The national security law that China passed last week is scary for many reasons: It severely limits free speech in Hong Kong, which had been a fixture of life for decades; it allows the authorities to take suspects from Hong Kong and try them in mainland China, where people such as the recently detained writer and law professor Xu Zhangrun are prosecuted for simply expressing their opinions; it establishes a secret police structure in Hong Kong that will operate outside of the law. And in threatening to arrest anyone who advocates Hong Kong’s independence, the law seems to assert jurisdiction over every person on the planet.
But perhaps the most worrisome element in the law is what is left unsaid. And that is that the legislation could serve as a blueprint for dealing with Taiwan. In fact, with the passage of the national security law on Hong Kong, China has arguably moved a step closer to preparing for war with the island democracy that sits 90 miles off its coast.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Li Su, the president of the Modern Think-Tank Forum and a prominent hard-liner in Beijing. Following the passage of the law, Li took to Chinese social media to hail the law as a critical step in “liberating Taiwan.” Li is part of an influential group of scholars in China who support an armed solution to what they call “the Taiwan problem.”
Li has given speeches in Taiwan warning people on the island of China’s will to invade it. In April 2019, Taiwan’s government barred him from returning to Taipei to give another speech because he had advocated the use of force. Li also led a delegation of Chinese academics to the United States in 2019 to hammer home China’s intentions to take over the island. When I met with him then, I was taken aback by the clarity of his message: “We are going to fight a war to reunite with Taiwan,” he told me. He also chillingly predicted how China would launch its current crackdown in Hong Kong.
In his lecture on Chinese social media, Li said he interpreted the Hong Kong security law as a “test case” on which China will model its takeover of Taiwan. “We will learn how to control Taiwan by experimenting with this law on Hong Kong,” he declared. “From the experiment on Hong Kong, we will tell the people on Taiwan that after we forcibly unite with you, we will have a way to deal with you.” Simply put, that would consist of rounding up “your independence activists, democracy activists, students who cause trouble and bring them to the mainland to be sentenced.” After that, Li asked, “who would dare oppose us?” At least 10 people have already been arrested in Hong Kong under the new law, and Chinese officials said they could be tried in mainland Chinese courts.
For years, China has used Hong Kong as a test case for its dealings with Taiwan. In 1997, China agreed with Britain to resume control over Britain’s old colony of Hong Kong under a model that the Chinese government called “one country, two systems.” Under that model, China promised to maintain Hong Kong’s freewheeling capitalist and more open political system for 50 years, an agreement that China is now accused of breaking. China subsequently proposed to Taiwan that it follow the “one country, two systems” model to unite with China. Today, a vast majority of Taiwanese, who live in one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies, reject any idea of uniting with mainland China.
China claims Taiwan is part of China and has never abandoned the threat of force to take over the island. China’s president, Xi Jinping, reiterated that vow in a speech on Jan. 1, 2019, declaring that China would “retain the option of taking all necessary measures” to absorb the island. U.S. law requires that the U.S. government provide for Taiwan’s defense but stops short of requiring that American soldiers die for Taiwan.
There has been considerable speculation in China that Xi wants to solve “the Taiwan question” sometime near July of next year, when the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its centenary. Li said the promulgation of the security law last week basically confirmed that theory. “Sometime around 2021,” Li predicted, “we are definitely going to liberate Taiwan.”
Li and other like-minded hard-liners played down the reaction of Western nations, which were generally united in their condemnation of the Hong Kong law. “China’s enemies are a group of a dragons without a head,” Li declared. “The U.S. is already a hooligan nation. How can a hooligan nation be a leader? America doesn’t even qualify to be China’s opponent. … What are they going to do, fight a war over Hong Kong?”
The same question could be asked for Taiwan.
John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”