Why is Taiwan so important? The manipulation of nationalism in legitimizing​ one-party rule in China

Global Issue 2019

Written by: Jun Tao Yeung, University of Hong Kong

Introduction

Since Tsai Ing-wen and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) scored a landslide victory in the 2016 Taiwanese general election, cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan have deteriorated to a large extent. Beijing insisted that the so-called “92 consensus” – “one China, different interpretations” – is the basis of all communications across the strait.[1] Taipei was unwilling and unable to endorse the proposal, and argued that all developments in cross-strait relations must be based on the ‘existing political foundations’ with the constitutional order of the Republic of China (ROC) being respected. Clearly, Beijing did not accept this. 

Since then, Beijing has from time to time warned Taiwan that it would resort to attacking Taiwan if it declares de jure independence.[2] Beijing took initiatives in various occasions to assert its sovereignty over Taiwan and isolate it from the international stage. Departing from the strategy of peacefully developing cross-strait relations emphasised by the previous president Hu Jintao, President Xi Jinping confirmed that he was not willing to pass the “Taiwan issue” on to the next generation.[3] Hostile military actions were taken around the island several times, including conducting live-fire military drills at the Taiwan Strait.[4] At least three of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies established ties with Beijing during Tsai’s administration – Gambia, Panama, and the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe.[5] The fact that Taiwan has been excluded from World Health Assembly for three consecutive years indicated the narrowing of Taiwan’s participation in the international community.[6] Beijing is trying to be more aggressive towards Taiwan than previously. 

Experts in international relations must ask themselves: why is Taiwan so important to China such that Beijing has to emphasise its forceful attitudes towards Taiwan independence advocates? Compared to the mainland’s population of nearly 1.4 billion[7] and area of 9,388,211 km², Taiwan is just a very small island with a population of 23.58 million[8]and area of 35410 km² [9]. The military power of Taiwan is totally outweighed by that of the mainland.[10] Given the military superiority enjoyed by the mainland over Taiwan, the latter certainly constitutes no military threats to the former. Then, why is Beijing so eager to unify the island which is extremely small compared to the mainland upon which it bases its rule?

Both realist and liberalist perspectives in the field of international relations fail to explain why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is eager to declare its sovereignty over Taiwan. The realist perspective argues that mainland China and Taiwan are two strategic competitors, competing with each other through either balance of power or balance of threat.[11]However, it cannot explain why the mainland still escalates its military actions towards Taiwan when the island no longer constitutes any tangible threat. The liberalist perspective holds a firm belief that the social and economic cooperation between the mainland and Taiwan will lead to political integration. However, it fails to explain why the two sides have remained hostile towards each other recently.

This essay attempts to argue that the main audience of Beijing’s Taiwan policy is neither Taiwan nor the international community, but the people in the mainland instead. In this essay, I find that the major purpose of Beijing in standing firmly against the Taiwan independence movement is to legitimise the one-party rule of CCP over the mainland China instead of unification. The first part will provide a brief background on different sources of legitimacy employed by authoritarian regimes. Next, the background of nationalism in the history of modern China will be discussed. Third, the role of how nationalism affects Beijing’s attitude in its territorial disputes with its neighbouring countries will be analyzed. Finally, the means by which the CCP creates a nationalist image by standing firmly against the Taiwan authority will be examined.

Legitimising Authoritarian Regimes

Legitimacy has long been a headache for authoritarian regimes. In order to sustain long-term existence, simply relying on repression and coercion is insufficient.[12] Without societal support, the regime needs to employ a large military force in repressing dissidents and vast resources on monitoring citizens, incurring a large cost to the regime. Legitimacy refers to the rightfulness and justification of the authority in ruling a territory. With legitimacy, the authority can prove to the citizens why they should consent to be subordinate to the authority and observe the rules set by such authority. The authority can then secure societal support. This makes governance more effective and less expensive, and in turn makes the authoritarian regime more enduring and sustainable.

