Two recent events – Beijing’s heightened bellicosity toward Taiwan and a summer of environmental disasters across China – have showcased the increasingly misguided priorities of officialdom in Beijing and Hong Kong.

The effects of climate change are harming China and costing Chinese lives, but officials tasked with protecting the country and its people have chosen to focus on threatening the lives of ostensible compatriots in Taiwan. Those who are supposed to provide national security are instead creating national insecurity.

A section of a parched river bed is seen along the Yangtze River in Jiujiang in China’s central Jiangxi province on August 19, 2022. Photo: AFP/China OUT.

Since the advent of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the Taiwan Issue, as it is officially known, has become a chronic source of regional tension. For anyone who has followed Xi’s increasingly menacing promises to impose Beijing’s rule on Taiwan – by force, if necessary – recent military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) come as no surprise.

The exercises, the largest-ever around Taiwan, are widely assumed to have been sparked by a visit to Taipei by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, those exercises, which began only hours after Pelosi’s departure from Taipei, were planned well in advance.

In practical terms, it would have taken weeks to get all of the ships, aircraft, ordnance, fuel, soldiers, aviators, sailors and food – not to mention the fast-action PLA propaganda videos with accompanying cinematic music – in position. In other words, Beijing used Pelosi’s visit as a justification to proactively heighten tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

Adding fuel to the fire, Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan was supported by Hong Kong politicians, government departments and political parties. The Hong Kong government condemned Pelosi no fewer than six times in one day. The irony is that when Hong Kong officials use the Taiwan issue to demonstrate their fealty to Beijing, people in Taiwan become more worried that their own government will be forced to show fealty as well.

Taking climate change hostage

Meanwhile, for anyone who has watched the climate crisis unfold, it comes as no surprise that China is suffering through its longest heatwave on record, alongside widespread drought and rolling natural disasters – precisely the sort of adverse environmental changes that climatologists have warned would be the result of global warming. Likewise, July was Hong Kong’s hottest month on record.

At the same time, the entire Northern Hemisphere is experiencing much the same or worse, including unprecedented droughts and floods in Europe, record-shattering wildfires in North America, and deadly deluges in South Asia, not to mention climate-related winter calamities afflicting the Southern Hemisphere.

For those concerned about climate change it may be tempting to ignore the Taiwan issue. But Beijing has chosen to tie these seemingly unrelated topics tightly together. Instead of responding to the China-wide heatwave by reducing its own greenhouse gas pollution and pouring all available national resources into helping citizens adapt to the climate crisis, Beijing chose to start war games around Taiwan.

Adding insult to injury, it retaliated against the United States for Pelosi’s visit by reneging on the pledge it made last year to cooperate with Washington “with urgency” to address climate change.

That pledge was vitally important because China alone produces far more greenhouse gas pollution than any other country, more than a quarter of the global total. The White House’s national security spokesman noted that by reversing its pledge on climate cooperation, “the world’s largest emitter now is refusing to engage on critical steps necessary to stand up to combat the climate crisis, which actually impacts our partners, from rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands to fires across Europe.”

Ironically, this came not long before the White House’s inauguration of the most far-reaching climate legislation in US history.

The message from Beijing is clear: accept our authoritarian rule over Taiwan or we’ll doom Planet Earth and all its inhabitants to the ravages of climate change. The future of the global environment is now hostage to the resolution of the Taiwan issue on Beijing’s terms.

A factory in China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

By taking climate action hostage to the Taiwan issue, China is putting the lives of people in China and all around the world, especially in the poorest countries, at extreme risk. The seriousness of the climate crisis cannot be overstated: even if China were to attack Taiwan and kill every last person there, the death toll would pale in comparison to the toll from climate change in coming decades. Many of those deaths will occur in China itself.

Taking cooperation on climate change hostage to the Taiwan issue is to adulterate the very notion of national security, which at its foremost is —or ought to be – about protecting the lives of citizens. This applies even more so for those who believe that the people in Taiwan threatened by the PLA are citizens of China.

A manufactured crisis

The Taiwan issue and climate change have been connected by a vicious whirlwind of Chinese hubris that threatens to shatter Chinese and global security, engendering war in the Western Pacific and climate chaos the world over.

