to another democratic ally.”

The lack of vocal support from Mr. Trump — who shortly after his election took a telephone call from Ms. Tsai, infuriating Beijing — has contributed to fears in Taiwan that China might be emboldened to take aggressive action.

Ms. Tsai, first elected in 2016, has been cautious in her approach toward China. When Taiwan announced last month that it would expand efforts to provide refuge to activists fleeing Hong Kong, for example, the government avoided giving too many details, to avoid angering Beijing.

Even so, Ms. Tsai’s profile has risen since her re-election in January. It has been bolstered by Taiwan’s successful containment of the coronavirus, which she and other officials have loudly touted around the world as evidence that democratic systems can be effective in the face of a public health crisis.

While the crackdown in Hong Kong has unified Taiwan’s famously fractious political parties against the mainland, some have urged the governing Democratic Progressive Party, which is highly critical of Beijing, to avoid escalating military tensions.

Protesters from Hong Kong and local supporters in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, last month. Taiwan has offered refuge to activists fleeing Hong Kong. 

“If Taiwan fights against the Chinese Communist Party, the United States won’t come to rescue us,” said Hsu Chih-rong, a lawmaker from the opposition party, the Kuomintang. “Taiwan cannot afford such a risk.”

Understand U.S.-China Relations

A tense era in U.S.-China ties. The two powers are profoundly at odds as they jockey for influence beyond their own shores, compete in technology and maneuver for military advantages. Here’s what to know about the main fronts in U.S.-China relations:

Pacific dominance. As China has built up its military presence, the U.S. has sought to widen its alliances in the region. A major potential flash point is Taiwan, the democratic island that the Communist Party regards as Chinese territory. Should the U.S. intervene there, it could reshape the regional order.

Trade. The trade war started by the Trump administration is technically on pause. But the Biden administration has continued to protest China’s economic policies and impose tariffs on Chinese goods, signaling no thaw in trade relations.

Technology. Internet giants have mostly been shut out of China, but plenty of U.S. tech companies still do big business there, raising cybersecurity concerns in Washington. Mr. Xi has said China needs to achieve technological “self-reliance.”

Human rights. Under Mr. Xi, China’s confrontations with the U.S. over values and freedoms have become more frequent, including standoffs over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang.

World leadership. China’s leaders see signs of American decline everywhere and they want a bigger voice in global leadership, seeking a greater role in Western-dominated institutions and courting allies that share their frustration with the West.

Among Chinese nationalists, Hong Kong and Taiwan are seen as the two remaining strongholds of opposition to Mr. Xi’s rule in the Chinese-speaking world. Some mainland officials and scholars argue that now is the time to signal that Beijing will not tolerate resistance to its policies.

Tian Feilong, a professor of law at Beihang University in Beijing who studies Hong Kong and Taiwan, said the new security rules would “cut off all the links of confluence between Hong Kong independence and Taiwan independence.”

He added that unification with Taiwan remained a priority for China’s leader. “The weight of the Taiwan problem in his heart, the urgency to solve it and the sense of mission will be even stronger” for Mr. Xi, he said.

Mr. Xi, who rose to power in 2012, once bet that greater economic ties between the mainland and Taiwan would bring the two sides closer and make unification more palatable.

The mainland offered incentives to businessmen to trade and invest across the strait, even while it tried to build support among private organizations. A defector to Australia last year claimed that China’s military intelligence even funneled payments to Taiwan media organizations and politicians.

Ms. Tsai, for her part, has refused the condition that China has set for improved relations: acceptance of China’s view that the island is an inexorable part of a greater Chinese nation under the Communist Party.

Beijing has since tried to punish Taiwan economically, including by banning some tourism to the island. Increasingly, Mr. Xi has abandoned efforts to court Taiwan through economic and cultural means, instead warning that the mainland’s patience is limited.

“People who might genuinely want to engage can’t feel safe engaging anymore with the P.R.C.,” said Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College who studies Taiwan, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

“Whenever we see that kind of impatience and assertiveness and lack of consideration for external disapproval, that doesn’t bode well for Taiwan,” she added.