Authoritarian regimes usually suffer the problem of a legitimacy deficit that democratic governments do not.[13] In a modern democracy, the institutional arrangement, which is usually popular voting, guarantees that popular support is the prerequisite for the ruler to stay in power. It solves the problem of legitimacy, as the ruled public decides who will be the ruler. However, an authoritarian regime is one that implies the institutional arrangement excludes the ruled public from deciding the leader. Political participation by ordinary citizens is excluded. Therefore, the ruler does not have the direct endorsement of the ruled public and can hardly claim to represent the public. 

In order to survive for a long period of time, an authoritarian regime can not only rely on coercive apparatus suppressing any revolts and dissidents, but they also need to overcome the legitimacy deficit to prevent the questioning of its legitimacy by the public.[14] The CCP, as an authoritarian regime in East Asia, suffers from the problem of a legitimacy deficit which its democratic neighbours such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan do not share. It lacks regular and universal elections that allow citizens to select their leaders and vote the noncompetitive officers out of office. Civil liberties and political participation are also limited which prevent the citizens from voicing their opinions against the government. Therefore, the CCP has to resort to various means in legitimising itself in order to claim that it represents the 1.4 billion Chinese people under its rule. 

Traditionally, the CCP has adopted ideological adaptation as its major source of legitimacy by framing itself as leading the class struggle and creating a brand of communism ideal for China.[15] According to the Chinese constitution, the “highest ideal and the ultimate goal” of the CCP rule is to achieve communism in China. The achievement of communism is the major reason why the CCP’s one-party rule is a must for China and any opposition to it must be suppressed. However, this created a dilemma for the CCP when it initiated market reforms in the late 1970s.[16] As part of these reforms, the CCP replaced the original communist policy with quasi-capitalist economic policies, moving away from the communist ideal it aimed to establish towards establishing a capitalist society. The state no longer controls all significant industries and economic sectors in the country.[17] Private enterprises are allowed to be established and play an important role in propelling economic growth. The CCP even amended its ideology in various ways in order to justify the economic reform. In 2002, the “Three Represents” slogan promoted by former Secretary General Jiang Zemin was added to the Constitution, which suggested that the CCP not only represents the workers and farmers, but also the new “advanced productive forces’ of urban economic and social elites. In 2004, Article 11 of the Constitution was amended to guarantee the protection of the rights, interests and legality of individual and private enterprises by the state. These actions show that the CCP is moving away from the communist ideology it once claimed. Ideological adaptation can therefore no longer provide sufficient legitimacy in justifying the CCP’s one-party rule. 

In view of this, the CCP also tries to justify its rule by its economic performance.[18] Performance legitimacy has been widely adopted by authoritarian regimes in justifying their rules. In performance legitimacy, the regime establishes its legitimacy by achieving certain concrete goals, such as strengthening national power and economic growth. The CCP has adopted the strategy since the market reform in the late 1970s.[19] The CCP also openly states its ‘Two Centenary Goals “ by the years 2021 and 2049.[20]  By the year 2021, which marks the centenary of the establishment of the CCP, China would have doubled its GDP and GDP per capita from the levels of 2010 and transformed China into a prosperous society. By 2049, the centenary of the founding of the PRC, China would have the GDP per capita at the level of moderately developed countries and realised modernisation. Since the market reform, China achieved an economic miracle enviable to many.[21] Statistics find that the Chinese economy experiences an average annual growth of 9.7% since 1970. Besides this, the size of China’s GDP rose from the eighth in the world in 1980 to the second in 2010, surpassing many successful economies, such as Germany, France and Japan. The economic growth achieved by China in the past several decades does legitimise the CCP’s rule to a large extent. 

