Xi Jinping reiterated warnings that Taiwan independence was a “dead end” in a speech delivered on Wednesday, Jan. 2, but struck a conciliatory tone in the wake of regional elections which saw the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lose power across the country.

The Chinese President called for “peaceful reunification” between China and Taiwan – which is claimed by the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) although that government has never ruled over Taiwan – saying Taiwan “must and will be” reunited with China.

While Xi reiterated the possibility of using force to unify Taiwan and China, he stuck to far softer rhetoric than his March 2018 speech in which he said any attempts to “split” China would be “punished by history.”

Instead, Xi leaned heavily on references to the “One Country, Two Systems” model under which Hong Kong and Macau have transitioned to purportedly autonomous regions under Chinese rule, saying its principles have historically been implemented to “accommodate Taiwan's reality and safeguard the interests and benefits of Taiwan compatriots.”

Xi also touted his party’s “great victory in frustrating the Taiwan independence movement and other separatist activities,” a potential reference to alleged Chinese interference in Taiwanese elections and ground-level political operations.

Taiwanese politicians and independent analysts have long alleged the existence of a Chinese United Front effort to interfere in Taiwanese politics, although the exact scope and impact of such attempts to influence domestic affairs remains unknown. Xi’s comments can be construed as a nod to their existence, although he made no direct reference to influencing Taiwan’s Nov. 24, 2018 regional elections.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Xi Jinping speaks at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Jan. 2, 2019.

The speech came the day after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) laid out a framework of “Four Musts” for positive cross-Strait relations, saying Beijing must recognize the existence of the Republic of China (ROC) and respect the commitment of the 23 million citizens of Taiwan to freedom and democracy.

In his speech, Xi reaffirmed China’s commitment to recognizing the so-called “1992 Consensus,” an alleged agreement between the ROC and People’s Republic of China (PRC) governments that both sides agree there is “one China” while disagreeing on what that China constitutes. Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP do not recognize the consensus.

However, a wave of incoming Kuomintang (KMT) mayors, led in spirit by Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), are pledging to make the “1992 Consensus” a bedrock of municipal-level exchanges with Chinese cities.

Xi’s speech, delivered at an event signifying the 40th anniversary of a key CCP policy statement titled “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” signaled an apparent satisfaction with the resurgence of the KMT, which favors eventual unification between Taiwan and China. The Chinese leader repeatedly expressed a belief in “peaceful” unity while staying away from hardline language used in the past to rebut the ruling DPP, which favors eventual Taiwanese independence.

Xi called the unification of Taiwan and China a “historical conclusion drawn over the 70 years of the development of cross-Strait relations, and a must for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era.” But Xi heavily stressed what he sees as a path to ‘reunification’ without force, presenting Hong Kong’s integration into China as a natural model for Taiwan.

The democracy of Hong Kong, however, has fallen into a backslide as pro-democracy candidates are jailed and barred for standing for elections while Beijing exerts a growing influence over the ostensibly autonomous region.

While Xi’s stated commitment to “peaceful reunification” and the “1992 Consensus” is incompatible with the “Four Musts” laid out yesterday by Tsai Ing-wen, it comes across as an olive branch to the KMT, which is set to challenge Tsai in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

Former New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), who has affirmed his commitment to the so-called consensus, has declared he will run for President. KMT chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) and former Legislative Yuan president Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) are among the potential candidates expected to join him.

In her New Year’s Day speech, Tsai said she was not opposed to the municipal city-to-city exchanges favored by KMT leaders and by independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), himself a potential 2020 candidate, but said any such relations between Taiwan and China must be predicated on a pragmatic understanding of the “fundamental differences in the values we espouse, our lifestyles, and our political systems.”

Conversely, Xi called integration between Taiwan and China an “inevitable trend” and unification the ultimate erasure of a “historical wound.”

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