China’s Taiwan Policy Under Xi Jinping and Implications in a Time of Transition

Ideology is a driver of Xi’s policy, but its influence must also be weighed against other, and often more pragmatic, considerations
J. Michael Cole

The challenge of analyzing and writing about China’s Taiwan policy — or any policy that touches on China’s “national security,” for that matter — lies in the country’s authoritarian style of governance, which often makes information difficult to access. Moreover, due to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology, more often than not we can only guess what the Chinese leadership really thinks.

China has undeniably been very clear and consistent about its position on Taiwan (it is part of China awaiting “re-unification”), but ironically that clarity does not necessarily help us understand what China’s actual short-term, medium-term and long-term policies regarding Taiwan are.

Still, we can look at patterns to try to forecast future behavior. And to better understand President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Taiwan policy, it is helpful to briefly look at that of his predecessor, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), whose leadership spanned both a policy of containment during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) years and, starting in 2008, the process of rapprochement with Taiwan.

Hu’s approach to Taiwan was a pragmatic one, based primarily on belief in economic determinism and helped by a willing partner in Taipei, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Ideology (“re-unification”) guided the process, which went largely unchallenged, as the majority of Taiwanese seemed to regard normalization of cross-strait ties as both desirable and necessary. Under President Hu, the “low-lying fruit” — economic pacts, tourism, investment, and so on — were collected, the more contentious aspects to be dealt with at a later date.

In many ways, President Hu was never truly tested on Taiwan, and he let economic forces do much of the lifting. The relationship was seen to be moving in the “right” direction, and the post-9/11 international context, during which the U.S. was embroiled in two difficult wars, provided the incentives for such a process. A more aggressive Taiwan policy was therefore unnecessary. Moreover, during the Hu years, China still did not believe it had the national comprehensive power that would make it more assertive a few years later, when Xi became CCP secretary-general and Chinese president.

Unfortunately for Xi, his ascension to power coincided with President Ma’s second and last term in Taiwan. By then, it was pretty clear that Ma had “given” China almost everything he could and that anything beyond that was bound to cause him — and China — difficulties. The Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the legislature in March-April 2014 was evidence that Taiwanese would not allow Ma to cross certain lines, such as enacting pacts with China that threatened Taiwan’s sovereignty or liberal democracy. Furthermore, President Ma’s ability to deliver was further constrained by the approaching 2016 elections, which created pressure on the KMT to avoid a second domestic crisis. That pressure was also behind the KMT’s eleventh-hour decision to rid itself of its initial presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), whose unpopular platform proposed going beyond what Ma had delivered regarding Taiwan’s relationship with China.

Ma’s second term, and the first phase of Xi’s presidency, were therefore a period of reckoning, when Beijing was forced to realize that economics would not deliver the hoped-for political outcomes. In fact, despite normalization, support for unification continued to drop in Taiwan, continuing a trend that had started in 1992.

This undoubtedly caused frustration, and some anger, across China, leading some hardline commentators to call for more direct means to resolve the Taiwan “issue” once and for all. “We showed goodwill, and yet they [Taiwanese] don’t want to have anything to do with us [China],” is a lament that was often heard back in China.

As this transpired, it also became clear that President Xi was a different leader than Hu. Xi has been assessed as “impatient,” “ruthless,” a more confident nationalist, and has given every indication that he is much more guided by Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology than other Chinese leaders in recent memory, perhaps since Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

So what did this all mean for Beijing’s Taiwan policy? A more ideological leader, a more assertive China, at a time when Beijing’s ambitions with regards to Taiwan seem to be getting off the rails.

On the one hand, while continuing the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF)-Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), Mainland Affairs Council (MAC)-Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) platforms for dialogue, sub-state, unofficial an parallel efforts targeting Taiwan intensified under President Xi, who by 2013 had become aware that the Ma administration and the KMT would have difficulty giving Beijing what it wanted.

This period was marked by greater activity by various Chinese agencies to bypass the Taiwanese government and the KMT and to deal directly with the grassroots in Taiwan. As such, United Front Work departments and the PLA’s General Political Department Liaison Department (GPD/LD) intensified their work, using the greater access to Taiwan that was facilitated by rapprochement to make contacts, recruit, and to influence.

Replicating its approach to Hong Kong, Beijing also started relying more on the underworld to agitate and intimidate — former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-le (張安樂), aka “White Wolf,” being a prime example. Chang, who during his exile in China created a pro-unification party, entered politics after returning to Taiwan in June 2013. He is believed to be financed, if not directed, by the TAO.

Also under Xi, Beijing did not hesitate to impose extraterritorial measures on Taiwan, such as including Taiwan in its new National Security Law, and by making unilateral decisions that had a direct impact on Taiwan — for example, the implementation of new air routes and the issuance of a new document for Taiwanese wishing to travel to China, despite the fact that neither had been properly negotiated with their Taiwanese counterparts.

Xi has sounded much more “hardline” than his predecessor on Taiwan, and his warning that the Taiwan “issue” cannot be “cannot be passed on from generation to generation” was widely regarded as an indication that he was willing to do whatever is necessary to bring Taiwan to heel.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric and unilateral actions, we must note that Xi, who was vice governor, and then governor, of Fujian province between 1999 and 2002, probably has a much more refined understanding of Taiwan and of its democratic system than he lets on. In fact, if the reports are true, Beijing under Xi seems well aware that its approach to Taiwan since 2008 has to a large extent been a failure — at least if our yardstick is creating the conditions for “peaceful unification.” Former TAO and ARATS head Chen Yunlin’s (陳雲林) apparent downfall (he stands accused of “losing” Taiwan and has come under investigation for fraud) can be regarded as evidence of Beijing’s recognition that its Taiwan strategy was a road to nowhere.