However, the CCP government is well aware of the shortcomings of performance legitimacy. If the government can no longer fuel economic growth as enormous and rapid as before and fails to provide the social economic welfare expected by its citizens, the regime will fail to legitimise itself.[22] An especially alarming example is the fall of Suharto’s regime in Indonesia during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.[23] In the 1980s, Suharto began to rely on performance legitimacy by bringing economic prosperity to the country. He was successful at the beginning, doubling the GDP per capita between 1984 and 1996. However, when the Asian financial crisis enveloped the region and dealt a hard blow to the economy in 1997, Suharto lost power in a popular uprising. This reveals the undeniable fact that performance legitimacy cannot guarantee survival of a regime given that no economy grows forever. In 1989, the crisis of economic legitimacy led to a nationwide demonstration, which caused one of the most serious legitimacy crises in post-1949 history of China. The economic reform also caused serious social problems such as rising income disparities, regional development imbalances, deficits in the provision of public goods, and growing employment.[24] The CCP noticed that it could not rely on its economic performance as the sole source of legitimacy and must seek other bases of legitimacy. Had the CCP solely relied on economic performance, it would have been very unlikely that it would still hold power when its economic growth decelerated in recent years[25]

In view of the shortcomings of both ideological legitimacy and performance legitimacy, the CCP regime realised that nationalism is the strongest weapon in legitimising its rule over the country. Capitalising on the history of modern China and boosting the nationalist atmosphere, the CCP successfully employed nationalism to legitimise its rule by standing firm in various territorial disputes and exploiting the Taiwan agendum. 

Nationalist Narratives Created by the CCP

The historical memory in the 19th and 20th centuries shared by millions of Chinese provides a hotbed for the rise of nationalism in China. To many Chinese, the narratives of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries are filled with national shame and humiliation.[26] Since the first Opium War (1839-1842), China experienced a continuous period of invasions by foreign imperialists. The period between the first Opium War and the Second World War marked the weakest period of China in its history. China suffered foreign invasions in various external wars, including the First Opium War, the Second Opium War (1856-60), the Eight Nation Allied Army’s invasion (1900), Japan’s Twenty-one Demands (1914) and the War of Resistance against Japanese invasion (1937-1945). In these invasions, China surrendered its territories to foreign powers as either colonies or semi-colonies. With this history, the CCP included four features in its nationalist narrative templates: (i), China was invaded by imperial powers, (ii) enormous crimes were committed against China by these imperial powers, which included forcing China to accept a series of unequal treaties, compromising Chinese sovereignty, (iii) some heroic Chinese bravely resisted the invasion of imperial powers in spite of the failure of the weak and corrupt government to do so, and (iv) the CCP successfully led the Chinese to win the eventual and ultimate victory against imperialists and restore the national spirit.[27] All these point to the fact that the CCP is the true savior of the nation from foreign invasion and humiliation. 

Making use of the historical memory of the century of national shame and humiliation, the CCP narrates that it has a historical role in saving the Chinese nation and restoring the national strength. The preamble of the Constitution states that the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was a “glorious revolutionary tradition” that overthrew the imperialism that made China a semi-colonial country.[28] It emphasises that the CCP, under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, ignited such a revolution. Besides, the leaders of the CCP also in various occasions emphasise the historical role of the CCP in revitalising the nation.[29] The CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping pledged for a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, which means that China will once again appear as a global power by that time. The nationalist mission and agenda of the CCP justify its exercise of the sovereignty of China, consolidate the popular support of its rule and build its legitimacy. 

The CCP benefits from the nationalist narratives and nationalist legitimacy two main ways. First, it successfully demonises any foreign criticisms on its political system by branding them as an attempted humiliation of Chinese sovereignty. This invalidates all foreign criticisms on its rule. One example is that the CCP manipulated the history of the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, an old summer palace in Beijing for the Qing dynasty, in creating its historical narratives. Yuanmingyuan was burned to the ground by British and French troops in 1860, and many antiques in the palace were transported to western countries.[30] During the 1980s, the CCP began to construct the historical legacy of the palace by creating the Yuanmingyuan Ruins Park and included it firmly in the CCP political agenda. In the early 1990s, the CCP launched the Patriotic Education Campaign to remind the Chinese people of the humiliation by foreign powers, allowing them to be demonized. This successfully triggered nationalist sentiment among Chinese.[31] An ultra-nationalist blogger Wei Yahua wrote a blog called “Is the Humiliation of the Burning of Yuanmingyuan Repeating Itself?”. In this blog, he argued that foreign powers did not respect the sovereignty of China and always entered the nation unhindered. In a blog entitled “The Regret of Yuanmingyuan, the writer reminded his fellow Chinese not to forget the past of the nation, saying that history would repeat itself otherwise. The effect of the manipulation of such national sentiment is clearly depicted in later diplomatic conflicts with foreign countries.[32] When the US-led NATO army accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, an article in the People’s Daily newspaper echoed the bombing with the burning in Yuanmingyuan. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, some French demonstrators disturbed the Olympic torch relay as a protest against human rights records in China. Xinhuashe Zhongwen Xinwen News Agency soon issued an article criticising the hypocrisy of the French protesting by arguing that their actions against the Yuanmingyuan only makes their human rights claims invalid.

