Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to push Taiwanese closer to unification with a speech mixing carrots and sticks. It appears not to have worked. Instead, his independence-leaning Taiwanese counterpart, Tsai Ing-wen, has enjoyed a surge in support following a drubbing for her political party in local elections last year, according to public opinion surveys and interviews. Residents of the self-governing island, which has a vibrant and well-established democracy, appear to remain resistant to China’s demands despite rising political, economic and military threats from Beijing. Xi’s offer to Taiwan “is a total scam”, said Kuo Lin-han, 26, a Chinese Culture University student in Taipei. Wife of jailed Taiwanese activist condemns Beijing over visit ban Kuo was referring to Xi’s proposal of a “one country, two systems” arrangement in his January 2 speech, under which Taiwan would accept mainland Chinese sovereignty while being allowed to retain its own economic and legal systems. The suggestion was based on the framework Hong Kong was granted when it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, an arrangement that has become increasingly frayed as Beijing expands its political influence in the former British colony. Jarringly for many Taiwanese, Xi mixed his outreach with a reminder that Beijing had no intention of dropping its threat to use military force to bring the island under its control. Xi’s speech was seized on by Tsai, who went on a four-day media blitz in Taipei that appears to have significantly bolstered her support among voters. In a telephone survey published January 21 by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, 34.5 per cent of the 1,074 respondents gave her a thumbs-up, an increase of about 10 percentage points from after the November elections. Two-thirds said they wanted Taiwan to continue its self-rule or declare formal independence. Separately, the Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council found in a January 17 survey of 1,078 people that 75.4 per cent oppose “one country, two systems”, 74.3 per cent dispute the “one China” condition for formal dialogue and 77.2 per cent oppose mainland China for stating that it could use force against Taiwan if needed. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 per cent. “The most important thing is that Xi Jinping made the speech on Taiwan and Tsai Ing-wen gave a rare response, which received a high level of support,” foundation chairman You Ying-lung said. “The China factor helps her come out of a trough.” Younger Taiwanese had a firm sense of local identity that stood in the way of China’s idea for unification, said Wu Yi-hsuan, 27, an energy science and engineering doctoral student. “We want to be Taiwanese Taiwan rather than Chinese Taiwan,” Wu said, referring to the terminology Beijing often uses for the island that many consider condescending. “Regarding the fact that the People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan for a second, this [two systems] policy of China’s is more an invasive, aggressive and offensive one.” China ruled Taiwan loosely under the former Qing dynasty and the island became a Japanese colony in 1895. Handed over to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists at the end of the second world war, Chiang’s forces fled to the island after losing the civil war to the Communists in 1949. White House map showing Taiwan as separate from China sparks surprise The Communists have regarded Taiwan since then as a breakaway territory that must eventually be brought into the fold. Many commentators believe Xi sees that as his historical mission, prompting major increases in Beijing’s military budget and renewed pressure on the island, including cutting off contacts with Tsai’s government. China’s huge economy and global clout may have some effect, but most Taiwanese were unimpressed with how Beijing had followed through on its earlier pledges, said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the think tank Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. “Hong Kong is totally controlled by mainland China,” Yang said. “Even though they have their autonomy, they have limited freedom, and certainly there is no democracy in Hong Kong, as far as Taiwanese are concerned.” “I feel that the China government is unpredictable especially after Lee Ming-che was taken away by them,” said Catta Chou, 30, a worker in a non-governmental organisation, referring to a Taiwanese citizen sentenced in China in 2017 to five years in prison for spreading pro-democracy information. “China is definitely crazy,” Chou said. Despite such sentiments, Beijing was unlikely to come up with a new proposal in the immediate future, said Yun Sun, East Asia programme senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. “[Beijing’s leaders] know how unpopular the proposal has been and will be,” Sun said. “But before they have a good alternative, this is and will be the biggest deal for them.” US will boost security ties with Taiwan, says ‘ambassador’ Voters had complained before the November 24 midterm elections that Tsai had either grown too distant from mainland China to build economic ties or hadn’t stood up enough to Beijing’s military and diplomatic pressure. Though she won the presidency by a landslide in 2016 – largely due to concerns about China’s influence – and her Democratic Progressive Party received its first-ever legislative majority, Taiwanese voters have in the past shown a willingness to try new approaches. Many in the business community are already urging Tsai to climb down from her refusal to meet Beijing’s “one China” demand, largely as a way of easing pressure on the island. “‘One country, two systems’ could bring more people in and out, and this is good,” said dried fruit merchant Yu Chen-ching, 65. “Otherwise, no one wants to visit Taiwan, and it’s not good for the economy.” Economic concerns could cause Tsai’s popularity to fade before her party faced the 2020 presidential race, said Alex Chiang, international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Because she’s president, she has to be firm on her position toward China, but in reality, Taiwan still has to do business with China,” Chiang said.