Mainland China’s relations with Taiwan and Hong Kong seem to grow worse by the day, and for this it is hard to blame anyone but mainland China. In Taiwan, a Taiwanese president elected by Taiwanese voters is being attacked and bullied by mainland China for failing to govern Taiwan according to mainland Chinese expectations. In Hong Kong, booksellers are being abducted by mainland Chinese authorities, press freedom is eroding under mainland Chinese pressure, and democratic development is stalled due to mainland Chinese interference.
Taiwan has existed as a de facto independent country since 1949, has developed an advanced economy and a vibrant democracy separate from mainland China, but finds itself subject to constant mainland Chinese meddling and intimidation aimed at bringing Taiwan under mainland Chinese control. Cosmopolitan Hong Kong was arbitrarily handed over from British to Chinese control in 1997, and struggles to maintain the autonomy and rights it was guaranteed in the handover agreement, likewise due to mainland Chinese meddling and intimidation.
Taiwan’s 23 million people and Hong Kong’s seven million didn’t ask for any of these problems with mainland China. All they ask is to enjoy the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by people in other modern democracies—not only Western democracies, but also neighboring Asian democracies like South Korea and Japan. Constantly interfering, harassing, and bullying them, however, is mainland China, a semi-feudal dictatorship and human rights disaster area.
Mainland China gets away with this only because it is large, while Taiwan and Hong Kong are small. On Planet Earth it matters what people think, even in small places, but not on Planet China. All that matters on Planet China is power.
Public opinion polls in Taiwan and Hong Kong consistently show overwhelming unwillingness to submit to authoritarian mainland Chinese control. In Taiwan, the vast majority of citizens are opposed to “reunification” with mainland China and consider themselves to be of “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” nationality. The landslide Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) electoral victory this year in Taiwan was also a “clear call to remain separate from China.” Polls in Hong Kong likewise show overwhelming dissatisfaction with the Chinese central government in Beijing and the local Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government—widely regarded as a puppet of Beijing—and rejection of “Chinese” national identity.
Does this matter to Beijing? Of course not. Such is what Chinese author Yu Hua called the “the arrogance of power in China,” which manifests itself daily in the behavior of the mainland Chinese government. On Planet China, all that matters is what China wants, and what matters most is what the Chinese Communist Party wants.
Regarding mainland Chinese attitudes toward Taiwan, sociologist Hao Zhidong described an “arrogant” and “condescending” form of “collectivistic ethnic nationalism” on the mainland’s part that demands “the subjugation of the small by the big” and that “says little about human rights or democracy.” Because “unification is good for China and the Chinese people,” it doesn’t matter what people in Taiwan want or think. Taiwan’s own national consciousness “can be ignored, and its adherents can be called derogatively ‘elements supporting Taiwan independence’.”
The same can be said of the mainland’s attitude toward Hong Kong. In both cases, as mainland China sees it, the “reunification of China” can only be according to mainland China’s terms, which means according to the Chinese Communist Party’s terms. The different historical experiences and aspirations of people in Hong Kong and Taiwan are irrelevant to authoritarian mainland China.
“There is no future in Taiwan independence, and this cannot become an option for Taiwan’s future,” proclaimed the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office recently to a group of Taiwanese business representatives in Beijing, “This is the conclusion of history…. Some people say you must pay attention to broad public opinion in Taiwan, and that one can understand the attitude and feelings of Taiwan’s people formed by its special historical experiences and social environment. But, Taiwan society ought to understand and attach importance to the feelings of the 1.37 billion residents of the mainland.”
For the Chinese government, the opinions of mainland China’s 1.37 billion people seem to matter only when they can be directed against the smaller populations of Taiwan or Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the views of the Chinese government on Taiwan and Hong Kong do indeed seem to be shared by most of mainland China’s people. In a recent online poll, 97% of mainland Chinese respondents said that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” 85% favored using force to “reunify” Taiwan with mainland China, and 60% favored using force against Taiwan within the next five years to preempt further support in Taiwan for formal independence from China.
If this poll is accurate, it means that not only the mainland Chinese government, but most mainland Chinese citizens have no regard whatsoever for the wishes of Taiwan’s people. As with Taiwan, all indications are that most mainland Chinese citizens support their government’s policies in Hong Kong. Like those in Taiwan who oppose “reunification” with mainland China, democracy and independence activists in Hong Kong are widely condemned in mainland Chinese social media as “traitors” who should be “severely punished.”
Does this mean that mainland Chinese are bad people? Of course not. But they live under a totalitarian state and have been indoctrinated since birth to accept and obey everything their government tells them. Those with the means to do so simply carve out whatever space of freedom for themselves that they can. Only an enlightened minority dare to openly disagree or disobey, and they usually end up in prison or in exile. Some others may protest when their well-being is negatively affected by Communist Party policy, but on mainland China’s territorial claims they seem almost unanimously in support of their government. China’s territorial claims are a sacred cow—a “core national interest”—that few dare to challenge and most simply accept as gospel.
We can hope that someday mainland China will be a democracy where people are allowed to think for themselves free of Chinese Communist Party indoctrination. We can also hope that someday mainland China will learn to treat its neighbors with respect. In the meantime, however, the best that Taiwan and Hong Kong can hope for is to protect themselves from mainland China.