Does Beijing Believe Its Own Official Line On Taiwan?Maybe China does have a better understanding of the island-nation it claims as its own. But it just can’t admit it
Hardly a meeting between officials from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait goes by without the Chinese side waxing grandiloquent about the “responsibility” of every Chinese to actively work toward “national rejuvenation.” In the context of cross-strait relations, “national rejuvenation” is about unification—or in Beijing’s view, the re-unification of Taiwan, which it regards as a “breakaway province,” with the “mainland.” Chinese officials, as well as many academics, invariably present the matter as a common goal, and maintain that only a small group of disgruntled individuals in Taiwan opposes the realization of this glorious Chinese dream. The problem with propaganda—especially propaganda broadcast by authoritarian regimes—is that it is often disconnected from reality, as is definitely the case here.
As this is being written, Zhang Zhijun, head of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), is meeting his Taiwanese counterpart, Andrew Hsia of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), in Guangzhou in the latest round of meetings between the two sides. Like a broken record, Zhang’s opening remarks once again were replete with references to both sides having adopted the “right path” toward the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—a goal, he said, that was “closer than at any time in history.”
Upon hearing these words, Mr. Hsia must have been the incarnation of diplomatic propriety itself. But deep inside, he must have known that such rhetoric has little in common with reality. In fact, not so long ago news had emerged that Chen Yunlin, one of Mr. Zhang’s predecessors at the TAO and the point man in cross-strait negotiations during the period of rapprochement that began in 2008, had reportedly fallen out of favour with Beijing for “losing Taiwan.” Needless to say, Chinese media and commentators were silent on the Chen case, which suggests that Beijing’s entire strategy for winning hearts and minds in Taiwan has been a failure. But of course, Chinese officials will never admit that publically.
In reality, rather than being “closer than at any time in history,” the dream of “re-unification” is rapidly fading for reasons that go well beyond Beijing’s inability to ensure that all the Taiwanese reap the benefits of closer economic ties with China. For well over a decade, trend lines within Taiwan have favored self-identification as Taiwanese and support for de jure independence or the “status quo,” which by most yardsticks should be regarded as a euphemism for independence. In its latest survey, the well-respected National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center showed that only 3.3% of people in Taiwan identified as Chinese and 9.1% supported unification immediately or at some point in the future. Both numbers were historical lows since the center began its surveys in 1992. Although the results do not necessarily translate into a widespread anti-China sentiment, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, added to the tightening of the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological grip on every aspect of Chinese society, have only served to deepen the desire among the Taiwanese to maintain their distinct way of life and political system.
All of this leaves no doubt about the fact that the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is not exactly around the corner—at least not if Taiwan is to be part of that process, or if that goal is to be accomplished by non-coercive means.
Why is it, then, that the Chinese side continues to regurgitate the notion that “national rejuvenation” involving Taiwan is within reach and that only a few Taiwanese oppose this goal? Surely, given the extraordinary access that Chinese from all walks of life—tourists, officials, businesspeople, academics and journalists—have had to Taiwan since 2008, they should know that despite closer economic and social ties, Taiwan is in fact moving in the opposite direction when it comes to the question of unification. This reality will likely be underscored by the outcome of the January 2016 elections and in the rejection by her own party of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, largely because of what has been perceived as her dangerously “pro-China” views.
The disconnect between the official Chinese discourse on Taiwan and the reality here is something that I often raise whenever I have a chance to sit down with journalists and academics who work in China. Almost invariably, my counterparts tell me that most Chinese academics and officials are cognizant of the consolidation of Taiwanese identity, and are aware of the little maneuvering room that Taiwan’s democracy and its emboldened civil society have given politicians when it comes to engaging China. Other, more official, channels support that view as well. Although China itself is not a democracy, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that political parties in Taiwan must reflect the wishes of the majority if they are to win elections, as the embattled KMT is now discovering rather painfully. Thus, although most Chinese who are in a position to study Taiwan first-hand may not like the idea that the island-nation is “drifting away,” or may even feel betrayed by an “ungrateful” people that refuses to reciprocate their “goodwill,” they are nevertheless aware that peaceful unification has become increasingly unlikely. And they understand the reasons why that is so.
The inability of Chinese officials to acknowledge that reality in their speeches, articles, and official documents, stems instead from the environment in which they operate. Authoritarianism, especially in highly nationalistic regimes like the CCP, militates against departures from the official discourse. It creates its own reality, its own logic. Furthermore, in such highly retributive systems, anyone who contradicts the official line risks getting into trouble with the authorities. Consequently, everyone parrots the gospel, even if they have little faith in the truth of what they are saying, or know that what they are saying is absurd. (In the worst cases, such dynamics make it difficult, if not impossible, for decisionmakers at the top to access the information they need to make enlightened policy decisions.)
Just as importantly, the very legitimacy of the CCP as the architect of “national rejuvenation” and protector of China’s prestige is at stake. Officially admitting that it has failed to accomplish the goal of “re-unification,” or that its strategy over the past eight years has not yielded the expected results, would risk delegitimizing the party in the eyes of ordinary Chinese. We can therefore conclude that the maximal positions about “national rejuvenation” through the “re-unification” of Taiwan, or conversely, the threat of military action, are primarily targeted at a domestic audience (the Chinese public), and not at the Taiwanese, who tend to ridicule such comments.
A victim of its own rigid system and ideology, the CCP is therefore held hostage and is forced to maintain officially both an optimistic line (the goal is within reach) and an uncompromising line (military threat, imposition ofextraterritorial laws) on Taiwan. Nevertheless, we should not treat official statements as a true representation of Beijing’s official policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. In other words, unless Chinese the leadership is utterly misinformed due togroupthink, there is reason to believe that Beijing has a much more refined picture of the situation in Taiwan than it lets on in its press releases and comments by officials like Zhang Zhijun or hawks like Wang Hongguang, and that its policies will ultimately reflect that knowledge.
And this, on the eve of a likely change of the guard in Taiwan, is cause for cautious optimism, as it indicates that notwithstanding the usual bluster, Beijing could be much more flexible and pragmatic toward a Taiwan that is governed by the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen than we have been led to believe, and that President Tsai would consequently have more wiggle room. Although this doesn’t mean that China will not try its best to shape the environment in its favor (e.g., pressuring Tsai to recognize the “1992 consensus”), it nevertheless tells us that the nightmare scenarios that some experts have warned us of should the DPP regain the presidency (e.g., military action, economic sanctions, serious instability) are unlikely to materialize. Beijing understands Taiwan well enough to know that such behavior would be counterproductive. In fact it probably knows enough about Taiwan by now to see why Ms. Tsai will likely win the election.
Maybe China does have a better understanding of the island-nation it claims as its own. But it just can’t admit it.
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 originally appeared on Oct. 16 on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog.