Once, if more than 100,000 people had marched through Taipei to oppose closer links between Taiwan and Mainland China, Beijing's response would have been predictable: an angry, high-level reminder that time was running out for Taiwan to rejoin the motherland peacefully. Ten years ago, Taiwan's then-president Chen Shui-bian -- who had a particular talent for infuriating Chinese leaders with his pro-independence views -- drew a nasty rocket from his mainland counterpart Jiang Zemin. China's president told a People’s Liberation Army conference that Taiwan’s status had to be resolved by 2020, adding that China’s military was perfectly capable of squashing Taiwan's then-resurgent pro-independence movement.
Apparently, times have changed. In the two weeks since student protesters seized Taiwan’s national legislative chamber to condemn a trade agreement that opens up Taiwan’s service industry to mainland investment (and competition), Chinese state media have been strikingly calm. This most likely indicates strategy, of course, rather than ambivalence. Chinese authorities -- keenly aware that threats against independent-, if not independence-minded Taiwanese mostly succeed in alienating them -- have in recent years taken a gentler approach to promoting reunification. Athletic exchanges, increased tourism, and summits are in. Threats, ultimatums, and deadlines are out.
Superficially, Taiwan has seemed perfectly content to accept this "friends with benefits" approach to cross-Straits relations. And why not? The benefits are obvious (no more ultimatums, for starters) and there is no pressure to commit.
In retrospect, however, it's clear that Taiwan's discomfort with this increasingly intimate relationship has been growing, and was probably bound for a reckoning. The breaking point was reached over what should have been a minor issue -– a trade agreement on services -– that came to evoke much bigger questions about the island's ultimate relationship with Communist China. Protests are spreading: After 100,000 Taiwanese marched through the capital on Sunday, demonstrators are expected to march on campuses in North America this weekend, holding sympathetic pro-democracy demonstrations.
If anything seems guaranteed to set the mainland's itchy anti-independence officials on edge, it would be events like these. Yet the prevailing sentiment that China seems to be projecting is studied indifference. This might be a pose. But if so, it’s an awfully confident one built largely on two intertwined ideas: first, that Taiwan’s economy is in decline, while China's is ascendant; and second, that the economic imbalance between the two makes reunification inevitable.
By this logic, Taiwan faces a stark choice: if it wants to improve its stagnant economy, it needs to deepen the relationship with China, Asia’s economic engine. On Monday, the state-owned Global Times newspaper, ordinarily a reliably hawkish voice on Chinese sovereignty issues -- among which Taiwan holds pride of place -- gave voice to this more nuanced argument in an editorial that struggled at times to restrain its schadenfreude:
“The long-term stagnation of Taiwan’s economy has made it fall behind Korea. The root cause is that Taiwan doesn't dare to have real cooperation with the Mainland while Korea doesn't have such concerns. Taiwanese students and their supporting forces ignore the root issue and instead vent their anxiety and confusion on the trade pacts. This kind of emotion is characteristic of a community gripped by depression and hysteria.”
The problem, in other words, is all Taiwan’s. And to solve it, Taiwanese need to accept what everyone else in Asia has already admitted is inevitable.
It’s difficult to say just how prevalent this perspective is outside of official circles. Early in the protests, Chinese social media users seemed to view the unrest as one more example of a young democracy struggling with stability, and took particular umbrage at the support given to the movement by Taiwanese celebrities with Chinese audiences. But social media interest in the protests has declined precipitously in recent weeks, overtaken by the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines 370. Meanwhile, this weekend, as Taipei was swarmed by protesters, Chinese Internet users ignored the demonstrations (and other breaking news) and instead focused on a celebrity extra marital affair that -- by the end of the weekend -- had set new records for comments and shares on Sina Weibo.
It’s possible, of course, that in between discussing the scandal of the moment, Chinese Internet users paused to consider the question of whether Taiwan was slipping out of the mainland's grasp. But like their government, they appear to regard the Taipei protests as nothing more than bumps on the fast track to reunification.
(Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of "Junkyard Planet," a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter.)
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