It can be seen clearly that the nationalist legitimacy of the CCP rule demonises all foreign criticisms against CCP rule. When any foreigners criticise or protest against the CCP’s authoritarian rule, the CCP simply resorts to two types of logic. First, the CCP argues that the foreigners must apologise to the Chinese people for the humiliation and invasion in the past before they criticise the CCP’s rule. Second, they frame the foreigners’ criticism as another attempt to intervene in Chinese internal affairs and compromise Chinese sovereignty. In order to preserve Chinese national dignity, the CCP must not surrender to foreign criticism. These two methods successfully demonise foreign criticism and secure the popular support for the CCP’s authoritarian rule. This was clearly depicted in the Google-China dispute in 2010.[33] On 12 January 2010, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond announced that Google was considering the option of shutting down in China as the Chinese government did not allow freedom of speech on the web. To the surprise of many, the Google-China dispute did not prompt any soul-searching among the Chinese or raise awareness of their lack of political freedom. Instead, the Chinese took the dispute as another instance of foreign powers attempting to build a hegemony over China. As a result, many nationalist slogans resulted from the netizens, such as, “Drive away Google, drive away imperialistic America’s hegemony! Strengthen our China.” The nationalist sentiments shift public attention away from the reflection on the Chinese political system to the topic of humiliation.

Nationalist sentiment also gives the CCP a strong bullet in rejecting any call for democratic transition within the territory. When there is any dissent within the territory urging an end to the authoritarian rule of the CCP towards a democratic transition, the CCP can simply announce that the democratic movement is a veil of another foreign intervention. In 2014, Hong Kong people launched the Umbrella Movement in protesting against Beijing’s policy in forbidding universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In rallying support of the CCP’s rule, Beijing put the blame on foreign interference to hostile governments in driving the movement. The Foreign Ministry released a statement attributing blame to the foreign media for urging foreign governments to interfere in Chinese home affairs.[34] This kind of propaganda successfully rallied mainland Chinese to condemn the movement.[35] Pro-movement Hong Kong celebrities such as Chapman To Man-chak, Anthony Wong Chau-sang and Denise Ho Wan-sze were said to betray the Chinese blood for giving their support of the movement, banning them from performing in the mainland.  After the movement, Denise Ho was never invited to any performance in the mainland, while Anthony Wong Yiu-ming had two shows in the mainland “indefinitely postponed” by concert organisers.[36] A talk at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law in Beijing by lyricist Lin Xi, who wrote the lyrics for the song Hold Up Your Umbrella to support the movement, was cancelled. 

The CCP employs similar tactics in handling the claim of the political dissidents for democratic transitions. When certain political dissidents call for democratic transitions, the CCP simply dismisses the claims by blaming foreign interventionists. This was the case in Liu Xiaobo dispute in 2010.[37] Liu was a political dissident in mainland China and also a co-author of Chapter 08, which called for an independent judiciary and freedom of expression in China. In 2009 he was charged with having “the goal of subverting our country’s people’s democratic dictatorship and socialist system” and was imprisoned for 11 years. In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The chairman of the Nobel prize committee Thorbjorn Jagland called for the immediate release of Liu. The foreign ministry of China then criticised the committee for interfering with China’s internal affairs and infringing upon China’s legal sovereignty. In July 2015, the Chinese authorities apprehended more than 100 lawyers and activists and accused them of being involved in “criminal gangs.”[38]In response to the criticism of the detentions by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Beijing dismissed the claims as another instance of foreign interference in its internal affairs. These two routine responses show that Beijing can deny any democratic transition, accusing activists of being backed by foreign agencies and undermining Chinese sovereignty. 