In recent weeks, there has been a marked increase in military operations around the island’s territorial waters. In response, Ms. Tsai has tried to project strength, appearing alongside officers at a conferral ceremony and calling on the military to remain vigilant.

During past moments of tension with the mainland, some Taiwanese moved overseas or transferred their assets to foreign accounts, fearing a conflict might erupt. This time, however, a desire to preserve and protect the island’s identity has brought a sense of solidarity, some activists say.

“Instead of fleeing, people stand in unity,” said Freddy Lim, a pro-independence lawmaker. “We are very united and angry, but we’re thinking about how to show our unity, our progress in national defense and our determination.”

How China’s heavy steps in Hong Kong reverberate in Taiwan

Preparing the lifeguard station from which he watches over sea bathers in Taiwan’s Kenting National Park, Su Chenzhe takes a moment to reflect on events in Hong Kong, some 400 miles away across the Taiwan Strait.

“We don’t want today’s Hong Kong to be tomorrow’s Taiwan,” the young man with a swimmer’s build says one morning as he surveys the waves breaking at his beach in southernmost Pingtung County. “I want Taiwan to be a free, democratic country.”

Mr. Su’s words echo the conversations and slogans one hears increasingly across a fervently democratic Taiwan – and especially in the pro-Hong Kong bookshops and coffeehouses of the capital, Taipei – as mainland China steps up actions weakening Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status and democratic political system.


The Taiwanese are fervently democratic. In polls, a resounding majority oppose a “one country, two systems” formula for relations with China, à la Hong Kong. But how do they walk that path?

Like Hong Kong, Taiwan in the eyes of China’s Communist Party government is a province – governed separately for now but ultimately to be fully united with the mainland under Communist rule, by force if necessary. Beijing vows to take over Taiwan, invoking the same “one country, two systems” formula of Hong Kong policy – a plan rejected, say polls, by more than 85% of Taiwan’s 23 million people.

And it is this stance from the increasingly aggressive authorities in Beijing that has many Taiwanese keeping a sharp eye on events in Hong Kong, attending boisterous pro-Hong Kong marches, and invoking cautionary slogans like “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan!”

No one anticipates any steps threatening Taiwan’s autonomy on the order of the mainland’s tightening grip on Hong Kong any time soon. Beijing would seem to have its hands full managing events in Hong Kong and other restive regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, economic fallout from the coronavirus, the U.S.-China trade spat, and steering China’s rise to dominance in a dynamic Asia.

Moreover, Taiwan’s relations with the United States have strengthened under President Donald Trump, and the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has played her limited cards adeptly, foreign policy experts say. She has recently showcased the advantages of handling the coronavirus crisis with transparency (as opposed to the mainland) and clarity at home. And, they say, she has deftly inserted Taiwan into the collection of democracies, starting with the U.S., that have condemned China’s attacks on Hong Kong’s democratic system and its status as a semi-autonomous entity.Jan. 6, and the larger plan to overturn the election

Risk of miscalculation

What does worry some experts in Asian security issues, however, is that China might misjudge the U.S., seeing it as weak and distracted with multiple crises and thus unlikely to respond to Chinese provocations. Others wonder if a mercurial American president might be tempted to take dramatic steps concerning Taiwan to put fresh meat on the bones of his increasingly anti-China stance in the run-up to November elections.

“The U.S. now has three crises – in public health, in the economy, and the political crisis playing out on the streets – and so what I’m arguing is that the [Chinese Communist Party] might think that U.S. leadership and America’s strengths are weakened, and that could lead to some dangerous miscalculations,” says Shirley Kan, an independent specialist in Asian security affairs and former analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

“But China should not make that mistake,” she adds, noting that if anything, Taiwan’s position in what she calls the “coalition of democracies” standing up to China over Hong Kong is stronger than ever.

Other experts underscore Mr. Trump’s penchant for dramatic foreign policy actions – meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there – and posit that he could choose Taiwan as a way of dramatizing his newfound toughness on China.

Ann Wang/ReutersTaiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to the crowd in Keelung, Taiwan, June 9, 2020.

