Another problem for Mr. Xi is that the growing repression in China is being noted by people on the “peripheries” who are apprehensive about what this might mean for them. Chief among them are the people of Hong Kong, who under “one country, two systems” have already felt the effects of the mainlandization of the political sphere and whose liberties face further constraints under the new National Security Law, whose purview includes the Special Administrative Region (as well as Macau and presumably Taiwan). The intensification of repression in China proper will inevitably have an effect on civil society in HKSAR, which has already demonstrated its willingness to stand up to Beijing on issues such as genuine universal suffrage.
Whether the crackdown in China and the new regulations will cow the residents of Hong Kong into submission or encourage them to intensify their campaign remains to be seen. My bet is on the latter outcome, which if I am right presages future unrest in HKSAR.
Perhaps even more detrimental to Mr. Xi’s cause is the effect that the ongoing repression across China is having on Taiwan, which Beijing maintains is part of China awaiting “re-unification.” Although the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have joined in a process of rapprochement since 2008, opposition to unification among the Taiwanese public—from support for de jure independence to a desire to maintain de facto independence under the “status quo”—has remained very high. Among the 15.5 percent of Taiwanese who, according to the latest Taiwan Mood Barometer Survey, support unification with China at some point, only 4.2 percent want such an outcome “urgently”—in other words, irrespective of the current political situation in China. The remaining 11.3 percent, who want the “status quo” for now and would consider unification in future, tend to make the democratization of China a precondition for possible unification.
With all the trend lines in China pointing in the opposite direction, it is difficult to imagine how China could succeed in engineering the “peaceful” unification of Taiwan that the recent détente was supposed to lead to. In fact, the crackdown on Chinese society is having the opposite effect and is hardening the desire among Taiwanese of all political persuasions (the 4.2 percent hardline pro-unification types notwithstanding) to maintain their nation’s independent status. Regardless of the outcome of the January 2016 presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan, the CCP’s intensifying assault on Chinese society will make it increasingly difficult for any government to enter political negotiations with Beijing, let alone on matters that pertain to the sovereignty of Taiwan.
A political system that was already unpalatable to the Taiwanese, who are proud of their rowdy democracy, has become even more unappealing thanks to recent developments in China. Ironically, the hard measures that have been implemented in China recently will make the dream of Chinese “re-unification,” another instrument of self-legitimization for the CCP, a far less achievable one.
Mr. Xi, undoubtedly a proud Chinese nationalist, is struggling to keep it all together, a feat that, given the complexities of China’s society and geography, would be challenging to any leader. But if his “meritocratic” advisers are as meritorious as they are said to be, they would perhaps counsel leniency and tolerance rather than the kind of institutionalized repression that will likely send ripples across China and beyond.
J. Michael Cole, a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, is editor in chief of www.thinking-taiwan.com, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. His latest book, Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan, was published in March. He can be found on Twitter at @JMichaelCole1.