Why China Is So Obsessed With Hong Kong and Taiwan

To address current crises effectively, one must understand the fundamentals of Chinese strategy

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong / Getty

As anti-government, pro-democracy demonstrations escalate in Hong Kong, observers fear that China's ruling Communist Party will deploy the military to crush the protests. There is reason to be concerned. This week, the Chinese People's Armed Police Force, which is responsible for riot control and counterterrorism, assembled military vehicles in Shenzhen, a city in mainland China bordering Hong Kong. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, condemned the protests as "deranged" and "signs of terrorism," and state-run media outlets warned that the demonstrators are "asking for self-destruction." Some analysts say the economic and political consequences of a direct intervention will deter the Chinese government, but Beijing is terrified of semi-autonomous Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, which, if allowed to flourish, could foster further unrest and threaten the survival of China's authoritarian regime. This fear is primarily why Beijing's posture toward the demonstrations has become increasingly belligerent.

If the Communist Party is scared of democratic Hong Kong, then it is, for similar reasons, beyond petrified of Taiwan, an effectively independent democracy that China is hell-bent on reunifying with the mainland. Indeed, as Hongkongers protested in late July, the Chinese government declared in its newly released defense white paper that to solve "the Taiwan question and achieve complete reunification of the country is in the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation and essential to realizing national rejuvenation." The document added that China "must be and will be reunited," and that China makes "no promise to renounce the use of force" and reserves "the option of taking all necessary measures" to seize Taiwan. China seeks to destroy any notion that Taiwan is an independent state by delegitimizing the island, isolating it politically, diplomatically, and economically. Last week, for example, Beijing ordered mainland film stars and directors to boycott Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards, widely known as the "Chinese Oscars."

Hong Kong and Taiwan are naturally linked as two vibrant, thriving, capitalist, ethnically Chinese polities whose citizens enjoy exponentially greater freedoms and quality of life than the Chinese people on the mainland. Hongkongers and the Taiwanese people are well aware of Beijing's brutal oppression and want no part of it. It makes sense, then, for Taiwan's government to express support for Hong Kong's protests, which began in March after the government of Hong Kong proposed a bill allowing local authorities to extradite suspected criminals to the mainland.

Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, are obsessed with Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which make the Communist Party maniacally insecure about its grip on power. Some of the reasons for this obsession are obvious, such as the existential threat of democracy. Others include Hong Kong's economic importance to China's development and Taiwan's geostrategic location as the critical point of the "first island chain," the first line of archipelagoes off the east Asian continental coastline. Beijing hopes to break through the chain to challenge American dominance in the Pacific.

There are, however, other reasons for China's focus on Hong Kong and Taiwan that receive little attention but are critically important to recognize. These factors—the cornerstones of Chinese strategy—are especially essential to study as the United States and China enter a second Cold War, competing for global supremacy. As the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." The United States needs to know what drives Chinese thinking to address current crises. Indeed, these ideas, which comprise the foundation of China's goals today, must be understood in historical context to have an appreciation for what Beijing is trying to accomplish going forward.

For centuries, Chinese strategy has sought two main objectives: first, internal cohesion within China's borders to bring harmony and stability to the country, and second, security from external threats by shoring up vulnerable territorial boundaries. These two objectives are inextricably linked and mutually dependent. As far back as 1669, for example, Emperor Kangxi's first and primary task upon assuming control of China was to remove factionalism from the government, which he believed had caused the downfall of the preceding Ming dynasty. This project involved easing tensions between the Manchus and Chinese, while making the case to the empire's elites that his rule would bring peace. Kangxi thought being unified internally was not only essential to the survival of the government, but also necessary to expand militarily to Taiwan and southwest China, showing the important link in Chinese strategy between domestic stability and foreign policy.

