President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to take a courtesy call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen last week has alarmed many in American mainstream media, who argue that acknowledging Tsai as a fellow head of state unnecessarily strains relations with communist China.
Beijing has issued a formal complaint, but it does not appear that the call will have any severe diplomatic repercussions for the United States – which, as Trump noted in his Twitter defense of the call, has sold weapons to Taiwan for decades.
For the Communist Party elite in China, however, Trump’s gracious acceptance of congratulations from Tsai – after receiving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump Tower and getting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to say kind things about the United States – poses a significant threat. China is currently fielding separatist movements on all sides, some from ethno-religious minorities who seek self-rule, some from Han Chinese living in historically capitalist regions who reject Beijing’s imposition of Marxist policies. Recognize Tsai’s ability to craft foreign policy in her own right, especially given her election on an anti-Beijing platform, may embolden these four regions to more loudly reject Xi Jinping’s rule.
Xinjiang is the furthest-west region of China. It is home to most of the nation’s Muslim Uighur minority, which Beijing had banned from, among other practices, publicly observing the Ramadan fast, riding public transportation in traditional Islamic garb, owning shops that do not sell haram items like alcohol and cigarettes, and becoming official Communist Party members. Chinese state propaganda often promotes “ethnic unity” in Xinjiang, code for miscegenation among Chinese ethnic groups to dilute Uighur culture. The Chinese government, many exiled Uighurs allege, uses its ex-pats as spies to keep an eye on Uighur families living abroad.
As a result, Xinjiang is home to a movement seeking independence from Beijing. Beijing has accused a Muslim separatist group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a U.S.-designated terrorist group, of a number of violent terrorist attacks in the region. Beijing also alleges that hundreds of its Uighur citizens have joined the Islamic State, with a think tank report finding that Uighur Islamic State recruits are more likely to be older and have families than the younger men flocking to Syria from the West. If those Islamic State recruits return from their jihad with battle experience, and led their expertise to the ETIM, China may be facing a full-throated Muslim separatist insurgency.
Located southeast of Xinjiang, Tibet has long been a breakaway region in the eyes of Beijing. Tibet’s Buddhist population, led by the communist persona non grata, the Dalai Lama, has resorted to a variety of peaceful protest tactics, including self-immolation, to demand separation from Beijing.
China has committed to two strategies to keep Tibet under its heel: flooding the locals with Communist Party money in the hope that a better life will give them something to lose in the cause for independence, and consistent demonization of the Dalai Lama, particularly in comparison with the Beijing-appointed Buddhist second-in-command, the Panchen Lama.
All told, China has invested more than $100 billion in Tibet, a mountainous rural region, in the past half-century, since annexation in 1951. The investments have led to majority Han Chinese moving to Tibet in droves to start businesses there, to take advantage of subsidies for infrastructure projects. The goal, Bloomberg quoted Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, as explaining in December 2015, is for “a critical mass of Tibetans [to] have a vested interest in the status quo, so they will be quiet.”
If they are economically stable, Beijing has bet, they will not listen to the Dalai Lama’s calls for independence. Like in Xinjiang, local communist party leaders regularly tout “ethnic unity”: “We must deepen the struggle against the Dalai Lama clique, make it the highest priority in carrying out our ethnic affairs, and the long-term mission of strengthening ethnic unity,” Community Party secretary of Tibet Wu Yingjie told state propaganda outlets in October. The Dalai Lama, another official railed, was an “Islamic State sympathizer” with no legitimacy.
China has argued that the legitimate leader of Buddhism is the religion’s second-most powerful figure, the Panchen Lama. Beijing-friendly Panchen Lama Gyaltsen Norbu is not without controversy, however, as Beijing chose him to take over the Panchen Lama title after the disappearance of the boy the Dalai Lama had identified as the reincarnated Buddhist leader.
Unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong is only partially governed by Beijing. Hong Kong is a “Special Administrative Region,” which allows it some autonomy under a constitution-like document known as the Basic Law. China has increasingly attempted to impose itself on the region, attempting to prevent the rise of anti-Beijing politicians and infiltrate the region’s democratic elections. This triggered the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Revolution, which have since spawned a political party and placed numerous lawmakers in office.
In November, Beijing intervened to remove two representatives elected to the region’s legislative assembly. The lawmakers had refused to pledge allegiance to China in their oath of office, bringing a banner reading “Hong Kong is not China” to their inauguration. The move has spawned a new wave of protests, led by the still-young but now more experienced leaders of the Umbrella Revolution. One of the protests’ most prominent organizers, student activist Joshua Wong, has called for the dissolution of the Basic Law, to be replaced with an independent constitution that China does not have the power to amend.
Since the protests began, China has banned two others from taking office for supporting those initially banned. The issue has now arrived in Hong Kong’s courts, but the legislators in question have expressed concern that their cause will not prevail without protests pressuring Beijing. “It’s not just about my seat,” Nathan Law, one of the lawmakers, told CNN this week. “It’s about whether those people who voted for me are willing to resist, are wiling [sic] to come out on the street and protest.”
Returning to where we began, Taiwan, too, is seeing the rise of an anti-China movement. President Tsai Ing-wen became the nation’s first female president campaigning on a staunchly independent, anti-Communist platform. In her inauguration speech, Tsai did not acknowledge Beijing, as is the tradition, and since taking office in January, has become the first Taiwanese president to observe the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“The bottom line shall never be tested,” Chinese state propaganda outlet Xinhua blared following her election. “Any attempt to steer the island closer to independence will be a fool’s errand.” Beijing has scheduled bigger and louder military exercises near Taiwan following her election.
Now Tsai finds herself acknowledged by America’s President-elect as an equal, a fellow head-of-state. China’s reaction to the move so far has been relatively subdued, possibly because Trump has not yet taken office, and perhaps hoping the incident will not make major headlines within China’s borders. It is difficult to imagine that Taiwan’s fellow travelers in the fight for independence from Beijing will not notice, however, weakening the stranglehold the Communist Party has on power.