Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments while meeting with former Taiwanese Vice President Vincent Siew at the APEC Summit in Bali were, on the surface at least, quite ominous. Recognizing the improvement in cross straits relations since President Ma Ying-jeou’s election in 2008, Xi went on to say that “the political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
That this early in his tenure Xi feels emboldened enough to make this comment shows underscores his confidence in his own leadership. Hu Jintao gave the impression of being glad to let the status quo persist and focus on China’s internal issues. As long as the leadership in Taiwan did not stray towards the dreaded territory of asserting its independence, anything else was tolerable. And with Ma’s election in 2008, the provocations from the Chen Shui-bian era at least stopped.
Xi, when he talks about Taiwan and the region generally, adopts a lofty patriarchal air, as though China is now Asia’s big brother, and under its nurturing wing the Asian century can truly be said to have arrived. On domestic issues too, Xi has an imperious air. His family background has evidently given him a sense of historic destiny and entitlement. Does he really think that this can now reach to solving one of the most intractable issues left over from the Cold War and the Chinese Civil War some six decades ago?
Xi might be playing to hawkish elements within China, and showing that he can talk tough about the big issues. But the fact remains that resolving the Taiwan question is hard to envisage without cracking two massive conceptual problems. One of them, as former U.S. envoy to Taiwan Richard Bush notes in his recent book, Unchartered Strait: The Future of Taiwan-China Relations, is to reach a common understanding of sovereignty. The various formulations of the one China policy are at heart acts of evasion over this issue, providing a pragmatic way for Taiwan and China to preserve their identity and autonomy by holding out abstract potential for reunification while putting off any hard talk about how this might be achieved. The simple fact is that at the moment, on sovereignty, both sides have widely divergent ideas and the One China principle is at best just a temporary holding place.
Secondly, there is the issue of how to sort out their widely different political systems in any future potential alliance. Uniting a maturing democracy with a one party state seems a bit like trying to successfully mate horses with bears. Unification would involve either Taiwan or China or both undergoing a profound identity change. And the brute fact is that Taiwan is further down the path of modernity, so the logical argument would be that now the Mainland needs to become politically more like Taipei for real discussion of unification to progress.
This second issue is where the hope lies. Taiwan’s political evolution remains a great inspiration for change on the Mainland, a political transition within a Chinese cultural polity which was stable. For this reason, while Xi’s comments might unsettle people in the short term, in the long term they just expose the great secret about modern cross-Strait relations: that the People’s Republic of China’s political system is the greatest barrier to reunification. A reformed polity in China that was more pluralistic, open, based on the rule of law and accountable, whether the Communist Party is at the heart of it or not, would pose much harder questions to opponents of unification in Taiwan.
Just as in so many other areas, the elites in Beijing are now wrestling not with people’s fears, but with their hopes – and that is proving a far harder challenge. If there is a genuine chance of Beijing winning the historic prize of unification it is on conditions of political reform along the lines of Taiwan. President Ma in Taipei should simply look Beijing in the eye and say, “Come on, I dare you to change, and if you do, then the historic prize is in your grasp.”