The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.
— Luo Guanzhong,
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The opening line of that 14th-century epic has influenced generations of Chinese leaders. The country’s mythological founder, the Yellow Emperor, is said to have ended an era of chaos by subduing warring tribes and centralizing rule in the Middle Kingdom. Ever since, princes and party secretaries alike have emulated the archetypal messianic unifier. Consolidating the various ethnicities, languages, and religions around the Yellow River into a single polity has been one of the central challenges of China’s long history.
Mao Zedong, who inaugurated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, is believed to have read Romance of the Three Kingdoms obsessively as a boy. Upon taking the helm, Mao followed Luo’s exhortation and prioritized the reoccupation of the empire’s peripheral regions, including Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. After the 1911 revolution that unseated the Qing Dynasty, the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongols resisted Chinese rule with varying degrees of success. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) viewed the loss of these regions as an extension of China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, and despite the occasional upheaval, China has since maintained control over those peoples.
In recent months, though, that control has faced heightened resistance. The mass detention of Muslim Uyghurs has drawn condemnation from the international community, while pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have undermined Beijing’s rule in the semiautonomous region. But as a major territorial claim the PRC has yet to annex, democratic Taiwan may represent the greatest extant challenge to the Chinese empire.
On January 11, 2020, that challenge grew more potent when the Taiwanese reelected President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive party (DPP). In a rebuke of the pro-Mainland policies of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), voters cast a record-setting 8 million ballots for the incumbent, who advocates greater distance from Beijing. Stopping just short of formally declaring independence, her administration has boosted military spending, ceased dialogue with Mainland officials, and strengthened ties with Southeast Asia. Her victory embodies a stunning reversal of fortune for Beijing, whose leaders only recently believed they were on an inexorable path towards regional dominance.
Less than a year ago, President Tsai’s power seemed to be waning. The DPP suffered major losses in 2018 local elections, with many voters opposing its economic policies and pension reform. Smelling blood, Chinese president Xi Jinping took a tougher stance towards the island. In January 2019, he gave his first speech dedicated entirely to the Taiwan question, offering the island the status of “one country, two systems” currently held by Hong Kong. Alluding to the “1992 consensus” — the disputed outcome of a meeting between Taiwanese and Mainland officials — Xi revised the historical record in arguing that Taiwanese leaders had already agreed to Beijing’s interpretation of the “one China” principle. At the time, however, the Taiwanese had a different conception of “one China,” according to which the two sides would eventually unite under a non-Communist government.
It was not the first time that Xi articulated this reading of the 1992 meeting, but it was the most strident and uncompromising. The next month, he pushed a bill in Hong Kong that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the Mainland. Delivered during a year of national celebration — of the 1919 May Fourth movement, the 1949 CCP founding, and the 1979 “reform and opening up” — Xi’s speech, coupled with his actions in Hong Kong, signaled the importance of territorial unity to China’s imperial aspirations. In contrast to his predecessors, who tolerated autonomy for decades, Xi is vigorously tightening his grip. Not to put too fine a point on it, he moved an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait, stating, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”
Beijing also undertook a systematic effort to sway the election through the dissemination of fake news, the infiltration of academia, and the buying off of Taiwanese politicians and businesses. Daily, Beijing fed thousands of fraudulent posts into Taiwanese social media, suggesting, for instance, that President Tsai had faked her academic credentials. The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, a think tank focused on the study of democratic institutions, recently concluded that Taiwan is exposed to more foreign disinformation than any other country in the world. On a government-sponsored press junket to which National Review was invited, virtually every department of the Taiwanese government — from the ministry of foreign affairs to the National Development Council — listed election interference among its main concerns.
Yet just as increased pressure on Hong Kong backfired on the Chinese government, so too did hostility towards Taiwan increase anti-Mainland sentiment. Despite Beijing’s interference — or perhaps because of it — Tsai ended up winning by nearly 20 percentage points after polling neck and neck with her opponent, Han Kuo-yu, as recently as August. Her support skyrocketed following the Hong Kong protests as some prominent KMT officials dismissed the demonstrations and visited the Mainland. Though the opposition downplayed its ties to Beijing, instead emphasizing bread-and-butter issues, cross-Strait policy decided the outcome of the election. Its population outnumbered 56 to one by the Mainland’s, Taiwan nevertheless poses a threat to Xi’s assertion that the character of the Chinese people is fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy.
That tension punctures China’s national ambitions. “Xi Jinping thought,” enshrined in the Chinese constitution in 2017, lays out a vision of a unified, economically prosperous Chinese empire. Undergirding Xi’s project of national renewal — the “great rejuvenation” he refers to in speeches — is a nationalism rooted in the Han ethnicity, centered on Confucian ethics, and positioned as the next chapter in the long history of China. As François Bougon points out in his book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, Xi peppers his speeches with references to classical Chinese literature and mythology, which would have been anathema to Mao, who sought by force to stamp out all the vestiges of China’s pre-revolutionary history. Xi’s fusion of Communism and the Middle Kingdom’s classical culture attempts to supplement the legitimacy claimed by Communist principles with that of historical continuity. Accordingly, Xi presumes a mandate to restore China’s borders at their largest historical extent: China cannot return to the glory of the Qing without the borders of the Qing.