“Imagine a major incident in the South China Sea,” where China has been stepping up its fighter jet reconnaissance flights in Taiwan’s airspace, “and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of a number of dramatic steps in response, like rushing through more sophisticated arms sales to Taipei or even inviting President Tsai to the White House,” says Harry Kazianis, an expert in U.S.-China relations and East Asian security at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “Basically, it would be the U.S. recognizing Taiwan as a separate entity” from China.

Taiwan’s public overwhelmingly supports closer economic and political ties with the U.S., while rating the U.S. more favorably than mainland China by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, according to a May poll by the Pew Research Center.

“There is no doubt Taiwan will get closer to the U.S. and further away” from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), says Dennis Lu-Chung Weng, a political science professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

For many analysts, it was China’s aggression, heightened by its tightening grip on Hong Kong, that led to President Tsai’s landslide reelection victory in January. Her Democratic Progressive Party considers Taiwan an independent country, though Ms. Tsai is careful not to enflame the independence-unification debate.

Ms. Tsai is “a stable hand at the tiller. She does not create surprises for anyone,” says Kharis Templeman, an adviser on the Hoover Institution Project on Taiwan.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But to understand Beijing’s pressure on both Hong Kong and Taiwan, it’s important to consider Communist Party leaders’ concerns about discontent at home, some Asia experts say.

“The Chinese Communist Party is now experiencing some domestic internal pressure,” in part over its handling of the coronavirus, says Dr. Weng, who is also a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “There are a lot of complaints,” he adds. “They have to show the people … they are strong enough to take over Hong Kong.”

Pressure tactics

In recent months, Beijing has adopted a similar toughened posture toward Taiwan, escalating military patrols around the island, which lies just 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, while waging a constant barrage of cyberattacks and disinformation.

Beijing has become “even more aggressive in military threats, [diplomatically] poaching Taiwan’s allies, preventing Taiwan from participating in international organizations,” says Ketty W. Chen, vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in Taipei. Beijing, for example, has barred Taiwan from participation in the World Health Organization, even though Taiwan has been on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic.

But if anything, this approach has backfired, says Dr. Chen. “The PRC government and President Xi [Jinping] have painted themselves into a corner and have to treat Taiwan harshly,” she adds, “but then what to do after that?”

Meanwhile, China’s pressure tactics are wearing thin, say Taiwanese interviewed across the island.

“China wants to unite with us, but they are constantly attacking us!” says Jojo Lin, a recent college graduate and one of the record number of voters who cast their ballot for Ms. Tsai.

In her inauguration address in May, Ms. Tsai took her trademark balanced approach, calling for peace and stability and urging both sides to “find a way to coexist over the long term.” But she confirmed Taiwan’s opposition to Beijing’s reunification policy: “We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems,’” she said, “to dwarf Taiwan and destroy the cross-strait status quo.”

“It’s cool to be pro-Taiwan again”

With both Beijing’s aggression and her public’s regard for the U.S. on the rise, Ms. Tsai is likely to continue highlighting her strong relations with Washington. At the same time, it may not be in her interest to see Taiwan become a pawn in what the National Interest’s Mr. Kazianis calls a “rhetorical cold war” between the two superpowers.

Last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement blasting the Communist Party for its “obscene propaganda” about U.S. street protests even as China represses individual freedoms. “When people – such as those in Hong Kong and Taiwan – with common roots in an awe-inspiring civilization … embrace freedom, that freedom is crushed, and the people subordinated to Party dictates and demands.”

That their freedom has been “crushed” might be news to the Taiwanese. But being mentioned in the same breath as Hong Kong is also reassurance that Taiwan’s standing in Washington, long secondary to relations with Beijing, is now on stronger footing.

“Suddenly it’s cool to be pro-Taiwan again in U.S. foreign policy circles,” says Mr. Kazianis. “What it amounts to is a de facto recognition of Taiwan’s existence as a separate entity” from mainland China.

Still, many experts caution that Taiwan must remain “realistic,” as Ms. Kan says, and understand that even an increasingly anti-China U.S. will have to carefully tend its relations with Asia’s rising superpower, the world’s second-largest economy.