Cohesion remained a priority in the coming centuries, especially because rebellions wreaked havoc on Chinese society and were at times caused by internal divisions. The White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804), which was caused by sectarianism and resulted in a bloody, costly war, distracted the emperor from the threat of pirates on the southeast coast and the potential threat of British aggression. Once again, the lesson was clear that China's divisions were damaging the empire, both internally and externally, reinforcing the need for unity.

China's uprisings continued with the Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 1864 and the Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901, both of which coincided with the country being forced to submit to foreign domination by a range of European powers, as well as Russia and Japan. The country was ripped apart internally during its century of humiliation, from 1839 to 1949, and had no capacity to defend itself in part because it was so divided. When the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, China erupted into total civil war. The country dissolved into several zones run by warlords until the conflict became centered on Mao Zedong's Communist-led rebellion against the nationalists. There was no internal unity to speak of, which presented an opportunity for outside powers like Japan, Russia, and the United States to meddle. In fact, Japan intervened militarily as the civil war approached its sphere of influence in Manchuria. Thus, China's internal disputes invited foreign aggression, while its inability to secure its territorial boundaries in turn helped contribute to chaos inside the country.

It is telling that, in the 21st century under Xi, China is cracking down on dissent precisely to maintain national unity and avoid instability. But Hong Kong and Taiwan are clear obstacles to Xi's vision: To the Communist Party, Hong Kong and Taiwan are part of China and therefore present immense challenges to internal cohesion and national unity. Taiwan's very existence challenges the notion of a harmonious China, as do the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Moreover, Hong Kong and Taiwan are vulnerable territorial boundaries, located on and just off the Chinese coast, respectively. They present clear security risks to Beijing if hostile governments—meaning pro-Western and democratic systems—were to control them. So Hong Kong and Taiwan are central to Chinese strategic thinking—they threaten China's most basic interests if they do not obey Beijing.

Internal cohesion and territorial security are also part of China's efforts to build itself up domestically as a great power. Indeed, engaging in "peaceful development" (Xi's term) to create a strong, wealthy country has become central to China's strategic vision in recent years after economic modernization began in the late 1970s. Xi has named development central to China's core interests and defines it as part of the "long-standing objective of creating a strong and wealthy China at peace with outside powers." Again, China does not distinguish between foreign and domestic policy. More specifically, China has the longer-term goal of attaining "a modern socialist country, prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious" by the middle of the 21st century, which is part of Xi's so-called China Dream. To Chinese leaders, a rambunctious, democracy-loving Hong Kong and an independent Taiwan are the ultimate roadblocks on this path to what they call "national rejuvenation." Such distractions would force Beijing to divert time, energy, and resources and threaten the idea of a society obedient to the central government.

These three ideas—internal cohesion, territorial security, and peaceful development—are part of China's larger strategic vision to be recognized as a special civilization deserving of unique status and deferential treatment. Prior to 1840, China led the world in technological innovation and was able to dictate economic terms to European competitors and others. It called itself the "Middle Kingdom" because Chinese leaders saw their empire as superior to all others and the center of global affairs. Beijing did not feel differently after the century of humiliation ended. In fact, China was determined to reassert its role as the Middle Kingdom after forming the communist People's Republic in 1949. China felt it had been denied its rightful place in international affairs, a sentiment that remains today. This imperial mindset is in part driven by Chinese xenophobia; its sheer size, wealth, and influence; and a Sino-centric worldview in which deference to Chinese rulers is the proper basis of the international system of states. Foreign policy, in other words, should always be conducted on China's terms (including trade deals).

The historical context of Chinese strategic thinking helps explain both China's imperial expansionism today—in the South China Sea, for example—and its upsurge in domestic oppression—such as forcing about one million Uyghur Muslims into concentration camps. Washington needs to study this history and view Beijing's strategic ambitions as a grave threat. Hong Kong and Taiwan are crucial to countering Chinese objectives—indeed, they could fundamentally undermine the Communist Party. It is not just morally right for the United States to support Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests and Taiwan's security and sovereignty; it is also in America's strategic interests to do so.