• China’s relationships with Taiwan, the US and Hong Kong threaten not only the stability of the nation, but its very survival
  • It remains to be seen whether President Xi can resolve these inherited problems and make China strong again
Illustration: Craig Stephens

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Beijing is busy preparing for this momentous occasion, carefully planning which weapons to display in the annual military parade, but even these celebrations cannot distract the people from the slew of issues currently facing the nation.

China is struggling to bear the burden of its numerous policy and strategy failures. There are three major issues that the country has to successfully confront if it wishes to preserve itself.

The first is the relationship with Taiwan, which is currently at its lowest point in years. As of 2016, at least 64 per cent of Taiwanese felt China would use economic ties to force political concessions. China's strategy of romancing Taiwan through economic incentives clearly hasn't worked.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has increased its popularity by standing against Beijing, and even the Kuomintang (KMT), the generally pro-Beijing party in Taiwan, has distanced itself from Beijing in an attempt to regain some power. Beijing and Taipei are moving further apart.

Taiwan resists Beijing's attempt to woo island " one job at a time

The Taiwan controversy can be traced back to Mao Zedong's failure to secure Taiwan from Chiang Kai-shek. After driving the Nationalists out of China, Mao had planned an invasion into Taiwan to put down the KMT once and for all.

However, he intended to first weaken the KMT from the inside out, but his plan was interrupted by the Korean war. When North Korea invaded the South, US president Harry Truman not only agreed to support South Korea, but also ordered the US Navy to stop any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Had Mao struck while the iron was hot, we would not be debating the meaning of "China" in 2019.

Now, China is at an impasse with Taiwan, largely because of the United States' continued involvement. It has contained the conflict via strategic ambiguity. Because of the wording of the Taiwan Relations Act, Taipei cannot declare independence because it is unsure that the US would be willing to support it militarily if it did so. At the same time, Beijing cannot move to take Taiwan against its will because that would risk US military involvement.

I applaud the action taken by @Twitter & @facebook against state-orchestrated attacks on pro-democracy forces in #HongKong. Greatly look forward to seeing the battle broadened to those undermining democracy in general, #Taiwan's in particular. JW https://t.co/2GSzgG6OgZ

" 外交部 Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC (Taiwan) (@MOFA_Taiwan) August 20, 2019

This brings us to the second issue facing China: its relationship with the US, which has turned extremely hostile lately.

First, there is the trade war, which has been devastating for US farmers and is putting strain on the Chinese economy. Second, China has engaged in intellectual property theft and spying in the US, which has created racial tensions in America for Chinese-Americans. Third, China has repeatedly complained about US meddling in its domestic affairs.

One of those affairs is Taiwan. Recently, the US approved an US$8 billion arms package to Taiwan. This is the largest single US arms sale to Taiwan in years, and some experts believe it signals a growing US discontent towards strategic ambiguity.

Another area where China has accused the US of meddling is Hong Kong, which brings us to our third key issue. The protests in Hong Kong have continued for weeks, with hundreds arrested and clashes with police becoming the new norm. China has repeatedly mentioned that meddling outside forces (read: the US) are to blame for the protesters' actions.

These three issues " relationships with Taiwan, the US and Hong Kong " are threatening not only the stability of China, but its survival. President Xi Jinping is unfortunate in that he has inherited many of these problems.

The seeds of the Taiwan conflict were sowed when Mao took over China.

US relations have always been rocky, especially since the Tiananmen Square crackdown. And, in recent decades, the US government, whether led by a Democratic or Republican president, has been hawkish towards China.

Hong Kong has belonged to China since 1997, predating Xi's rule by well over a decade.

So far, Xi has been unable to reduce the tensions plaguing China in these three key areas. Although Xi may act tough on Taiwan, China has shown itself to be a paper tiger. It may roar, but will never attack. Taipei knows this, and it knows it is better off as a democracy. China is too big for democracy but Taiwan is not. It will never surrender to Beijing.

Xi may be pushed soon to act forcefully on the Hong Kong issue. If he does, the relationship with the US will deteriorate further. If he does not, the instability will spread and tarnish Hong Kong's reputation even more. It will also make China look weak to the rest of the world.

There is no end to the trade war in sight, no matter how much energy Xi puts into negotiating. President Donald Trump is unpredictable and throws deals out as fast as he makes them. There is no use in holding out for a negotiated end to this dispute.

I am almost 90 now. I have seen nearly 100 years of Chinese history. I lived through the warlord era and the Japanese occupation of China and Hong Kong. I witnessed the atrocities Japan committed, and its eventual defeat in World War II. I saw the civil war in China " I still remember the Red Army coming into Beijing in February 1949. I witnessed the chaos that arose from a weak China, and the long, painful process it took to become strong again.

Now, China is showing weakness once more. President Xi cannot solve the problems that have been growing steadily worse over the years. The Communist Party has ruled China for 70 years. That's longer than many Chinese imperial dynasties. Could it rule for another 70 years? Like all Chinese people, I hope that Xi is able to make China strong once again.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Comment 0