“Much more than in the past, Taiwan enjoys bipartisan support in Washington, especially in the Congress, and is viewed as one of the partners in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” says Ms. Kan. “That said, I see no paradigm shift” in the triangle of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.  

Hong Kong and Taiwan Are Bonding Over China

Hong Kong and Taiwan long had a relationship built around trade and tourism. But as China clamps down in Hong Kong, ties between the pair are strengthening.

TAIPEI—When Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping signed the agreement that would hand control of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, East Asia was a vastly different place than it is today.

The year was 1984: China was in the early days of its economic rise and was experiencing one of its most politically free periods under Communist rule; Hong Kong was the booming financial hub and crown jewel of what remained of the British Empire; and then there was Taiwan, which was nearing the end of nearly four decades of brutal martial law. At the time, if you had wagered on which of those places would be the freest 35 years later, Taiwan would have had long odds.

Since then, China has become the world’s second-largest economy and a major military power while still spending more on domestic security, including concentration camps that perhaps hold up to 2 million Muslims in Xinjiang. Hong Kong’s relevance to China as an entrepôt—useful in the initial years following the handover—has diminished greatly, and the territory has been gripped by protests as Beijing has eroded long-held freedoms. Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to bring under its control, democratized in the 1990s and has become the focus of China’s buildup.

For most of this time, the relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan was largely limited to trade and tourism (and given that Beijing regards Taiwan as being part of its territory, Hong Kong’s local government does not even officially recognize it). That is now changing, and ties between the two are being forged by pro-democracy activists right up to the government level.

China’s influence over both Hong Kong and Taiwan has steadily spread from their economies into their political systems, and Beijing has promoted the “one country, two systems” model it uses to administer Hong Kong as its favored system, were Taiwan to submit to peaceful unification. But as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government ignores the demands of peaceful protesters, and China’s continuing encroachment on “one country, two systems” there discredits the notion that it would offer any degree of autonomy for Taiwan, demonstrators in Hong Kong are looking more and more to Taiwan, and a sense of solidarity is growing between the two. That is likely to be a major source of concern for Beijing (and, indeed, Chinese state media have warned the two sides against cooperating).

While top officials in Hong Kong appear to be ignoring the concerns of protesters there, senior leaders in Taiwan are speaking up for the demonstrators. Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told a gathering of politicians, business executives, and journalists at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit last month about Hong Kong’s worsening political situation since it was handed over to China. Hong Kongers had been denied full democratic rights, some of its elected legislators had been removed for political reasons, and journalistic freedoms were being eroded, Wu noted. Putting the blame squarely on Beijing, he expressed his support for the vast numbers who have taken to Hong Kong’s streets to push back against a controversial extradition bill.

“These two outposts of democracy share the same values, and our paths and destinies are closely linked,” Wu said of Hong Kong and Taiwan. “We both stand on the front line against the expansion of authoritarianism.”

“Taiwan needs to hold firm and succeed so that people in Hong Kong and beyond can still see the beacon light of hope,” he added. “We also know that if we fall, others may soon follow.”

Wu’s remarks came amid a series of events, rallies, and meetings here in Taipei and in Hong Kong evincing the strengthening bonds between the two. At a grassroots level, Taiwanese Facebook users were switching their avatars to a blackened Hong Kong flag while organizing events around the country to show support and raise awareness of Hong Kong’s plight. On June 16, a march in Taipei drew 10,000 participants, according to organizers. At the Golden Melody Awards here—effectively the Grammys for countries that speak Chinese languages—the Hong Kong musician and activist Denise Ho thanked Taiwan for its support, while a group of artists from Hong Kong recently recorded a solidarity anthem, sung in Mandarin and Cantonese, the dominant languages in Taiwan and Hong Kong, respectively.

Even at the highest levels, Taiwan has helped derail the extradition bill, which would enable Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to China, Taiwan, or the former Portuguese colony of Macau.

The legislation was initially proposed after the February 2018 murder of a Hong Kong woman, Poon Hiu-wing, by her boyfriend, Chan Tong-kai, also a Hong Kong resident, while the couple were on vacation in Taiwan. Chan fled back to Hong Kong and has not been prosecuted, but Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, argued that an extradition bill would enable his transfer to Taiwan so that he would be subject to its courts. Taiwan’s government, however, said that it would not prosecute him even if the bill was passed, giving succor to critics who see the bill as a Trojan horse that would facilitate the disappearance of anyone Beijing wished.

