A common theme in news cycles related to Taiwan is how China’s ruthless response to the Hong Kong protests in 2019 and 2020 demonstrated what could be in store for the former Chinese province that the CCP failed to capture as the Chinese Civil War came to a stalemate back in 1949.

A typical sentiment can be seen in a July headline in the Wall Street Journal: “Taiwan’s Impossible Choice: Be Ukraine or Hong Kong.” This message conforms to the narrative that the only options Taiwan has are to rejoin China or engage in a war over its independence. Last December, The Week said that “Xi Jinping sees Taiwan as he did Hong Kong — a natural part of China stolen by pro-Western forces,” implying that the crackdown on protests in the financial hub was somehow an invasion of a sovereign territory. The Taipei Times a month earlier claimed that Beijing would soon be “invading a sovereign and democratic country, and imposing draconian rule on its people just as China has done in Hong Kong.” Just a few examples from the tip of the iceberg.

Part of an article I had published on this site last month proposed that China could possibly be talked out of its claims on Taiwan if the island nation pledged to reduce its allegiance to Western military interests and become an East-facing ally that provides Beijing with some degree of military cooperation.

I mentioned in the article that my friends and acquaintances in Taiwan — both Taiwanese and Western expats — reliably cite Hong Kong as an example of why China cannot be trusted as a negotiating partner.

Although I did not mention Singapore in the article, I had that nation in mind as an example of an independent, democratic, and primarily ethnic-Chinese country that boasts an excellent relationship with China, including joint military exercises, while maintaining an “expansive and enduring” relationship with the US and the West in general. Singapore has felt free to criticize its partner’s actions against the Philippines in the South China Sea, and occasionally acts as a peacemaker in disputes. Despite the flaws in the comparison (Singapore and Taiwan greatly differ historically and geographically), the city-state nonetheless provides a template for what is possible in balancing productive relations with both superpowers.

Even if China at present turns out to be unwilling — even hostile — to the idea of negotiating a peaceful relationship with an independent Taiwan, the outreach, I argued, would be well worth the effort if only to redirect the global conversation away from war and open pathways to peace for future leaders.

My views have been difficult to discuss in Taiwan, including how I perceived the crackdown in Hong Kong. Many question why I seem to be “taking China’s side.” I expect to be accused, at worst, of falling victim to China’s “United Front” influence network for what I say here, so I will preface it all by saying I was supportive of the massive Hong Kong uprising through 2019 and 2020, which aimed to restore autonomous rule in the former British colony, and more broadly weaken the CCP government in Beijing. The relentless courage and resilience of that movement put the French traditions of mass protest to shame, and I admired the way the campaign resisted violence and outlived the most brutal of responses.

Anarchist uprisings rarely succeed in their grand aims, but there are times they are worth engaging in for the slim possibility of affecting anything from a policy change to a revolution. But those who participate must also be willing to accept the narrow chances for success and the consequences that are likely to follow.

One person who said he was willing to die for the cause was Hong Kong publishing magnate Jimmy Lai, who placed all his chips against the Chinese Communist Party and used his media empire to help incite 15 months of protest. Lai and the hundreds of thousands who took part hoped the world would rally to their cause, but the international community unfortunately offered one giant shrug — particularly the British, who I will come back to in a moment.

Having lost the bet, Lai and dozens of others are in Chinese prisons, with Lai’s anti-Beijing news organizations — Apple Daily and Next Digital — squashed. China had for two decades given free rein to his media outlets to run their “rambunctious support of pro-democracy protesters, aggressive investigations of officials and lampooning of China’s Communist Party leadership” — up until Lai began being treated like an official dignitary at the White House. In 2019, he very publicly met with then-US Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Washington was trying to “send a signal to Beijing,” Bloomberg reporter Nick Wadhams said on Twitter. “Very unusual for a nongovt visitor to get that kind of access.”

It takes a certain kind of blindness to think that the CCP would give precedence to Hong Kong’s special status and its Western freedoms when Lai said, in the presence of top Washington leadership, that he and the protesters were “fighting for the shared values of the US against China,” adding that it was a “war in the enemy camp.” At that point, Lai was no longer “rambunctiously supporting” the protesters, but receiving the blessing of Washington’s top policymakers in the house of Beijing’s adversary to encourage an extension of the movement into the mainland for a greater “war” against the CCP.

Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have suffered their own perilous fates for doing much less to the US. Snowden, in particular, is an American patriot who was attempting to protect US citizens’ constitutional rights, not overthrow the government. Assange and Snowden exposed American war crimes and operations that illegally invaded the privacy of US citizens. With Assange in a British prison and facing solitary confinement in the US, and Snowden in exile, one can only imagine the American response if they had been major publishers who flew to Beijing to stand with top Chinese officials and call for secession of a US state while seas of protesters hoisted Chinese flags in the streets of, say, Chicago or Dallas. In other words, Lai’s imprisonment should not be considered a uniquely Chinese stifling of free speech.

I would advocate for Lai’s freedom as loudly as for Assange’s and Snowden’s, but one does not need to be a “China supporter” to understand that Lai’s gambit — and the protests in general — were more likely to cause Beijing to tighten its grip on the territory rather than weaken the party and force it to retreat. The heavy hand the CCP brought down on Hong Kong is less evidence of its inhumanity than a demonstration of how powerful governments react when presented with substantive threats to their authority.

Matters in Taiwan have no comparison to what occurred in Hong Kong. Taiwan is already Hong Kong on steroids, yet nothing that happens here could ever possibly threaten the CCP’s grip on China. The island nation is full of “Jimmy Lai” characters — showy media and business tycoons with strong ties to local and foreign policymakers. The local media is rife with anti-China, pro-American propaganda, while the Taipei presidential office receives a continual flow of visits from overseas dignitaries. China has no choice but to grudgingly accept this, because Taiwan, unlike Hong Kong, is not under its control, and — more importantly — Taiwan’s sovereignty has the tacit (if not official) backing of the global community.

What no one talks about is that China treats Taiwan as a virtual country as well. The two sides have more than 20 formal economic and trade agreements, the existence of which indicates each side’s sovereign statehood. Of course, China insists on language in such pacts that diminishes Taiwan’s stature, but that’s what virtually all countries already do with Taiwan’s de facto embassies being called “trade offices.” One must simply ask China why its national government needs agreements to trade with one of its own provinces — unusual, no? The point is that China has not only been a trustworthy party in these agreements, it tacitly accepts Taiwan’s position as an independent negotiating partner in exchange for the ongoing benefits it receives. In this way, China might be primed to go a step further and recognize independence if the terms provide even greater ongoing benefits — but of course, the propaganda machines would have to stop turning for a while before that path becomes even remotely visible.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, has never been in a position to negotiate. It is indisputably Chinese territory, with no international support for a sovereignty movement. Its citizens have made some brave and worthy attempts to regain pre-1997 autonomy. However, Beijing did not respond by signing a series of agreements, as it has with Taiwan, but by strengthening its existing authority over the city.


Then there is the matter of the abandoned Sino-British Joint Declaration, “evidence” that China cannot be trusted as a dealmaker.

This was the 1984 agreement that China made with the UK, which promised 50 years of Hong Kong’s autonomous rule upon its handover to Beijing in 1997. In 2017, then-Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Lu Kang said the declaration “no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.”

The deal was seen to have been violated even before then. In 2014, Beijing had begun to pre-screen Hong Kong’s chief executive candidates, sparking the Umbrella Movement, a collection of activist groups that marshalled four months of protests calling for a return to transparent elections.

The accord was essentially finished off by the Hong Kong national security law, a piece of 2020 legislation that outlawed secession, subversion and collusion with foreign organizations — the passage of which was a predictable result of Lai’s apparent public efforts on all three of those fronts.

Sure, China broke the Sino-British Joint Declaration, but the role of the British in all of this should not be ignored. The ball was in the UK’s court to exert some form of enforcement or punitive measure. Nothing of the sort ever occurred.

This gets to the crux of the value of international agreements: Without any overriding court or enforcement mechanism, such deals are only worth whatever goodwill and incentive that exists on either side to uphold the bargain.

In this case, it can be said that it was not just the Chinese but the British as well who abandoned the agreement, as one party declared it void and the other consented by not taking action. That silent consent — not just from the British, but the world at large — should be the real target of Hong Kong’s wrath.

