Dictators Dictate – or Try To

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy rejiggering his government to satisfy his ceaseless lust for power, his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, has been busy doing something similar. Xi too has been seeking to satisfy his ceaseless lust for power, albeit in his case not exactly at home, more like abroad. Though how exactly Taiwan relates to the Chinese mainland lies, of course, in the eye of the beholder.   

Xi has always claimed that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.” There’s just one small problem: the people of Taiwan see their situation differently. A few days ago, they handed a landslide victory to incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who has flat out rejected Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan succumb entirely to Chinese control. The reason for their increasing skepticism is clear: what happened recently in Hong Kong. What happened recently in Hong Kong frightened the people of Taiwan – and it emboldened them. They are frightened by what they rightly regard as Xi’s attempts to hold Hong Kongers increasingly tightly in his iron grip. And they are emboldened by Hong Kongers’ fierce resistance to what has become Xi’s dictatorial rule. The model held out by Beijing to both Hong Kong and Taiwan, known as “one country, two systems,” is widely perceived now a sham, which means that people in both places can be expected to fend off for the indefinite future Xi’s most ardent overtures.

Once again, this leaves this most powerful of dictators with a difficult hand to play – a very difficult hand. He is pitted against two peoples who have lived their lives in systems more akin to democracies than autocracies – and they rather like it. Which means that Xi has few if any good policy options. Political compromise is unlikely. And the prospect of using military force is as unattractive as, likely, counterproductive.

When the results of the election in Taiwan became known, Beijing was, predictably, furious. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reiterated yet again that Taiwan was an “inalienable part” of China,” adding for good measure that “those who split the country will be doomed to leave a stink for 10,00 years.” But, in the short term at least, it is those in mainland China, not those on the island lying just 100 miles to the east, obliged to hold their nose.

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