CCP’s Attitudes in Various Diplomatic Conflicts

In order to prove itself as the leader of the revolution that revitalises the national pride and spirit of China, the CCP must display a firm stance against foreign countries when conflicts between China and foreign countries appear to infringe upon the exercise of Chinese sovereignty. This firm attitude can be seen in the nationalisation of the Diaoyu Islands by Japan in 2012 and the border conflicts in Tibet region in 2017.

The Diaoyu Islands (The Senkaku Islands) have been a long dispute in Sino-Japanese relations.[39] Both countries claim the islands as their own territories, despite the fact that the territory is under practical control of Japan. Then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced his plan to nationalise the islands. The nationalisation led to large-scale demonstrations in China, resulting in damages of property worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Japanese owned stores and factories. Beijing even initiated military actions around the islands, including the regular dispatch of Maritime Surveillance Agency (MSA) ships in the surrounding waters and deployment of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In September 2012, Beijing increased the scale of law enforcement patrols around the islands. The Chinese law enforcement activity in the disputed area was formalised. The action was unprecedented and much firmer than before. 

The territorial conflict between China and India in 2017 is another example of the CCP showing its firm attitude against any foreign intervention in its own territory. China and India have a long history of territorial disputes in the Tibet region.[40] Disputed territories in Tibet include the eastern sector and the western sector. In 1962, China waged a war against India in the disputed territories in response to India’s establishment of military posts there. Despite the fact that China withdrew its army within one month after the war started, the territorial dispute has remained unresolved. In 2017, China planned to build a road on the border, which India claimed would give China access to India’s strategic positions.[41]Indian border guards then created a human wall in the border and prevented Chinese workers from building the road. Beijing retained a firm stance against India by sending troops to the border region which resulted in a stand-off between the two sides and stopped 57 Indian pilgrims from entering Nathu La pass in Sikkim on their way to a holy Hindu site in Manas Sarovar lake in Tibet. Beijing also demanded India to unconditionally withdraw the troops. Finally, the two countries resolved the conflict by withdrawing all troops from the border. 

Both incidents are territorial disputes where China engaged China and neighbouring countries. In the two disputes, the Chinese authorities stood firmly in asserting sovereignty over the disputed territories by deploying troops to the disputed areas. Such action is necessary for the CCP to legitimise its rule by claiming that it rejuvenates the national spirit. By standing firmly against foreign powers during the dispute, the CCP can claim to the domestic audience that it is capable of protecting the nation and is therefore the only legitimate government in the territory. Any attempts to overthrow it must be cracked down upon. 

Taiwan in Chinese Nationalism 

Taiwan is in a difficult position regarding Chinese nationalism due to historical reasons.[42] Nationalism is a relatively modern concept and only found its way to China in the late-Qing period (1842-1912). It had not had its first Chinese translation until 1901 when the Chinese scholar Liang Qichao referred nationalism to the Chinese phrase minzu zhuyi. The doctrine of nationalism was not imported to China without difficulties. The revolutionary Sun Yat-sen acknowledged that there had never been the existence of a Chinese national identity and noticed that members of Chinese nation were like a “heap of loose sand.” The building of the Chinese nation and the Chinese national identity only took place in the 1930s when Taiwan was occupied by Japan. Taiwan was therefore excluded from the process of Chinese nation building. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, many Taiwanese revolutionary organisations had the objective of establishing Taiwan’s independence from Japan, rather than reunification with China.[43] At that time, the national identity of the Taiwanese people was not yet established. In 1949, Kuomintang (KMT) lost the civil war within mainland China and retreated to Taiwan. The KMT had a strong historical and social lineage with the mainland.[44] It believed that there was only one China, which is the Republic of China (ROC), and both Taiwan and the mainland were part of this ROC.[45] The KMT also bore the ultimate mission to liberalise the mainland which it lost to the CCP during the civil war. The KMT government instructed the public education system to promote the Chinese identity, displaying maps and flags of the ROC and teaching Sun Yat-sen’s “three principles of the people”. During the KMT’s rule in Taiwan before the democratic transition, the KMT tried to build up the Chinese national identity awareness among the Taiwanese people and down play the pan-Taiwanese identity. 