Protesters finally won a small, mostly symbolic victory after weeks of rallies, including a march on June 9 that drew, according to organizers, a million peaceful demonstrators. Lam initially said she would not bow to the opposition, but by the following week, after police used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on largely peaceful protesters, she announced she would temporarily suspend, but not withdraw, the bill. That wasn’t enough for Hong Kongers demanding a complete withdrawal, however, and days later, an even bigger protest march took place, which, according to organizers, involved 2 million participants.

Because of a weighted system that allows half of Hong Kong’s 70-member legislature to be selected by pro-China business interests, with the other half elected by residents, legislators in favor of greater democratic freedoms are in the minority. Those in the minority fighting for greater freedoms for Hong Kong see a kindred spirit in Taiwan. “Hong Kongers feel that we are not alone in our fight against this Goliath,” Ray Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, told me. “Hong Kong and Taiwan are both at the front line of the global fight to stop Beijing’s creeping authoritarianism and control. Our cooperation and mutual support will be key to defending our freedom.”

The implications of the relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan stretch beyond just the extradition bill and the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong. The majority of Taiwanese are already opposed to unification with China, but if Beijing cannot be seen to implement the “one country, two systems” framework in an even-handed manner in Hong Kong, what prospect does it have of being putting in place here, argue Taiwanese critics of China. “We are an example for Taiwan that if they accept ‘one country, two systems’ from China, this will probably happen to them,” Ho, the musician, said in an interview.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, opposes unification with China, but troublingly for the Communist Party, events in Hong Kong have even forced prominent members of the Beijing-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, to distance themselves from their giant neighbor. Han Kuo-yu, China’s favored candidate in this month’s primary to become the Kuomintang challenger to Tsai in elections next year, said that if he’s elected, the Hong Kong model would come to Taiwan “over my dead body.” “The political elite in Taiwan are watching the events in Hong Kong closely,” said Lauren Dickey, a China analyst at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia–based research firm.

At a lower level, activists here are beginning to see in Hong Kong a dangerous future for Taiwan. Leaders of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2014 have ties to members of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong of the same year—both protest movements were effectively attempts by youth to push back against growing Chinese influence—and an array of grassroots events have been organized across Taiwan in recent weeks as demonstrations in Hong Kong have ramped up.

Monique Wu, a Taiwanese drama therapist living in Taipei, has participated in two solidarity events since mid-June that involve Hong Kongers living in Taiwan telling their stories, Taiwanese youth sharing their feelings, and even some theatrical performances.

“The chilling effect of tyranny is capable of crossing the seas and infecting the world,” she told me. “If today we don’t stand up for Hong Kong, there won’t be anyone to stand up for Taiwan.”


What to know about the escalating tensions between China and Taiwan

There has been increasing “gray-zone” conflict across the strait.

Since the beginning of October, Beijing has sent more than 150 military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone in an attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese government. In recent days, the People’s Liberation Army also mounted large amphibious landing drills on the mainland side of the Taiwan Straits — an unambiguous show of force and a sign of escalating tensions in the region.

Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng even warned the Taiwanese legislature earlier this month that Beijing might be able to launch a “full-scale” invasion of the island by 2025.

Tensions across the Taiwan Straits are now at the highest level in years and unforeseen error from either sides risks dragging the United States into a potential conflict with China.

The spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Ma Xiaoguang, called the military exercises a “just” move aimed at “separatist activities” on the island and what it says is “collusion with foreign forces” by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — a not-so-veiled allusion to U.S. support for Taiwan.

At the heart of the matter is Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a breakaway province of 23 million people that will eventually have to “reunified” with the rest of China. Beijing leaders continue to press for what they call “peaceful reunification” but have not ruled out the use of military force. Xi Jinping has ramped up the pressure on Taiwan, making reunification a stated goal of the “China Dream” of “national rejuvenation.”