For an agreement to be viable and enduring without an enforcement process, both sides must benefit on an ongoing basis. It’s difficult to see where Beijing had any incentive to adhere to a deal that extended the West’s values and influence within Chinese territory when there were no substantial consequences to suffer.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration was not a peace agreement or a deal to reset relations. It was largely a political face-saving necessity for the British, who were obligated to hand back Hong Kong to the Chinese, regardless of any deal. (Only the New Territories surrounding the city were part of the 99-year lease agreement, while the terms of British control of Hong Kong post-empire were becoming increasingly considered illegitimate. The British relented to China’s threats to take Hong Kong by force if it had to.)

An agreement between Taiwan and China, however, would be far more substantial. It would be a treaty to formally end the Chinese Civil War, and should be seen as necessarily urgent given the way Taiwan continues to be increasingly caught in the middle of wargaming between the Americans and Chinese.

Another factor to consider is that the British declaration was mostly doomed by the way it inserted Western values on Chinese territory, whereas a Taiwan peace agreement would have to be premised on the opposite — reducing the West’s military and cultural influence off China’s east coast. While this might not satisfy China’s great national ego with absolute reunification, it’s difficult to see how the CCP would risk jeopardizing this kind of ongoing benefit, with the added advantage of avoiding potential Hong Kong-style uprisings in Taiwan under a “one country, two systems” approach. As I speculated in my previous piece, I doubt that China wants the international headache of governing 24 million insubordinate Taiwanese. Beijing mostly wants the military access, which Taiwan can grant in a limited amount in exchange for a seat at the UN and the eradication of invasion threats.

It should also not be underestimated how desperately Western countries and their Pacific allies want the Taiwan Strait tinderbox to disappear. They are all being pressured to pledge military support to a possible war against a superpower and essential trading partner, and would welcome a resolution of this dispute. (The US, not so much, but other Western and Asian powers would likely become the actual brokers.) They would work to ensure that the threat of war never again resurfaces from friction around Taiwan.

I say all this without any credentials in foreign affairs or military studies, so for all I know, what I propose might be unworkable for reasons I cannot understand. But having edited a great number of well-credentialed “experts” published in the Taipei Times, I can say I learned little through reading their repetitive, cherry-picked “speaking notes,” which collectively came across as American military propaganda. If these think-tankers are considered the best and the brightest on the issue, why were none attempting a mature effort to propose original ideas or possible solutions to the crisis, and why have they not been able to tell the difference between Taiwan and Hong Kong in relation to China? So, credentials be damned.

Having studied in Taiwan and worked in its media ecosystem, I have become increasingly convinced that the “independence equals war” narrative has been well manicured over several decades by various interested parties. Everyone pretends they know exactly what is going on inside the heads of China’s Communist Party officials based on their tailored rhetoric, and sometimes “experts” just make up stories out of thin air (“Xi will invade next year!”), when in fact nobody knows anything about these people’s private thoughts or closed-door conversations. The best way to find out is not through conjecture, but by gauging their reactions to unexpected proposals.

As for Hong Kong, by no means is Beijing’s treatment of the city a model for how it would handle a change in relations with Taiwan. If anything, circumstances there were an extreme, vivid demonstration of how the media, for better or worse, has the power to create or embolden societal behavior, and what happens when the agendas of publishers clash with the state.

(Featured Image: “USS Coronado (LCS 4) and the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) guided-missile destroyer Xian transit in formation.” by Official U.S. Navy Imagery is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)


  • Michael Riches

    Michael Riches is a Canadian writer and editor based in Taipei. After receiving a master’s degree in applied linguistics in Taiwan, he worked in educational publishing before becoming a copy editor and occasional op-ed contributor at the Taipei Times. He previously worked in the Singapore and Shanghai publishing markets.

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  • Michael Riches

    Michael Riches is a Canadian writer and editor based in Taipei. After receiving a master’s degree in applied linguistics in Taiwan, he worked in educational publishing before becoming a copy editor and occasional op-ed contributor at the Taipei Times. He previously worked in the Singapore and Shanghai publishing markets.

    View all posts