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Three big takeaways from Xi Jinping’s 2019 Taiwan speech

Xi voiced a new sense of urgency for unification — but no timetable.

- January 10, 2019

Editor’s note: As Taiwan faces a pivotal election in 2024, relations between Beijing and Taipei are on the minds of many Taiwanese voters. In this archival piece, first published in the Washington Post in early 2019, contributor Jie Dalei examines the significance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message on “one country, two systems” — and Taiwan reunification.

On Jan. 2, 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave an eye-catching speech on mainland China’s Taiwan policy. This was a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” a Jan. 1, 1979, speech in the name of the National People’s Congress’s Standing Committee, delivered against the background of the normalization of U.S.-China relations and the beginning of mainland China’s “reform and opening up” era.

The 1979 Message to Compatriots was an important policy pivot for Beijing, as it formally ended military confrontation between mainland China and Taiwan and called for peaceful reunification across the Taiwan Strait. Along with other remarks from Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders in the next few years, it set up the “peaceful reunification, and one country, two systems” policy framework vis-a-vis Taiwan for the next four decades.

Why did Xi echo this speech?

Revisiting anniversaries is part of the Chinese Communist Party game plan — to remind the Chinese people of what’s important. But new wrinkles in this 40-year framework provide the immediate context for Xi’s speech. Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen, elected in 2016, stopped short of adopting the 1992 Consensus on “one China,” and the cross-strait relationship has been at an impasse since. Taiwan’s local elections in November, with the opposition KMT party winning a somewhat unexpected landslide victory, may have added some optimism to the issue of reunification; the KMT advocates closer ties with the mainland.

Beijing has also been unsettled by U.S. moves in recent months to elevate U.S.-Taiwan relations, despite an official U.S. line acknowledging the one-China policy since 1972.

Against this complicated backdrop, how significant is Xi’s speech? Here’s what you need to know:

1. There’s substantial continuity with China’s past policies

Xi reiterated key elements of the peaceful unification formula: to abide by the “one China” principle and to resolutely oppose Taiwan independence or interference by foreign forces; to build even closer economic and social ties; to promote the shared splendid Chinese culture — but not to renounce the use of force. There was a slight change of wording on some of these elements, but the bulk of the speech resonated with the message from 40 years ago.

Xi talked about “the past 70 years” instead of the 40-year timeline — in keeping with his view that the history of the People’s Republic of China is a whole and that the pre-1978 and post-1978 history should not negate each other.

2. Yes, there’s a new sense of urgency for unification — but no timetable

After the 1979 message, Chinese and U.S. officials alike expected that unification was within reach, because of Taiwan’s increasing isolation in the world. A similar sense of urgency was discernible in Xi’s speech last week. This contrasts with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, whose speech in 2009 commemorated the 30th anniversary of the message. While Hu focused on “peaceful development” — an interim stage toward reunification — Xi offered much more discussion about how to achieve peaceful unification and the post-unification benefits and arrangements for Taiwan and Taiwanese citizens.

Some specific points Xi raised include the relationship between national unification and the Chinese dream of rejuvenation — a return to greatness that ancient China once enjoyed in the world. Xi asserted that the Taiwan question arose because of the Chinese nation’s weaknesses, so the matter of Taiwan will end with China’s rejuvenation. Xi reiterated a point he made in 2013 — that the political division across the Taiwan Strait that keeps reunification at bay should not be passed from generation to generation.

Yet Xi’s discussion was rather philosophical. This suggests it was meant to convey the moral obligation and historical inevitability of unification, not a clear timetable.

3. There’s room for flexibility and proactiveness for the purpose of peaceful unification

Xi indicated implicitly that the Taiwan version of “one country, two systems” might look quite different from the scenario in either Hong Kong or Macao. What the “two systems” would look like in Taiwan’s case remained open to discussion and consultation.

Xi also “solemnly” proposed that “representative personnel” recommended by different parties and groups on both sides come together to discuss how to institutionalize peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait. This means that regardless of who is the ruling party in Taiwan, Beijing would like to talk with the “coalition of the willing” on the island about how to advance peaceful unification — not an entirely new approach, but a stepped-up effort, perhaps.

Moreover, Xi urged the two sides, on top of economic cooperation, to strengthen integration of infrastructure, energy resources, sectoral standards and even public services wherever possible. This would suggest some kind of incremental de facto or functional unification.

Beijing believes time is on the side of peaceful unification

The growing number of residents on the island who self-identify only as Taiwanese instead of Chinese constitutes a major challenge for reunification, but Beijing believes even that can change as economic and social ties are further integrated. The result of the November 2018 local elections seems to vindicate Beijing’s expectations that, as their livelihoods were affected by cross-Strait tension, Taiwanese opted for a party that was more likely to improve relations with Beijing.

On the big question — use of force — what is the likely impact of Xi’s speech? Historically, Beijing would be more likely to resort to forcible actions if events on the ground make Chinese leaders highly pessimistic about the trend toward unification. So although Xi stressed that all options are on the table, unless Taipei makes radical moves to establish Taiwan independence or Washington rattles the “one China” policy in a major way, Beijing will probably pursue its peaceful unification game plan for the foreseeable future.

Jie Dalei is an associate professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University.