Chinese President Xi Jinping's message to the Taiwanese on the second day of the new year did much to clarify China's stand on the cross-strait issue. But it did little to stabilise the fraught relations between the mainland and the island that Beijing considers to be a breakaway province. Taiwan has been ruled separately since 1949 when the Kuomintang (KMT) government fled there after losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party. Cross-strait ties have gone through good and bad patches since then. The eight years under the KMT's China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou from 2008 to 2016 saw stability and progress in the form of agreements that promoted exchanges. This progress was predicated on the acceptance of the 1992 Consensus, a tacit understanding that there is only one China and that either side is free to interpret what this means. The "consensus" with its ambiguity allowed both sides to set aside differences and focus on areas where ties could be improved. The detente did not last, however.
President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party rejected the 1992 Consensus when she came to power in 2016, leading to a deterioration in relations as Beijing severed official ties with Taiwan. Mr Xi's speech on Jan 2 gave a new twist to the 1992 Consensus that left little room for imagination or manoeuvrability. He rendered it as a consensus that "the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, jointly seeking to achieve cross-strait reunification". He proposed, for reunification, the "one country, two systems" formula under which Hong Kong and Macau returned to China's fold. Unsurprisingly, both were rejected by Ms Tsai. Even KMT stalwarts criticised the new rendition of the 1992 Consensus. As for the Taiwanese public, polls showed it rejected Mr Xi's proposal too. While the Taiwanese are ready to engage China for economic benefits, they value their democratic freedoms too much to conceive of returning to the motherland under one country, two systems, having seen how Hong Kongers' freedoms have been increasingly constricted under it. Mr Xi is also hardening the stance of the Taiwanese government by bypassing it and appealing directly to different sectors of Taiwanese society to join Beijing to set up a mechanism for negotiation.