The absurdity of this situation is made worse by the pronouncements of Hong Kong politicians. They apparently have not paused to think about their own role in pushing Taiwanese people away from China, further exacerbating tensions, setting the stage for armed conflict, and encouraging Beijing to focus on Taiwan instead of the climate crisis.

For several decades, the aim of Beijing’s One Country, Two Systems policy in Hong Kong was in large measure to entice the people of Taiwan to hitch their wagon to China. Indeed, in its just-released white paper on the Taiwan issue, Beijing reaffirms that that policy is still considered to be the model for Taiwan.

The description of One Country, Two Systems inside Hong Kong Museum of History. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

However, the political crackdown in Hong Kong, characterised most extremely by the national security law and by police and prosecutors interpreting seditious intent in every action of government critics, has demolished any chance of One Country, Two Systems acting as an enticement to Taiwan. Indeed, the opposite is happening: the more Beijing suppresses freedoms in Hong Kong, the fewer people in Taiwan identify with China.

Beijing’s Taiwan-climate nexus may be the most egregious case of blackmail in human history. And for what? China doesn’t need to exercise direct rule over Taiwan; it can simply continue to claim sovereignty while enjoying all the benefits of trade with the island.

A peaceful approach to the Taiwan issue – treating Taiwan with calm respect, reversing the crackdown in Hong Kong and allowing truly universal suffrage and political freedom here, thereby creating an attractive model for Taiwan – seems to be anathema to Beijing because it entails allowing people to live freely. What China’s leaders want in Taiwan is what they want in Hong Kong: total subjugation to the party-state.

The recurring crises across the Taiwan Strait are manufactured by Beijing and thus entirely avoidable. Preventing a new Taiwan crisis simply requires Beijing to do nothing at all. In contrast, the climate crisis is growing worse and is entirely unavoidable.

It requires immediate, radical action to mitigate its causes and impacts. Yet, if recent history is any guide, Beijing will do far too little to avert the climate crisis – its greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise – and will find it impossible to resist creating new conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

In each case, the future security of Chinese people will be diminished. Perhaps this is the outcome that Beijing desires. As the national economy slows, the zero-Covid policy becomes increasingly untenable, natural disasters become more commonplace and Chinese citizens experience other legitimate reasons to grumble, Beijing’s response is to divert attention by stoking nationalist fervour. Making Taiwan a crisis is an easy way to do that.

The habit of creating insecurity

An irony is evident: all the posturing by politicians in Beijing and Hong Kong has been counterproductive, reducing the security of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Chinese officials, egged on by their Hong Kong comrades, are creating insecurity. They have pushed the people of Taiwan further from China and they have telegraphed to the world that China is a growing threat to regional peace.

Officials in Beijing and Hong Kong see imaginary national security threats almost everywhere – as democratic politicians, journalists, teachers, students and others in Hong Kong know only too well – while being blind to the realities of threats that no amount of propaganda can vanquish. They have lost sight of the greatest threat to China and its citizens: the climate crisis.

Photo: Mohri UN-CECAR via Flickr

Not too far in the future, in a world devastated by climate change, humanity may look back and remember Beijing’s tantrums over Taiwan as a death knell for international cooperation to mitigate the climate crisis in time to avoid widespread catastrophe.

All of the intellectual, financial and industrial resources that China has devoted to threatening Taiwan with ships, bombs, missiles and cyber-attacks would do far more to protect China’s interests if they were instead devoted to cooperating with Taiwan and countries around the world, including the United States, to address the climate crisis.

Doing that would kill two birds with one stone: help China and the world to mitigate and cope with climate change while reversing the distrust of China that is increasing by the day among the people of Taiwan, and indeed among people farther afield.

The conflation of the Taiwan issue and the climate crisis reveals that Chinese officials lack the willingness or ability to recognise real-world threats to national security. Instead of protecting national security, those officials routinely say and do things that create new threats and exacerbate existing threats to China and its citizens.

If certain people in Beijing and Hong Kong want to find threats to national security, they should stop looking across the Taiwan Strait, and indeed they should stop looking here in Hong Kong. If they won’t look at the changing climate outside their office windows, they should do the next best thing: look in the mirror.


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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.