Despite this, the pan-Taiwanese identity still begins to emerge and replace the Chinese national identity, which first motivated the CCP to assert its sovereignty over the island. In the 1980s, Taiwan was transformed from a one-party authoritarian system to a multiple-party democracy, with the KMT and the DPP as the two dominant parties. The DPP was a pro-independence party and aims to replace the Chinese national identity with the Taiwanese one.[46] In 2000, Chen Shui-bian won the presidential election and became the first non-KMT president of Taiwan. During his eight years in office from 2000 to 2008, he promoted a “de-Sinification” series, which included the promotion of Xiangtu Wenxue(native literature) and adding the word “Taiwan” to the passport jacket. The school curricula were also amended to emphasize the unique cultural and historical characteristics of Taiwan. 

Taiwanese people experienced a significant change in their identity recognition.[47] According to a survey conducted by the Institute in Political Science at the National Sun Yat-sen University in 2015, 74% of Taiwan’s people identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. This echoes with the study of the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, which showed that the percentage of Taiwan’s people who identified themselves as Taiwanese increased dramatically from 17.6% in 1992 to 59.3% in 2016, while the percentage of people identifying themselves as Chinese fell from 46.4% to 33.6%. Both surveys indicated that a majority of Taiwan’s people do not identify themselves as Chinese. Besides, the Taiwanese people’s support of unification also decreased significantly.[48] Various surveys by Opinion Research Taiwan, the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University and TEDS concluded that the percentage of people supporting unification fell from 56.9% in 1992 to 15.8% in 2016 whereas the percentage of people who would rather desire for the status quo increased from 30.6% to 52.3% in the same period. All these results point to the fact that most Taiwanese people do not view the island as part of China and do not value unification as a top priority.

The CCP is worried that the various Taiwan opinion polls may encourage the DPP to declare formal independence. If the DPP really does so, it translates to the CCP’s failure in unifying the territory and thus undermines the CCPs’ nationalist legitimacy. Besides, it would encourage secessionist movements in other parts of China, including the Tibetan independence movement and the Uyghur independence movement, which would make it much harder for the CCP to maintain social stability in the related regions. Therefore, leaders in Beijing cannot afford any risk of Taiwan seeking formal independence and continue to openly warn the Taiwanese government on the consequences of declaring independence. In 2016, Secretary General Xi Jinping announced his zero tolerance policy for any separatist movements in the Chinese territory, which to his understanding included Taiwan.[49] In 2019, Wang Zaixi, a former deputy director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned Taiwan that the Chinese authorities would accelerate the reunification of Taiwan if the island’s authorities continued its support of the independence movement. To the CCP, Taiwanese independence is too big of a risk, as it brings into question the notion that the CCP will rebuild the Chinese nation and restore the national spirit. 

Second, the continuing existence of Taiwan’s democracy makes it embarrassing for the CCP to maintain its one-party authoritarian rule. Since the end of martial law in 1987, Taiwan underwent a series of democratic transitions, which transformed Taiwan into a mature democracy.[50] In the 1980s, the KMT government was under great pressure to forgo its authoritarian rule. In 1986, the DPP was established to become the biggest opposing political party to the KMT on the island. This also marked that the KMT government, under the leadership of Chiang Ching-kuo, began to ease its grip on opposition parties. In 1996, Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. In 2000, Taiwan experienced its first power transition. The opposition DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian became the first non-KMT president of Taiwan and the KMT lost the presidency for the first time on the island since 1945. In 2008 and 2016, Taiwan experienced two other power transitions in peaceful ways. These three power transitions prove that Taiwan democracy is as mature as most Western democracies. 

