Beijing’s harassment of Taiwan is not only failing, it serves as a distraction for a regime in Beijing that has done very little to help the nearly quarter of a billion Chinese who have not touched the benefits of economic growth, or to address the many challenges that threaten the future stability of the country.
China’s efforts to isolate and pressure Taiwan have intensified as President Tsai Ing-wen marked the second anniversary of her inauguration in May 20. Airlines, global firms and now some foreign media with a presence in China have received “orders” from Chinese authorities on how to refer to Taiwan on their sites and in their publications, and many have acceded to those demands. Meanwhile, Beijing again this year succeeded in holding global health hostage by preventing Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. And exercises by the Chinese military have continued apace, with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft getting dangerously close to Taiwanese airspace.
The harassment has also occurred in the diplomatic sphere, with Beijing “luring” Burkina Faso on Thursday — the fourth to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing since President Tsai assumed office in May 2016 (the others are Sao Tome and Principe, Panama and the Dominican Republic).
Taiwan now finds itself with 18 official diplomatic allies, and consequently more money to spend on allies, albeit “unofficial,” which can actually do something to help Taiwan. Beijing’s strategy of “stealing” allies no doubt aims to break morale and fuel fears of abandonment in Taiwan. But with the exception of the Kuomintang (KMT) opposition, which feels compelled to holler in dismay, reactions across Taiwan have been calm and rational. Everybody knows who Taiwan’s bona fide allies are and that parasitical, often failed and undemocratic states drunk on the promise of large infrastructure investment from China aren’t among them.
(To put things in perspective: the combined GDP at purchasing power parity of the four diplomatic allies stolen in the past two years is approximately US$310 billion, about one-quarter Taiwan’s US$1.173 trillion.)
Nothing better describes the general reactions than the dinner I was at last night when news broke that Burkina Faso had severed ties with Taipei. Around the table were a number of political commentators and persons of influence. All, without exception, were ardent supporters of Taiwan and vocal critics of Beijing. When we heard the news we looked at each other, shrugged, offered toasts to Burkina Faso, and to much laughter resumed our meal and conversation. Burkina Faso wasn’t mentioned again.
It is clear, therefore, that if Beijing’s aim by “stealing” allies is to undermine morale in Taiwan, then it will have to think of a new strategy. In fact, such developments only contribute to further alienation. And the practice puts a premium on Taiwan strengthening its relations with countries that can actually play a leading role in international affairs, including adopting measures meant to counter China’s growing belligerence.
Ordinary Chinese, those who have been left behind, have every right to demand more from their government, and to ask it to perhaps pay more attention to them than to the 23 million people in Taiwan whose standard of living is higher by orders of magnitude, and who have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want to be part of the People’s Republic of China.
This multifaceted assault on Taiwan — the attacks on various symbols of Taiwanese statehood, the removal of Republic of China flags on Internet apps, the pressure on companies to refer to Taiwan as “Taipei, CN” or variations thereof, the blacklisting of entertainers who supposedly support Taiwan Independence, the harangues in CCP-controlled media — all of this requires so much determination and energy that one wonders if this might not be meant as a distraction: to fuel and exploit nationalist sentiment so that the Chinese will not pay attention to the many problems at home. This includes: a slowing economy and multiple systemic contradictions that could further undermine growth; widening wealth inequality and nearly a quarter of a billion people who still haven’t reaped the benefits of economic growth; murderous air pollution levels and environmental deterioration; an ageing population; poor access to medical services in many areas of the country; growing instability and attendant repression in regions like Xinjiang; and a backsliding on the (limited) freedoms that had been secured in the post-Mao Zedong era, the latter a clear indication, at least in my mind, that the Xi Jinping regime does not feel fully confident that it has things under control.
If I were a Chinese, I would demand of the CCP that it focus its attention and resources addressing those pressing challenges rather than spend so much time and energy attacking symbols on the Internet and bullying enterprises left and right. A responsible party and state apparatus, one that cares about the people, would look after the welfare of its citizens — all its citizens, not just the wealthy ones in the coastal areas. Ordinary Chinese, those who have been left behind, have every right to demand more from their government, and to ask it to perhaps pay more attention to them than to the 23 million people in Taiwan whose standard of living is higher by orders of magnitude, and who have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want to be part of the People’s Republic of China.
By “stealing” allies, Beijing allows Taiwan to save precious money and resources. Perhaps Beijing could do the same by leaving Taiwan alone, and using all that money and energy (we can’t begin to imagine how much money is spent on all those PLA sorties, let alone on the People’s Armed Police across China on a daily basis) doing something constructive for its own people. Right now, on a per capita basis, China probably spends a lot more money harassing the Taiwanese than it does improving the quality of life of its millions of destitute citizens. In the end, while annexing Taiwan would no doubt prove satisfactory to a number of people in the CCP, such a development would achieve little, if anything, in helping improve the lot of 250 million people in China whom the CCP seems to have forgotten.