In its pursuit of national “rejuvenation,” Xi said in a landmark speech, “the Party has united the Chinese people and led them through arduous struggles to epic accomplishments.” He has strengthened this impression by building up the military, pursuing territorial claims in the South China Sea, and expanding China’s global footprint through the Belt and Road Initiative. But regional hegemony requires territorial control and precludes the existence of an ethnically Chinese democracy 110 miles from the mainland. Unification with Taiwan represents “not so much a test of Communist ideology as a demand to respect Chinese history,” writes Henry Kissinger in On China. Until and unless Xi subdues the small nation, his desired “new China” cannot emerge. “New China” also requires stamping out ethnic and cultural diversity. To most Taiwanese, national identity emerged from 70 years of de facto independence. To the CCP, however, Taiwanese identity is a byword for separatism incited by imperial powers — first Japan, then the U.S.
After winning Taiwan from the Qing Dynasty in the Sino–Japanese war, the Japanese Empire led the island’s first phase of economic development in the early 1900s. Hoping to build a “model colony,” the Japanese invested in Taiwan’s infrastructure, built a nearly universal education system, developed cities, and modernized the health-care system. They also instituted the island’s first quasi-democratic institutions, allowing their subjects to cast votes for advisory assemblies.
Taiwan entered American suzerainty following World War II. After losing the civil war to Mao’s forces in 1949, KMT founder Chiang Kai-shek decamped to Taiwan with 2 million soldiers and refugees. Under the banner of the Republic of China (ROC), and with American support, Chiang hoped to consolidate his army on the island of 6 million before mounting an invasion of the Mainland. For the next two decades, outside powers recognized Taipei as the legitimate seat of Chinese government.
The United States’ economic support accelerated Taiwan’s decoupling from Beijing. Between 1951 and 1965, American economic aid totaled more than $100 million, not to mention military largess. The National Development Council, which is today in charge of economic and industrial planning, began as the Council for United States Aid in 1948. In the 1950s and 1960s the island was a global hub for low-cost manufacturing. It later became a leading producer of semiconductors and personal computers.
Meanwhile, many of the waisheng ren — Mainlanders who followed Chiang to Taiwan after the civil war — intermarried with the Southern Min Taiwanese who had emigrated from Fujian Province in prior centuries, creating a minor yet significant cultural distinction from the Mainland. The KMT government imposed Mandarin from on high as the island’s official dialect, but Taiwanese families continue to speak their ancestors’ Hokkien and Hakka dialects in informal settings.
As the PRC expanded, its absence from international institutions grew untenable. So did Chiang’s plans to retake the Mainland. But as the PRC became the internationally recognized government of China, the ROC became something else: a democracy. In 1981, Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, died, ending the KMT’s one-party rule, and successor Lee Teng-hui imposed term limits on the presidency. The first open elections for parliament came in 1992, followed by the first open presidential election in 1996. Four years later, the island saw its first-ever peaceful transfer of power.
Beijing immediately mobilized against Taiwanese reform. Though the Communist Party abhorred Chiang, it could tolerate him, holding out the hope of peaceful reunification. The Taiwanese-independence movement, however, threatened the very foundations of the PRC. During that first election in 1996, China lobbed ballistic missiles into Taiwanese ports in an effort to intimidate voters into opposing Lee, setting off a crisis that brought the U.S. Navy to the island’s defense. After Lee won reelection handily, America’s security guarantee — codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act — restrained Beijing from outright invasion.
Since then, the Chinese leadership has attempted to expedite unification by propping up pro-Mainland candidates and at times threatening force. Meanwhile, as Taiwan has developed its democracy and rule of law, the share of people identifying as exclusively Taiwanese — as opposed to exclusively Chinese or both Taiwanese and Chinese — has skyrocketed from 22 percent in 1994 to 60 percent in 2016. So the CCP has had to begrudgingly accept the status quo, delaying unification indefinitely.
After the DPP’s setbacks, Xi appeared poised to buck that status quo and prepare the way for Taiwan to join the Mainland after a favorable outcome in the 2020 elections. Now, with its efforts to subvert Taiwanese democracy thwarted, the CCP must choose between tolerating unprecedented support for Taiwanese independence or subduing the island by force. The latter policy would carry the staggering risk of military confrontation with the U.S., which would spell doom for China.
For their part, Chinese leaders maintain that the “great trend of history” moves towards unification. “Momentary reversals are but just bubbles left behind by the tides of history,” read a state-media response to the election outcome. But the path to Chinese unity — in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang — is beset by peoples willing to resist Communist rule by any means necessary. At least for now, Xi’s new China remains forestalled.
This article appears as “The Thwarted Ambitions of Xi Jinping” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.