The Chinese Communist Party uses ‘peaceful’ as a cover, a smokescreen to isolate and sideline whomever opposes its objective of annexing Taiwan. It is in fact coercive, one-sided, certainly not magnanimous, and increasingly punitive in its response to the resistance this project has encountered.
Hardly a week goes by without Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a spokesperson at the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, or a political commentator at some institute somewhere in China emphasizing China’s desire for “peaceful unification” with Taiwan. The expression has a nice, soothing din to it — after all, who opposes peace, or the peaceful resolution of a decades-long conflict? Only radicals, extremists, or groups with unsavory ties to foreign imperialist powers could possibly seek to derail such lofty goals.
There are two fundamental problems with that formulation. First, it died many years ago, as Taiwan and China chose different paths both politically and, just as importantly, socially, and with that the mixture of mores, civility and attitudes that today distinguish Taiwan just as much as its liberal democratic system does from authoritarian China. None of this is meant to cast aspersion on China’s extraordinary accomplishments, at least in material terms, in recent decades, or to ridicule the choices that the Chinese have made for themselves (if choices those indeed were, given the autocratic nature of the CCP). Taiwanese chose their own path to development, and by their own actions they shed authoritarian rule and embraced a liberal democracy that is very much their own and which can stand proudly alongside the more “mature” ones elsewhere. The two lines of those national experiments, while they may have run in parallel for a while, have, with the passage of time, drifted further away from each other. Thus, Taiwan’s accomplishments, and where it has arrived at, aren’t a denial of China as it exists today; they are simply a different outcome, and one that can only with extreme difficulty be reconciled with the decisions that have been made by its giant neighbor. A denial it is not, but an affirmation it very much is. To be pro-Taiwan isn’t to be anti-China, as the CCP often accuses its critics. But it is very much a desire to be treated as an equal, to be left alone in as normalized a state of relations as possible.
This takes us to the second reason why “peaceful unification” is a misnomer. And that is the refusal, by the CCP and Chinese nationalists, to accept the situation as described in the foregoing paragraph. Here, the Chinese use “peaceful” as a cover, a smokescreen to isolate and sideline whomever opposes the objective of annexing Taiwan — hence the insistence, which flies in the face of the objective truth, on the “small groups” and “minority” of “extremists” in Taiwan who oppose “historical trends” and the “desire” of “Chinese” on both sides of the Taiwan Strait for “unification” and the “great rejuvenation of China,” and so on and so forth. The CCP doesn’t use that kind of language because it believes it — at least, I don’t think they’re that far gone yet to believe that, and many of China’s politicians and academics know enough about Taiwan to know that such notions are “Orwellian nonsense.” But they have to use it, and they insist on it, because this is the only narrative they have used; to say otherwise would be to admit that the the CCP has failed — worse, that it has been lying to the Chinese people all along. And if it lied on Taiwan, then there is always the possibility that it has been lying about many other things as well. (The intensifying censorship across China certainly suggests that the CCP knows it must conceal a variety of inconvenient facts from its people.)
Unification could still happen. But don’t kid yourself — the chances of it being peaceful are now next to nil.
“Peaceful unification” is therefore something else. What it most certainly is not is peaceful: it is coercive, very much one-sided, certainly not magnanimous, and increasingly punitive in its response to the resistance this endeavor has encountered. Better terms are annexation or absorption, a first layer in Chinese territorial expansionism by a regime that, as it acquires more, needs to acquire even more to assuage its growing sense of vulnerability — a classic case of the imperial trap.
All of this is backed by a growing military threat, espionage, cyber attacks, reliance on violent triads and proxies, and attempts to erode Taiwan’s international visibility, democratic institutions, and resistance. In this context, “peaceful” means the abandonment of resistance. It means subjugation and capitulation, which would make use of force to seize territory unnecessary. But peaceful, in the true sense of the word, such an outcome most emphatically would not be. (Two recent polls by the National Chengchi University Election Studies Center have shown a minor uptick in support for unification, though still within the statistical margin of error. It is too early to determine whether those are indicative of a long-term shift in attitudes or more the result of various factors, such as the Democratic Progressive Party currently occupying the Presidential Office, China’s all-out assault on Taiwan’s presence internationally, and perhaps even the Trump factor and the uncertainties that stem from it. These bumps in the trend lines are perfectly normal and in my opinion do not override general trends and overwhelming opposition — 77.4% [“status quo” + pro-independence] — to unification/annexation.)
Meanwhile, as the real historical trends move in a direction unwanted (and covered up) by the CCP, developments in China have exacerbated anti-annexation sentiment across Taiwan as well as attachment to democratic principles. The myth of “one country, two systems” in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has been busted, what with the detention of young activists, erosions of press freedoms, loss of control over immigration and border matters, delayed universal suffrage, and the threatened — as well as unprecedented — ban on a “separatist” political party (at the weekend, former HKSAR chief executive C. Y. Leung practically likened Hong Kong and Taiwanese “separatists” to terrorists).
Furthermore, rising militaristic ultra-nationalism which often borders on fascism (see the video at the bottom of this article); an intensifying crackdown on intellectuals, artists, lawyers and dissidents; the imprisonment and death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo; the bulldozing of one of Ai Wei Wei’s studios in Beijing; kidnappings; forced evictions by the thousands; tightening ideological controls at Chinese universities; a Cultural Revolution-styled “patriotic struggle” campaign to “brainwash” Chinese academics who are not toeing Xi’s ideological line; and the massive ethnic cleansing (I prefer the term identicide, which my friend Sarah Jane Meharg, adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, sees as a precursor to genocide) that is currently being waged against hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, complete with re-education/concentration camps and mechanisms of control that belong in a nightmarish dystopia are all making it clear to the Taiwanese — all of this is convincing more and more Taiwanese, even those who look to China for career opportunities, that the Chinese system isn’t one they want for themselves. Who in his right mind would stake his future in such a vortex of political terror, knowing that within that system the Taiwanese would themselves become a minority group!
While it insists on the supposedly “peaceful” aims and elements of its efforts to annex Taiwan, everything the CCP does nowadays — to the Taiwanese and to its own people — ensures that support for such a project will be met with rising opposition. Unification could still happen. But don’t kid yourself — the chances of it being peaceful are now next to nil.