“Different systems are not an obstacle to unification, and even less are they an excuse for separatism,” Xi said. “The private property, religious beliefs and legitimate rights and interests of our Taiwanese compatriots will be fully assured.”
While Xi eschewed deploying some of his most bellicose language about Taiwan — he has in the past called on China to be prepared to fight “bloody battles” for every “single inch” of its territory — the Chinese leader was nonetheless unyielding as he laced his speech with threats of military force and warnings aimed at the Trump administration, which has shown support for Taipei by selling arms and dispatching U.S. warships to nearby waters.
“Foreign interference is intolerable,” Xi said, adding that Beijing “will not promise to renounce the use of force.”
Since entering office in 2012, Xi has made clear that taking back Taiwan would be the crowning achievement in his vision to restore China’s place as a great power. Backed by a U.S. defense agreement, Taiwan has been a de facto independent country since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, but China considers it a breakaway province. The 110-mile-wide Taiwan Strait remains one of the most heavily militarized flash points in the world.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has declined to affirm a decades-old agreement accepting Taiwan as part of China and has repeatedly asked Beijing to treat Taiwan on equal footing. After her election in 2016, China mounted an all-out campaign to undermine her party domestically and Taiwan internationally.
In the past two years, China has cut direct talks with Taipei, stripped Taiwan of its diplomatic allies and flown bombers and dispatched naval vessels around the island in displays of force.
Xi laid out conditions Wednesday for resuming dialogue, saying Tsai must first yield on the “one-China principle.”
“It’s a very rigid position Xi is articulating without any flexibility, any intention to meet Tsai Ing-wen halfway,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “He’s saying there’s only one way for unification to be peaceful, and that’s his way.”
At the same time, Xi appeared to temper his speech by saying that China offered economic opportunities for Taiwan and by making an appeal to shared ancestry. “China,” he said, “does not attack Chinese people.”
“After peaceful reunification, Taiwan will have lasting peace, and the people will enjoy good and prosperous lives,” Xi said. “With the great motherland’s support, Taiwan compatriots’ welfare will be even better, their development space will be even greater.”
All told, the speech amounted to a more balanced tack at a juncture when Taiwan is gearing up for a presidential election, and mainland officials — and Taiwanese politicians — see an opportunity to press their case.
In November, Tsai’s party, which leans toward declaring formal independence and is anathema to the mainland government, lost in islandwide local elections, a development that Beijing cheered as a signal that Taiwanese voters rejected her anti-China stance.
Preempting Xi’s anticipated speech by a day, Tsai said in a defiant New Year’s Day address that her loss at the polls in November had nothing to do with Taiwanese voters’ willingness “to abandon our sovereignty,” and she accused China of interfering in Taiwan’s election.
After Xi’s speech, Tsai again urged China to respect Taiwan’s “commitment to freedom and democracy” and treat it as an equal.
“I call on China to bravely take steps toward democracy, so they can truly understand the people of Taiwan,” she said in a statement posted to her Twitter account.
It is unclear whether Xi’s reiteration of the “one country, two systems” promise will sway hearts and minds in Taiwan. Hong Kong, which Xi offered as a model of semiautonomy, has been racked by political divisions and street protests precisely over the growing perception that Beijing has reneged on its promise of “one country, two systems,” as its influence is increasingly felt in local politics, elections, courts and media.
Tang Yonghong, of Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute, said Xi’s promise of semiautonomy was a way to pressure Taiwan’s leader — whoever that will be — to accept the one-China principle.
National rejuvenation — a Xi catchphrase for returning China to its former glory — remains the biggest overall goal for the current Chinese leadership, and unifying Taiwan may be seen as part of that project’s road map, Tang said.
“Once the mainland starts to see the Taiwan issue as a stumbling block in the process, it will not hesitate to remove that block,” he said.