Mainland China's public call for “unifying Taiwan by force” (武統台灣) surged after Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-Taiwan independence Democratic Progress Party (DPP) won the Taiwanese presidential election in 2016.
Unification with Taiwan is a significant agenda goal for Chinese president Xi Jinping’s national revival project as outlined by his report at the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2018. In his new year speech on cross-strait relations in 2019, Xi again stressed that unification with Taiwan would be based on Hong Kong’s “One Country and Two Systems” model and “unifying by force” remained an option.
However, to the chagrin of mainland Chinese online patriots, worries about growing popular support for Taiwanese pro-independence DPP has led Chinese Communist propaganda to downplay this hawkish narrative ahead of the 2020 Taiwanese presidential elections.
A pro-China KMT candidate in 2020 or unification by force
The idea of “unifying Taiwan by force” has been around for many years and has garnered public support among mainland Chinese nationalists. In April 2016, the CCP affiliated outlet Global Times conducted an online poll in which 85.1 percent of respondents supported “unifying Taiwan by force”. Later that year, Global Times invited retired People Liberation Army (PLA) general Wang Hongguang to its annual conference where Wang advocated for military tactics to unify China with Taiwan claiming that the PLA was set to take over Taiwan by 2020.
More recently, in April 2019, a mainland Chinese Scholar Li Yi was invited by Taiwan’s Chinese Unity Promotion Party to speak about cross-strait unification in Taichung city. After he arrived in Taiwan, he started publicizing his military unification views on Weibo and warned that if Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) and DPP parties could not accept the “One Country Two Systems” model, the only answer would be “unifying Taiwan by force”. He also implied that if KMT’s candidate Han Guo-yu became president, the unification process would take about 10 years through peaceful negotiation. However, if DPP won again unification would happen much sooner as China would opt to deploy armed forces. He said:
All we have to do is the draft a “peaceful unification agreement”and deploy our troops. Give Taiwan 20 hours to sign the agreement or we launch the attack. Their only option is to sign it, the whole thing is very simple.
The KMT’s pro-China stance is appealing to Taiwanese who are in favor of economic prosperity and political stability. Li Yi’s military unification threat is considered a strategy to consolidate KMT’s supporting base. Around the same time as Li Yi's talk, hawkish discourse about “unifying Taiwan by force” circulated widely on social media. Some even used the term “keep the island but not the people” (留島不留人）to threaten Taiwanese into supporting the Kuomingtang’s “peaceful unification” political stance.
Unification under “One Country Two Systems” is a dead-end
The prolonged Hong Kong protests have indicated to the Taiwanese people that “One Country Two Systems” is a dead-end. During the past six months, Beijing's threat to send the PLA to Hong Kong with a number of military parades at the border area has failed to stop Hongkongers from protesting. The city's fearless struggle against China's political control has inspired young Taiwanese to resist Beijing's influence in Taiwan.
This is also having an effect on the upcoming Taiwanese election. According to an ongoing poll measuring popularity for KMT's Han Kuo-yu and DPP's Tsai Ing-wen, after the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests broke out in June, Tsai's support rate surpassed Han's by 1.8 percent. By August, Han's support rate had dropped to 38.7 percent from 46.2 percent in May.
Han Kuo-yu faced strong criticism for his pro-China and pro-unification stance and, in order to rescue his election campaign, was forced to denounce Hong Kong’s “One Country Two Systems” model with an “over my dead body” vow.
In the wake of the Hong Kong protest movement, Beijing has also changed its political rhetoric regarding Taiwan. In contrast to its pro-military unification 2016 speaker, the Global Times invited Taiwan pro-peaceful unification scholar Chang Ya-chung to address the 2019 conference. While Chang did mention that “unifying Taiwan by force” is useless as the U.S. only sees Taiwan as a bargaining chip and would not care if Taiwan becomes another Afghanistan, the theme of his talk was meant to argue against “One Country Two Systems” saying that it is a model for a “father and son” relationship while China and Taiwan are actually “brothers”. However, Global Times twisted the headline of his speech transcript to “Friends in mainland China, please do not talk about ‘unifying Taiwan by force’ in such a casual manner” (“大陆朋友，可否不要动辄就对台湾谈‘武统’？”).
Chang’s speech was published by a number of state-affiliated media and social media outlets. However, online patriots did not buy this peaceful unification stance. A large number of angry comments were directed at Chang:
九又七分之六: Chang Yachung: We are not brothers, we are your father. The relation should be clear, Taiwan is always the son.
竹旸Du: Let’s rebuked Chang Yachung… if you don’t want “One Country Two Systems” how about “One Country One System”?
On 1 January, to commemorate the 41st Anniversary of issuing Message to Compatriots in Taiwan China Central Television released a video on Deng Xiaoping’s effort in paving the way to the unification with Taiwan.
While official propaganda is downplaying the discourse on “unifying Taiwan by force”, online public opinions are more extreme and militant:
晶晶-kkw: #The 41th Anniversary of Issuing Message to Compatriots in Taiwan# After unifying Taiwan with force, keep the island but not the people.
卢晓周: #The 41th Anniversary of issuing Message to Compatriots in Taiwan# It is time to unify with Taiwan. Firstly, our military strength can stop the U.S from intervening.
Secondly, it is unrealistic to expect Taiwanese to opt for unification. Now a substantial part of Taiwanese population still have some knowledge about China, we have to take action now. If we wait until there is no more friend in the island, we will lose the opportunity.
Thirdly, if we take action now, we can force the U.S out of east Asia and link up East Asia, Middle-east and Russia. Then we can compete with the U.S.
Fourthly, unifying Taiwan by force can solve the Hong Kong problem. When the U.S stepped out of East Asia, we can transform Hong Kong completely.
However, the narrative about “unifying Taiwan by force” is losing its threatening effect on social media. In Taiwan, pro-independence activists highlighted mainland Chinese extremist comments such as “keep the island but not the people” to consolidate the belief that Taiwan should cut the connection with China before it is too late. Chang Yachung also told Global Times’ readers that whenever mainland Chinese officials recited the position to unify Taiwan by force, Tsai’s popularity increased a few points.
As for Hong Kong, after protesting for more than six months against Beijing's political encroachment, netizens turned the narrative of “unifying Taiwan by force” into a practical joke. On the last day of 2019, community members from popular online forum Hong Kong Golden Forum mocked China’s military threat by organized an online flash mob countdown to the 2020 PLA. The countdown was widely reported in Taiwanese media outlets.