Chinese President Xi Jinping's Jan. 2 speech addressing "reunification" with Taiwan has done what no political leader on the island nation has managed recently: set off a wave of unity among the Taiwanese people.
Xi had apparently seen an opportunity to exploit November's huge setbacks for the pro-independence governing party in Taiwan's local elections. The Chinese president used last week's speech marking the 40th anniversary of Beijing's call to end military confrontation across the Taiwan Strait, to tell his "Taiwanese compatriots' that the two sides should "search for common ground, while recognizing differences, and strive for reunification." Repeating the assertion that Taiwan independence is a dead end and that China would use force should Taiwan try to separate formally from China, Xi further proposed to the island nation the so-called "one country, two systems" formula, similar to the system in Hong Kong since its takeover by China in 1997.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen responded to the speech with unprecedented firmness: "Taiwan absolutely will not accept "one country, two systems'. The vast majority of Taiwanese resolutely oppose "one country, two systems', and this is the Taiwan consensus."
The use of the word "consensus' was significant, in that Xi had reiterated his belief in the so-called "One China" consensus. This refers to a meeting which took place in 1992 between semi-official representatives from China and Taiwan, with a "One China principle" as its core element. Whether such a consensus actually exists has always been a dispute between the pro-independence party, the DPP, and the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) which was ruling Taiwan in 1992.
President Tsai has refused to recognize that there was such a consensus. Even more important, as she told Xi, the real Taiwan consensus is that it won't accept the one country, two systems formula, reflecting 80% of Taiwan's public opinion, and this in spite of internal political differences.
The one-on-one confrontation of the two presidents has created a furor, not only on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, but also among the ethnic Chinese diaspora around the world.
She'd been criticized for lacking courage when faced with the continual bullying from China.
The New Power Party (NPP), a young third-way party, which also proclaims Taiwan independence, issued a statement rejecting President Xi's speech: "We are two different states. The premise of exchange is equality."
But the main spotlight was reserved for Tsai. Having been criticized for lacking leadership and courage when faced with the continual bullying from China ever since taking office in May 2016, President Tsai's assertive stance has been widely applauded by Taiwanese public opinion.
In the 24 hours that followed her remarks, the president's rarely followed Facebook page was suddenly swamped with hundreds of thousands of "likes."
By trying to avoid being labeled a troublemaker by Washington, as her predecessor DPP president Chen Shui-bian was, Tsai adopted a particularly low profile towards China over the past two and half years. This did not stop China from sending aircraft and naval vessels across Taiwanese territory. China has also forced certain notable Taiwanese with business on the mainland to publicly admit they are Chinese and supporters of reunification. China has also encroached on Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic ties, and also strong-armed foreign airlines to locate Taiwan as a province of China.
For once, Tsai's core supporters — the so-called "deep green" voters who aspire to a normalization of Taiwan as a sovereign country — affirmed her positive attitude after two years of frustration.
A recent Hong Kong university report pointed out that 45% of Hong Kong residents believed in one country, two systems at the time of reunification, but that level of support has fallen to near zero in the 20 years since.
On Jan. 5, members from the League of Social Democrats, a pro-democratic party in Hong Kong, took to the streets to protest against China. "Stop using force to intimidate Taiwan. One country, two systems are lies," read their banners. While burning copies of Xi Jinping's address to the Taiwanese people, the League also stuck an open letter to the door of the Chinese State Council's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
Even on the mainland, a few voices of dissent could be heard. Liang Yunxiang, an outspoken professor at Peking University's School of International Studies said to Hong Kong's i-CABLE News Channel, "China's hard power is not comparable to that of the United States, while its soft power lags behind that of Taiwan." Thus, in his view, "currently China is not attractive even to its own people, let alone attracting the Taiwanese to reunite."
Wang Dang, the famous U.S.-based dissident and one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement, believes that in a probably unintentional way, Xi's speech "has advanced the election prospects of Madam Tsai in Taiwan's next presidential election," slated for 2020.
Still, despite the sudden calls for unity, Taiwan's challenge for the future will remain internal dissent as much as any strong-arming from Beijing.