Since coming back into power in 2016, the DPP government has increasingly leaned into the island’s separate self-rule status, and has just fallen short of declaring independence, which Beijing views as a bright red line.MORE: Taiwan rejects China’s ‘path’ amid show of military force

PHOTO: A Chinese PLA J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location.

The ‘Taiwan Question’

Beijing sees the Taiwan Question as a relic of national shame that originated when the island was taken from the imperial Qing Dynasty by Japan as a colony in 1895.

At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) Government of the Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan, which they reclaimed at the end of WWII. Meanwhile the prevailing Communist Party of China declared the mainland the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with both sides eyeing the eventually “reunification” of China. The ROC and the PRC both continue to claim legitimate sovereignty over China with Beijing frequently threatening to liberate the island.

The United States maintained official diplomatic relations with Taipei until 1979 when it switched its recognition to Beijing. The switch was made easier at the time when Taiwan wasn’t the democracy it is today but an authoritarian regime.

In switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing, the U.S. and China agreed to abide by the “One China” Policy. For the U.S. it was an acknowledgement that the “Chinese on either sides of Taiwan Straits maintain there is but one China” but the status of Taiwan is undetermined and is expected to be resolved peacefully. For Beijing it means that Taiwan belongs to Beijing’s “One China.” This different interpretations of the policy have been at the foundation of the U.S.-China relationship.

In order to give assurances to Taiwan, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which calls for the U.S. to maintain unofficial, de facto relations with Taipei and allows the U.S. to provide Taiwan arms for self-defense. The act did not guarantee, however, that the U.S. would intervene if Beijing attacks or invades the island but sets up a “strategic ambiguity” in hopes of dissuading Beijing from attacking and Taipei from unilaterally declaring independence.

Beijing soon began offering Taipei the option of a “peaceful reunification.” As Hong Kong prepared to be handed back over from the British to the Chinese in 1997, Beijing proposed using the “One Country, Two Systems” principle devised for Hong Kong as model to bring Taiwan back into the fold.MORE: China’s Xi calls for ‘peaceful’ reunification with Taiwan

PHOTO: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen delivers a speech during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2021.

Isolating the Tsai Ing-wen government

Since coming into to power in 2016, Tsai has tiptoed the acceptable bounds of the cross-strait relationship but has never publicly embraced independence nor the 1992 Consensus, the latter angering Beijing.

Almost immediately Beijing cut off all official lines of communication with Tsai’s DPP government, painting the DPP as secessionists. Beijing suspended all Chinese tour groups to the island cutting, off a reliable source of revenue on the island. Beijing then began poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies in hopes of completely isolating the government. During Tsai’s first term as president she lost seven diplomatic allies to Beijing.

The squeeze almost worked. A year out from the 2020 election, Tsai was on shaky ground for re-election but then 2019 Hong Kong protests erupted. Playing into the fear of increased Beijing encroachment and the broken promises of “Once Country, Two Systems “ gave Tsai the momentum to be reelected in a landslide in early 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prospect of “One Country, Two Systems” had become so toxic in Taiwan after the Hong Kong protests that both the KMT and the DPP publicly rejected it as a possibility for Taiwan.

‘Gray-zone’ warfare amid cratering US-China ties

Emerging from the pandemic with a renewed confidence, Beijing began to refocus its pressure campaign on Taiwan just as its relationship with Washington began to crater.

Beijing soon began to employ what Taiwan called low-level “gray-zone warfare” to exhaust the Taiwanese military and people. In 2020, Chinese warplanes made 380 incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone making Taipei scramble their own jets to respond every single time. The incursions only increased this year.

In response, the U.S. has engaged with Taiwan more openly. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed all restrictions between diplomatic contacts between U.S. and Taiwan officials in the finals days of the Trump Administration, infuriating Beijing. The Biden Administration has taken it further by encouraging working ties with Taiwanese officials, even invited the Taiwanese envoy to President Biden’s inauguration.

At the same time, Beijing has been nurturing a rise in nationalistic sentiment across the country, fueled in part by their success in suppressing COVID-19 and the growing view that Western powers especially the U.S. is in a state of decline exemplified by its failure to control the pandemic.

