Descendants of the Yellow Emperor: Prospects of Chinese Reunification with Taiwan Under Xi Jinping

By Rachel Lietzow

At the opening of the new year, independence advocates in the Republic of China (Taiwan) suffered a sharp blow to the prospects of a sans-China Taiwan with a stern message from People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping. Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” at the Great Hall of the People, Xi echoed the ideology first officially introduced in 1979. [1] A landmark year for cross-Strait relations, 1979 laid the groundwork for policy to realize Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland: the statement highlighted aspects of responsibility, the international community’s welfare, and economic development and trade. [2]

Arguably the most compelling point in the document, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) generated a sense of urgent, inborn responsibility shared by all ethnic Han Chinese, where each individual of true Chinese heritage must strive for the “survival, growth and prosperity of the Chinese nation.” [3] Those who do not abide by this principle—proponents of a separate Taiwan included—are bluntly accused of treason: “How can we answer our ancestors and explain to our descendants?...Who among the descendants of the Yellow Emperor wishes to go down in history as a traitor?” [4] At the publication of this famous message, modern China as a nation was only thirty years old; to maintain its clout, the regime wisely employed rhetoric that necessarily conjoined Chinese in the Mainland and in Taiwan, appealing to the lengthy history of the Chinese civilization, deeply entrenched culture, and perception of the Han Chinese as a singular, established entity.

The new wave of policies in 1979, heralded in alongside China’s Opening and Reform era, addressed the subject of China moving into the position of a rising power. [5] Due to China’s perceived growing importance, both to the international economy and to the hegemonic power balance, the call for reunification seen so strongly in the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” was to have a global impact. In other words, not only was reunification critical to the development of the Chinese nation, but also for maintaining a peaceful balance in Asia and the rest of the world. In a more pragmatic sense, the 1979 message also discussed the potential mutual economic benefits that Taiwan-Mainland reunification would offer. According to Republic of China’s (Taiwan) Bureau of Foreign Trade, China is Taiwan’s top trading partner, “accounting for more than 30 percent of the island’s total trade.” [6] In the area of investment, Taiwanese reliance on China is equally evident: since 1988, close to 100,000 Taiwanese businesses have invested in the Mainland. [7] The decades of tight interweaving of Mainland and Taiwanese economies will prove a complex facet of the Chinese reunification prospects. Economic interdependency is stressed in the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” as a key reason for reunification.  

From this framework, Taiwan’s unwillingness to reconcile with the Mainland and relinquish its sovereignty appears shortsighted and detached from national, regional, and global needs. President Xi conveyed this same message in January. While after forty years, China now exhibits a very different outward appearance—having reaped the benefits of decades of rapid economic growth—the essence of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” remains equally uncompromising.

One particularly alarming aspect of Xi’s speech became the focus of Taiwanese and international news outlets: use of force. As noted by the New York Times, The Straits Times, The South China Morning Post, and the Washington Post, among others, President Xi made clear that the use of force remains on the table: “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures”. [8] Perhaps his next remarks drew even more attention from the West—particularly the United States—saying that the use of force could target “external interference” and “‘Taiwan independence’ separatists.” [9] These words can be read as a reaction to the persisting amicable relationship between the United States and Taiwan reflected in the ongoing arms sales to the island under the Trump administration. [10]

Failed U.S. Containment Policy and China

Xi Jinping’s speech signals that Taiwan will once again be an issue of contention in U.S.-China relations in the year of 2019. Diplomatic demands from Mainland and Taiwanese leaders grow more complex as the United States encounters more challenges when toeing the line and remaining “friendly” with both parties. On a broader scale, China is on a road to expand its influence in Asia and beyond—the Belt and Road Initiative is the most telling example—and the United States’ unyielding stakes in the region are obstacles, if not threats. Therefore, the U.S. perfectly embodies what Xi describes as “external interference” and his ominous warning may indicate future conflict between the two superpowers over Taiwan. Whether or not tension in diplomacy would escalate to military mobilization is up to debate.


In the wake of the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” the likelihood that the Chinese regime’s much sought-after peaceful reunification would succeed appears slim at best. As leaders Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen have both taken hardline stances on the subject, there may not be much room for compromise in the near future. President Xi’s push for “One China” and his hope for Taiwan to play the part in a “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement were met with direct opposition. One day prior to Xi’s commemoration address, Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen asked that the Chinese government “handle our differences peacefully and as equals.” [11] As Taiwan stresses irreconcilable differences as an insurmountable barrier to the proposed “One Country, Two Systems” framework, it is evident that the Chinese and Taiwanese people’s shared identity as “descendants of the Yellow Emperor” will not be sufficient to close the political gap.

Rachel Lietzow is a recent graduate from the University of Kentucky, where she studied Chinese, International Economics, and International Studies.

Works Cited

[1] Jie, D. (2019, January 10). Three big takeaways from Xi Jinping's Taiwan speech. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

[2] Noi, G. S. (2019, January 02). Cross-strait ties to remain tense with both China and Taiwan taking tough stance. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from taking-tough-stance

[3] Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2019, from

[4] Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2019, from

[5] Wei, T. D. (2019, January 03). China-Taiwan reunification is inevitable: Xi Jinping. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

[6] Albert, E. (2018, June 15). China-Taiwan Relations. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from

[7] Albert, E. (2018, June 15). China-Taiwan Relations. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from

[8] Buckley, C., & Horton, C. (2019, January 02). Xi Jinping Warns Taiwan That Unification Is the Goal and Force Is an Option. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

[9] Wei, T. D. (2019, January 03). China-Taiwan reunification is inevitable: Xi Jinping. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

[10] Chan, M. (2019, March 11). Beijing 'won't allow Taiwan reunification to be postponed indefinitely'. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

[11] Horton, C. (2019, January 01). Taiwan's Leader Urges China to Address Differences Peacefully.   
Retrieved April 24, 2019, from

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