Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday rejected calls from Chinese President Xi Jinping for the democratic island to "unify" with the People's Republic, saying its people have no wish to give up their sovereignty.
In a Jan. 2 "Letter to our Taiwan compatriots," Xi swapped the Chinese Communist Party's previous insistence on the idea that Taiwan is part of a divided "One China" for a new theme: "unification."
"It has been a historical and unavoidable duty of the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese government and the Chinese people to resolve the matter of Taiwan and unify the motherland ever since 1949," Xi said in the statement.
But he made scant reference to public opinion among the 23 million inhabitants of Taiwan, which his party has never ruled.
"We are prepared to work for peaceful unification with the greatest sincerity, because a unification that is accomplished peacefully will benefit all of our compatriots, and people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait," Xi said.
But he warned: "We make no promise to renounce the use of military force, and reserve the right to take all necessary measures to deal with hostile foreign forces and a tiny minority of separatists and their splittist activities."
Armed forces under the Chinese Communist Party "continued to develop and deploy increasingly advanced military capabilities intended to coerce Taiwan, signal Chinese resolve, and gradually improve capabilities for an invasion," the U.S. Department of Defense said in an annual report on China's military capabilities in 2018.
Xi urged Taiwan to work towards "unification" under the "one country, two systems" model that was promised to Hong Kong after its 1997 handover to China, rather than the direct imposition of Communist Party rule. However, that city's autonomy has been eroded in recent years by a series of high-profile interventions from Beijing, according to U.S. and U.K. officials, Hong Kong's Bar Association, and international rights groups.
Tsai Ing-wen responded on Wednesday by asserting the right of Taiwan's 23 million inhabitants to decide their own fate.
"I want to reiterate that Taiwan absolutely will not accept 'one country, two systems,'" Tsai said. "The vast majority of public opinion in Taiwan is also resolutely opposed to 'one country, two systems.'"
Hong Kong's fate not desired in Taiwan
DPP lawmaker Wang Ding-yu said Xi's "letter" shows a distinct shift in Beijing's stance.
"But Hong Kong is already proof-positive that one country, two systems is a sham; a marriage entered into as a result of fraud," Wang said. "Now they want to come and snatch Taiwan away."
"They probably can't see that the one country, two systems model is already bankrupt: otherwise they wouldn't think the people of Taiwan would fall for it," he said.
"Taiwan needs to hang onto its right to choose its own fate, because Hong Kong can't decide anything for itself," he said.
Wang Dan, former student leader of the 1989 democracy movement on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, agreed.
"What we see in Hong Kong today, we will see in Taiwan tomorrow," he said of the "one country, two systems" plan.
"Looks like the 2020 presidential election [in Taiwan] will turn into a referendum on 'one country, two systems'," Wang Dan wrote via his Twitter account on Wednesday.
In her statement, Tsai also offered to start talks with China, but under conditions that Beijing is unlikely to agree to.
"As a democratic country, all political consultations and negotiations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait must be authorized and monitored by the people of Taiwan, and conducted on a government-to-government basis by both sides," Tsai said.
Beijing has never accepted the status of Taiwan as a sovereign power, although the Republic of China government established by the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) fled there in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists.
China urged to 'bravely move towards democracy'
Officially, Taiwan is still known as the Republic of China, which controls the four islands of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. But Beijing has refused diplomatic ties with any country that also recognizes the Republic of China, and actively encourages Taiwan's partners to switch recognition.
Instead, China insists that Taiwan is a breakaway province of the People's Republic of China, and refuses to engage in government-to-government talks.
Tsai called on Beijing to handle negotiations on an equal basis "instead of using suppression and intimidation to get Taiwanese to submit."
"Any political consultations that are not authorized and monitored by the people cannot be called democratic consultations," she said, and hit out at Beijing's use of financial support for outsourced supporter groups in Taiwan, under the Communist Party's United Front Work Department.
Tsai, whose ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered losses to the KMT in elections last November, said the results shouldn't be taken as a sign that Taiwan is willing to give up its freedom.
"The results of the ... elections absolutely do not mean that grassroots public opinion in Taiwan favors abandoning our sovereignty, nor do they mean that the people want to make concessions regarding Taiwanese identity," she said.
"Democratic values are the values and way of life that Taiwanese cherish, and we call upon China to bravely move towards democracy," Tsai said.
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the nationalist Kuomintang government as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal.
When the Kuomintang regime fled to Taiwan in 1947 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communist troops, the Republic of China government ceased to control most of China, though it continues to be the official name of the Taiwan government.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for continued self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hwang Chun-mei and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.