The view was further exasperated by Chinese state media playing up the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times painted the U.S as unreliable, asking whether Afghanistan was “some kind of omen for Taiwan’s future fate?”

Just as Americans have an increasing unfavorable view of China, the Chinese public has had an increasingly antagonistic view of Americans. The Eurasia Group Foundation found that less than 35% of Chinese people have a positive opinion about the U.S. compared to 57% just two years earlier.

Chinese propaganda and pop culture have been cashing in and normalizing a U.S.-China conflict. The Chinese blockbuster “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” financed by the government’s propaganda department tells of a PLA victory over U.S. troops during the Korean War. Since Oct. 1st it has grossed over $633 million at the Chinese box office.

Now armed with the most well-equipped military China has ever possessed including the world’s largest navy by number of ships, Xi has been preparing Chinese officials and the military for challenging days ahead.

“We must persist in strengthening the overall planning of war and make preparations for military struggle,” he told the Politburo over the summer and in September told young Communist Party officials, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and risks and challenges we face are conspicuously increasing. It’s unrealistic to always expect easy days and not want to struggle.”

PHOTO: Chinese President Xi Jinping applauds during an event commemorating the 110th anniversary of Xinhai Revolution at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 9, 2021.

What’s next?

With China facing an unprecedented domestic power crunch, a major real estate developer threatening the economy with an impending default, a major Communist Party leadership meeting in November and the task of holding the Winter Olympics in a few months’ time, Beijing may have some more pressing issues than entering a conflict over Taiwan.

After the unprecedented defense zone jet intrusions, it appears that both Beijing and Taipei have attempted to temporarily dial the temperature down a notch in separate speeches celebrating a shared anniversary across the Taiwan Strait last weekend.

While Xi reiterate his desire for “reunification” he stressed that “peaceful means best serves the interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including compatriots in Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s Tsai called for dialogue with Beijing on “the basis of parity.”

This comes as Beijing and Washington have attempted to stabilize their relationship in recent weeks with a series of meetings.

Even after reports of a small presence of U.S. Marines deployed to train Taiwanese forces on the island — an act which Beijing could see as a violation of their red line — the Foreign Ministry spokesperson chose to highlight the incremental process made during a meeting between Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi which is paving the way for Biden-Xi virtual summit before the end of the year.

When asked about the rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei, President Biden told the press that he raised the issue with Xi on a call.

“I’ve spoken with Xi about Taiwan. We agree … we’ll abide by the Taiwan agreement,” he said. “We made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement.”

After the comments the Taiwan Foreign Ministry was assured by the U.S. that the American commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid.”

Beijing has continued to warn the U.S. against playing the “Taiwan Card.”

How U.S.-China relations continue to play out in the coming months and years will ultimately determine Taiwan’s future.


fpri.org, “China’s Relations with the West: The Role of Taiwan and Hong Kong.” By Nancy Bernkopf Tucker; nytimes.com, “As China Strengthens Grip on Hong Kong, Taiwan Sees a Threat: The sweeping new security law in Hong Kong has further eroded what little support there was in Taiwan for unifying with the mainland.” By Javier C. Hernández and Steven Lee Myers; democracy.uci.edu. “Comparing Political Communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan.” By Brian Denny; csmonitor.com, “How China’s heavy steps in Hong Kong reverberate in Taiwan.” By Howard LaFranchi and Ann Scott Tyson; thatlantic.com, “Hong Kong and Taiwan Are Bonding Over China: Hong Kong and Taiwan long had a relationship built around trade and tourism. But as China clamps down in Hong Kong, ties between the pair are strengthening.” By Chris Horton; brookings.edu, “CONTENDING ON THE PERIPHERY: TAIWAN AND HONG KONG” By Richard Bush; soas.ac.uk. ” A Comparative Study of Economic Integration within Greater China: Perspectives of Hong Kong and Taiwan.” By Chi-jen Wu; abcnews.com, “What to know about the escalating tensions between China and Taiwan: There has been increasing “gray-zone” conflict across the strait.” By Karson Yiu;


Comparing Political Communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan

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