Reading between the lines and understanding the reasons for the disconnect between Beijing’s official rhetoric/ideology and its policy is therefore a great challenge for us, but one that we must meet if we are to “predict” China’s future behavior vis-à-vis Taiwan. Beijing’s reluctant admission that its Taiwan policy has been failing is in stark contrast with, say, TAO Minister Zhang Zhijun’s (張志軍) recent remarks during a meeting with his Taiwanese counterpart, MAC Minister Andrew Hsia (夏立言), that the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” was closer than it has ever been.

Xi’s greater reliance on Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology has certainly made predicting his behavior a much more difficult task. On one hand, it is very likely that the strengthening of ideology is primarily targeted at a domestic audience, perhaps as a means to strengthen controls in times of greater instability in China. On the other hand, it would mistaken — and possibly dangerous — to conclude that ideology has no role whatsoever in shaping Beijing’s policies.

On this subject, history can provide some guidance. During the Cold War, Western analysts faced a similar challenge as they tried to understand, and to predict, Soviet behavior. Soviet watchers fell into three competing schools of thought, which the late historian Tony Judt, reviewing the book We Now Know by John Lewis Gaddis, describes as follows:

1. Soviet policymakers behaved and thought roughly like Americans: playing off domestic interest groups, calculating economic and military advantage, and pursuing goals convergent, albeit competitive, with those of its Western opponents;

2. Soviet policymakers were the heirs of the Tsars: their first concern was the geopolitical interests of Russia, and their ideological language were a contingent and secondary feature and therefore didn’t have to be taken too much into account;

3. The Soviet Union was a Communist state and the terms in which its leaders described the world were also the terms in which they understood it; therefore their ideological presuppositions were the most important thing to know about them.

Gaddis and Judt conclude that if the Soviet Union behaved like a great power in the pursuit of its interests, it nevertheless was a Communist great power. In other words, ideology had a role to play and therefore had to be taken into account when trying to predict Soviet behavior.

The challenge for China watchers is to strike a balance between those three schools of thought. Even under Xi, China is not guided purely by Communist ideology (and it is clear that contemporary China has dispensed with much of the economic aspects of communism while retaining the means of socio-political control). Conversely, it also isn’t purely a superpower like the U.S. whose behavior can be predicted by calculations that make sense to the West. The truth lies somewhere in between.

An additional challenge when looking at Beijing’s Taiwan policy is to determine the extent to which ideology, as opposed to Realpolitik, plays a role in the unification question. The more ideological the approach, the likelier that Beijing will not deal with the Taiwan “issue” in a way that is easily predictable and understandable (“rational”) to observers in the West.

Beijing’s Taiwan policy is therefore a balancing act between pragmatism and ideology, either of which can have primacy given the changing circumstances. My sense is that pragmatism has the upper hand for the time being, even under Xi, and that this will continue even if, as is widely expected, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wins in the January 2016 elections.

We should note that when Xi was governor of Fujian (1999-2002), DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was head of the MAC. It is quite possible, therefore, that Tsai and Xi have several contacts in common and that some of them comprise the channels that Tsai says she has cultivated to communicate with — and possibly reassure — Beijing in recent months.

The key to stability therefore lies with Beijing deepening its understanding of Taiwan, which would encourage its leaders to adopt a pragmatic, and therefore more predictable, approach to the issue. Conversely, bad or incomplete information would conceivably increase the role that ideology plays in policy decisions and take us into unchartered territory.

It goes without saying that all of this is contingent on President Xi receiving the intelligence and information he needs to make enlightened decisions, which is always a problem in closed authoritarian systems where minions might be reluctant to give bad news to their masters and may instead be compelled to tell the leader what they believe he wants to hear.

Given all this, and barring catastrophic developments, we can assess with some confidence that Beijing’s Taiwan policy after 2016, even if the DPP wins, will emphasize continuity and stability, if only because Xi has much greater challenges to deal with at home. Taiwan doesn’t keep CCP leaders awake at night; domestic instability (Hong Kong included) does.

Thus, unless Tsai declares independence — and she will not — China will likely content itself with the “status quo” while continuing to do what it can to shape the environment in its favor, both inside Taiwan and within the international context. If I am right about Xi’s understanding of Taiwanese society, China will not do anything rash that risks alienating the Taiwanese, as military action or economic sanctions would surely do.

Ideology will never allow a Chinese leader to declare defeat on Taiwan, regardless of the evidence facing them. Having unleashed ideology to achieve certain goals, President Xi (and to a somewhat lesser extent so did his predecessor) has become hostage to its tenets. But that doesn’t mean that he cannot be pragmatic about the issue.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. This article is based on a talk given by the author on Nov. 2 as part of the Fall 2015 “China Under Xi: Theories and Perspectives” Research Workshop at National Taiwan University, under the direction of Drs. Hans H. Tung and Charles Wharton.

One Response to “China’s Taiwan Policy Under Xi Jinping and Implications in a Time of Transition”

November 03, 2015 at 10:22 am, Wayne said:

Agreed. Pragmatism rules Beijing’s foreign policy roost.


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