No Winnie the Pooh

Andrew Donaldson writes on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China under Xi



MEANWHILE, in other international news … and far, far from the travails confronting our favourite blowhards with silly haircuts and away from the critical eye of the world’s media … two tiny Pacific island nations have succumbed to powerful forces beyond their control. 

And no, we’re not talking about rising sea levels and other environmental calamities, although that surely is in the offing, but the decision last week by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan at the behest of a bullying Beijing.

This now reduces the number of countries who formally recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state to just 15. Some are tiny island states: Palau, Nauru, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Those that aren’t surrounded by water and miles from anywhere seem to be no more than torrid backwaters, like Paraguay, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Others are outright basket cases: Swaziland and Haiti.

It is obvious that Beijing and President Xi Jinping would want to lean on these minnow nations to isolate the Taipei government in pursuit of its One China policy. There is some serious face that needs saving here. Taiwan, you will recall, was born amid the chaos that followed the Chinese civil war, and broke from the mainland in 1949. It was here that Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists had regrouped, hoping to retake the mainland from Mao Zedong’s communists. 

That never happened. Instead, the island nation would eventually flourish as a democracy boasting a first-world economy — but not before enduring martial law from May 19, 1949, to July 15, 1987. 

At the time the so-called “White Terror” was lifted, it was the longest period of martial law in the world. About 140 000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this time and some 3 500 executed for their real or perceived opposition to Chiang’s Kuomintang government. Most of these prosecutions took place at the time of the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, when anti-communist sentiment was particularly high. 

On Tuesday, the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 70th anniversary. Some commentators declare the occasion will, in some ways, be a dress-rehearsal for the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary in 2021. 

Despite efforts to ensure that nothing rains on Beijing’s parade, there are however, according to George Magnus, author of Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy (Yale University Press), external events that continue to threaten the stability and order the party so desperately desires. 

One of these is the ongoing trade war with the United States. Another is the growing protest movement in Hong Kong, which is potentially the bigger embarrassment to Beijing. 

Writing in the Financial Times, Magnus argues that the reluctance to crack down on protestors there suggests that Beijing recognises, albeit reluctantly, Hong Kong’s status as a global financial powerhouse: “It hosts more than 60 consulates and over 8 500 multinational corporate regional headquarters or offices, is a rule-of-law entity in which local and global companies run their Chinese arms, and acts as China’s portal to global financial services and vice versa.”

And then there is Taiwan, where events in Hong Kong have not gone unnoticed. Reports suggest the pro-democracy demonstrations have strengthened support for Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and her call to further distance Taipei from the mainland should she be returned to power when the country goes to the polls in January next year.

In Beijing, however, the programme to peacefully reunite the “renegade province” with the mainland continues regardless. 

And, way out in the middle of the Pacific, on remote Kiribati, they’re not taking too kindly to this. 

Yesterday, supporters of opposition leader Titabu Tabane took to the streets of the capital Tarawa in an anti-China demonstration. News photographs suggest it wasn’t so much a march as a sleepy amble through the palm trees by a few guys wearing shorts and flip-flops. But, according to some reports, there were chants of “We love Taiwan, we hate China, we want peace!”

Why, you may wonder, would Beijing want to bother itself out here? Some analysts suggest that Kiribati and the Solomon Islands lie in the middle of “strategic waters” that been dominated by the US and its allies since World War Two and China is merely seeking to expand its influence in the Pacific. 

The good news for Taiwan, though, is that the neighbouring Marshall Islands (in as much as neighbouring states could be separated by some 2 500 kilometres of open sea) has confirmed that it is maintaining diplomatic ties with Taipei. 

In a statement, the Marshall Islands said it had adopted a resolution to show its “profound appreciation to the people and government of Taiwan”. President Hilda Heine said, “We’ve all seen China’s attempts to expand its territory and footprint, and this should be of great concern to democratic countries.” 

A grateful Taipei has expressed its “deep thanks” for the gesture, and has pledged to deepen cooperation with the Marshall Islands. God knows, but it needs all the friends it can get. In 1968, some 70, including South Africa, countries recognised Taiwan, compared to 46 for the People’s Republic. By 1979, Taiwan’s allies had fallen to 22, while China’s had grown to 121. 

Pretoria’s relationship with Taipei began in 1949. It was initially cool and a bit standoffish due to concerns that chumminess with Taiwan could result in Beijing increasing its support for the Pan Africanist Congress and its armed struggle. But after the UN withdrew international recognition of the Republic of China in favour of the People’s Republic of China, the relationship warmed considerably.

That all changed after 1994. Aware of the potential hostility of the new ANC government, Taipei embarked on a massive public relations campaign in an attempt to win over support, and reportedly spent millions of dollars to fly out ministers, MPs and other top nobs and show them a good time on the island. 

But even back then, in 1996, the greenhorn ruling party was well familiar with the concept of grasping greedily with the one hand while being dishonourable with the other. Despite a high level visit by Taiwan’s foreign minister, John Chiang, with his local counterpart, the somnambular Alfred Nzzzzzo, Pretoria was firmly opting for ties with Beijing.

In the absence of formal diplomatic relations, Taiwan and South Africa run “liaison offices” which serve as de facto embassies. How long this relationship will continue is perhaps subject to the whim of Xi Jinping.

In the years since Mao’s death, there had been some amity between Taipei and Beijing, linked as they were by kinship, history and ancestry. But that cordiality, such as it was, vanished when Xi took came into power in 2012. The belligerence was upped considerably in 2016 when Tsai was elected president on a nationalist ticket that rejected the One China policy.

There is something a bit odd here, as Beijing can tolerate — at least for the moment — a different set of rules for Hong Kong, a former British colony. But there’s no such laxity when it comes to Taiwan. It is thanks to China’s aggression that Taiwan can no longer fly its national flag at the Olympics, that airports and international hotel chains must refer to the country as being part of China, and that global organisations have been cowed into turning down trade delegations and individuals from Taiwan. 

The man behind all this is Xi. It’s worth noting that, after Mao’s death in 1976 and the full scope of his disastrous Cultural Revolution had been assessed, the Chinese Communist Party changed its constitution to explicitly outlaw “all forms of personality cult” in what was seen as a retreat from dictatorial rule and a slow but inevitable towards accountability. 

However, after his election as general secretary of the party, Xi’s first move was to humiliate and imprison, not his enemies, but his closest allies. These, he had decided, would otherwise have been his greatest rivals. (It’s much the sort of thing that Julius Malema did as commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters. Hence the high turnover in the party’s parliamentary caucus.)

Xi then targeted an emerging civil society. Lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and religious leaders have been exiled or jailed in their thousands. And it continues. Just last week drone footage was posted on YouTube showing Chinese police with hundreds of blindfolded and shackled men who appear to be Uighur or other minorities about to be herded on to a train bound for who knows where. 

Meanwhile, the president’s list of titles increases. Xi is now the Creative Leader, Core of the Party and Servant Pursuing Happiness for the People. He is also the Leader of a Great Country and Architect of Modernisation in the New Era. In March last year, the National People’s Congress voted to abolish limits on his term of office. He is, in other words, Chairman for Life.

One thing he is not, however, is Winnie the Pooh. 

Last year, Chinese censors banned Christopher Robin, the latest film adaptation of AA Milne’s story about the much-loved toy bear. The character has become a meme to mock Xi but the government doesn’t find the joke very funny. Such mockery is a crime now punishable by two years in prison. It has been 30 years since Tiananmen Square, but the grim reality of that bloody episode remains: those who question the authority of the one-party state, and the man who leads it, do so at their peril.