HARD PRONG, SOFT PRONG
When is a country with its own territory, laws, elected government and army not a country? Answer: when China deems it so. Recently Chinese officials have ordered foreign businesses, including airlines operating flights to China, to correct websites that list Taiwan as an independent state, as well as remove images of the island-state’s flag. Censors even shut down the Chinese website of Marriott, one of the world’s biggest hotel chains, for a week as punishment for categorizing Taiwan as a country in a customer questionnaire (the firm caused additional offence by putting Hong Kong and Tibet in the same category, which—to be fair to China—they are not).
China’s nationalists have even called for a boycott of Marriott. But more than losing business, foreign operators in China fear being accused of breaking new cyber- and national-security laws. Among much else, these prohibit anything deemed to “damage national unity”. So the apologies issued in some operators’ announcements came as no surprise. Delta airlines apologized for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. Zara, a European fashion chain, promised a “self-examination”. And Marriott said, “We absolutely will not support any separatist organization that will undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
For the Taiwanese, it is more proof that China is out to squeeze them until the pips squeak. The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan, but considers it a sacred mission to bring the island under its control. China threatens an armed intervention if Taiwan formally declares that it will remain independent for ever. The party views even “peaceful separation” as an outrage and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, talks of China’s “great rejuvenation” by 2049. That surely implies the return of Taiwan to the fold by that date.
China uses bullying against Taiwan. Its example is the move against foreign websites. China tries to shrink Taiwan’s diplomatic space and exert political pressure. Since Tsai Ing-wen became the island’s president in May 2016, China has shut down high-level contacts across the Taiwan Strait that had developed under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Unlike his Kuomintang (KMT) party, with its historical roots in China, Ms Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party declares, as its charter shows, for formal independence. Yet, the president herself, a pragmatist, has made clear her goodwill, by promising from the start that she will not rock the cross-strait boat. The independence clause lies dormant. She blocked attempts to expand a new referendum law to allow plebiscites on matters of sovereignty.
But for China none of this is good enough. It views the referendum law as a step towards a vote on independence. It has even attacked new legislation aimed at redressing human-rights abuses that occurred during the years of KMT dictatorship. China sees the bill as an attempt to erase all sense of a Chinese identity among Taiwanese: in those days, the KMT was proud of its Chinese nationalism, even though it hated the Communists. Above all, China is furious with Ms Tsai for refusing to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” between the two sides: that both Taiwan and the mainland belong to a single China, and that they agree to disagree what exactly China means. The Chinese pressure also continues on the military front. Since 2016 China’s warplanes have carried out “island-encircling” patrols. All these tactics are out of the old playbook, though. What is new is Mr Xi’s innovation. It is to single out young Taiwanese and win them over. Chinese colleges offer Taiwanese teachers better pay than they could get in Taiwan. Chinese provinces are opening research centres aimed at young Taiwanese. Young entrepreneurs from Taiwan can get free startup-money and subsidized flats there too. Over 400,000 Taiwanese already work in China and little wonder that more and more young Taiwanese are crossing the strait.
Lin Chong-pin, a Taiwanese scholar, calls this policy Mr Xi’s “soft prong”. In fact it seems to be reshaping attitudes towards China. It does not help President Tsai that she has failed to make much progress on her promise to create more opportunities for the young. Taiwan’s economy remains sluggish. She also gets the blame for tense cross-strait relations more than Mr Xi does. A recent poll definitely shows Taiwanese feeling more warmly towards the Chinese politician. They do not admire China’s political culture but there is growing reluctance among young Taiwanese to bite the hand that feeds them. They fear to separate from the mainland and live in an independent but poor country.