The continued democratisation further distinguishes the political experience in Taiwan from the mainland.[51] This is one of the factors that contributes to the increase in the percentage of Taiwanese people in support of the status quo rather than reunification. It also provides an ironic contrast to the authoritarian rule in the mainland, putting political pressure on the CCP in transforming from one-party authoritarian rule to a democracy. In 2016, Taiwan’s then President Ma Ying-jeou urged Beijing to move towards a democratic style of development and voice support for pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.[52] In 2013, Chen Guangcheng, a legal activist in the mainland who left during a diplomatic crisis, praised the democratic rule of law in Taiwan.[53] In 2019, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council issued a statement urging Beijing to apologise for cracking down on protests in Tiananmen in 1989 and push for democratic reforms proactively.[54]Taiwan increasingly became an agent of democratisation on the mainland and posed a threat to its authoritarian rule.[55]To prevent the questioning of its political system by Taiwan, the CCP must insist that Beijing is the only legitimate government ruling the Chinese authority and the Taiwanese authority is illegitimate in criticising the political system of the mainland. By emphasising that the Taiwanese authority is not the legitimate government on the island, the CCP can simply dismiss any call for democratic transition in the mainland. 

Third, the de facto independence of Taiwan is also a humiliation to the military force of CCP. After the KMT government retreated to Taiwan, the CCP tried to reunify the island various times. During the last stage of the Chinese Civil War, the CCP’s People Liberation Army (PLA) attacked the Quemoy islands, the outlying islands in Fujian province.[56]Surprisingly, the KMT army defeated the PLA in the Guningtou Battle. The KMT’s victory in the battle was important in protecting the retreat of the KMT government to Taiwan and the safety in Taiwan Strait. It also thwarted the CCP’s attempt to further annex Taiwan. In August 1958, the CCP began an intensive artillery bombardment against the Quemoy islands.[57] The action was believed to be the prologue of the CCP’s invasion of Quemoy and Matsu. With the help of the US’s naval units, the KMT government again successfully protected the islands. The military failures of the CCP in occupying Quemoy was a humiliation to the CCP and also raised doubts on the CCP’s ability and capability in unifying Taiwan and restoring the Chinese nation. Under this background, the CCP must exercise military actions in waters surrounding Taiwan to highlight its military superiority over Taiwan in order to prove its ability in unifying the island and serving as the only legitimate government. 

Conclusion

As an authoritarian regime, the CCP’s one-party rule faces the problem of a legitimacy deficit in the mainland. Neither ideological adaptation nor economic performance can provide sustainable legitimacy for its rule. Instead, nationalism provides a much stronger source of legitimacy in justifying the CCP’s one-party rule. The CCP makes use of the historical memories among the Chinese in the 19th and 20th centuries and creates the historical narratives that the CCP leads the Chinese to resist imperialism and restore their national spirit and pride. In various territorial disputes, the CCP stands firmly against neighbouring countries in affirming its nationalist spirit. Most importantly, the CCP remains firmly on its “one China” policy and insists that the Taiwanese government is illegitimate in order to affirm that it is the only legitimate government in rejuvenating Chinese nationalism. Through exploiting nationalism, the CCP successfully rejects and dismisses any call to move towards democracy and abolish authoritarian rule. 


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[45] Li, Yitan, and Enyu Zhang. “Changing Taiwanese Identity and Cross-Strait Relations: a Post 2016 Taiwan Presidential Election Analysis.” Journal of Chinese Political Science 22, no. 1 (2017): 17-35.

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[56] Zhang, J. J. “Of Kaoliang, bullets and knives: Local entrepreneurs and the battlefield tourism enterprise in Kinmen (Quemoy), Taiwan.” Tourism Geographies 12, no. 3 (2010): 395-411.

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Small Introduction

I am a student studying politics and laws a the University of Hong Kong. My research interest is the modern history of mainland China and Taiwan. 

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