Some Hard China Lessons for ChuA DPP win in next year’s election isn’t Beijing’s worst nightmare; the emergence of a Taiwan-centric KMT is, and China is therefore making sure that this will not happen
On May 4, Eric Chu (朱立倫) had his first experience with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Forum as well as with Chinese President and CCP Secretary-General Xi Jinping (習近平) since he assumed the KMT chairmanship in January. Unfortunately, the accomplishments of his first journey to China were rather lacking in significance.
China’s prudent stage-setting and groundwork for the meeting was panoramic. The arranged propaganda performance by Tung Shu-chen (董淑貞), who passed off as a China-based businesswoman (Taishang) suggesting to Chu that “cross-strait marriages will guarantee the success of the KMT in elections with votes from married couples and their offspring” was a perfect example, as was Xi’s reading from his notes.
In all aspects, the CCP’s craftiness did have its impact. Eventually, Chu was compelled to affirm that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to ‘one China’” — whether it ultimately refers to unification of the two sides we don’t know — and only dared to mention “the Republic of China” with reminiscences of its founding history rather than making any reference to its present government.
Xi’s great anticipation for the meeting may have been the driving force behind China’s careful preparations for the occasion. There are several reasons why the CCP would be more eager for the high-level talk than Chu, and was keen to make it happen during the first half of the year.
By contrast, the KMT simply let slip the opportunity to make something out of Xi’s anticipation for the event, owing to its deeply embedded fear for China. Moreover, Chu was too preoccupied distinguishing himself from his predecessors as KMT chairman, namely Lien Chan (連戰) and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), to make the necessary effort.
Consequently, the KMT open the doors for the stern remarks by Xi and National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), which sounded like a harsh parental rebuke to Chu.
No space for Chu
Contrary to Chu’s expectations and to the impression he gave before his departure, his Chinese counterparts were more aggressive than expected, and did not allow him to take anything away from the meeting.
In the opening speech of the forum, Yu said the forum should stick to China’s stance on the “1992 consensus” and opposition to Taiwan independence, a recommendation that was echoed by closing remarks by Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍).
During the Chu-Xi meeting, China’s dominance was further asserted by Xi’s five-point proposal for cross-strait ties. Chief among them was the “legal basis that the Mainland and Taiwan belonged to ‘one China’ should not be challenged by advocates claiming ‘one state on either side’ or ‘one China and one Taiwan.’” Xi slammed Chu for arguing earlier that, “both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to ‘one China,’ with each side having different interpretations and definitions to the concept of ‘one China.’”
Another example of China’s dominance over Chu was Xi’s statement that the “one China” principle must be upheld prior to Taiwan’s participation in the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), immediately putting the possibility of Taiwan’s engagement with either the APEC or WTO model to rest.
So the CCP’s constant and unwavering intimidation during Chu’s visit did work. Chu went so far as to openly recognize that both sides “belong to ‘one China’” when discussing the basis of “1992 consensus.” Chu’s definition is a significant retreat from Ma’s references to “one Republic of China, two areas” in regards to the “consensus.” It is no wonder that international media concluded that Chu had affirmed Taiwan’s eventual unification with China.
Chu was quoted as saying that in 1992, through the efforts of Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), a consensus was reached that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to ‘one China,’” with each side having different definitions of “one China.” Although Chu referred the above as asserting “‘one China’ with respective interpretations of both sides” in front of Xi, it may be more accurate to refer to his “respective interpretations” as applying to the “1992 consensus” rather than the CCP’s “one China” policy, as the context of his statement revealed.
It could perhaps be said that Chu believes there is room for “respective interpretations” on the consensus rather than “one China,” and that he will lead the KMT with this notion in mind.
Chu therefore stumbled, and this is a clear indication that there is in fact no consensus at all on the supposed mutual understanding between both sides in 1992. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) offered her solution to the absence of the suggested mutual foundation for cross-strait ties by saying that the DPP would “maintain the status quo,” while Chu voluntarily embraced the “once China” formula central to CCP statements and ideology. The differences between Tsai and Chu’s position on and approach to cross-strait affairs are certainly very distinct.
Some have argued that the so-called “1992 consensus” has brought peace to cross-strait relations. However, judging from the crushing defeat of a shrewd politician like Chu in the long anticipated high-level talks in Beijing, it may be truer that the consensus only accelerates the annexation of Taiwan by China.
CCP eager for the meeting
The CPC was keen to make the meeting happen during the first half of the year, so as to assess early on the new KMT leader and the recent changes in the party, perhaps to find out how it could intervene in next year’s elections in Taiwan, set the tone for future CCP-KMT’s cooperation, while giving sufficient time for any undesired impact from the summit to dissipate before the elections.
Of the major municipality KMT leaders in recent years, China was less familiar with Chu than, say, Jason Hu (胡志強) and John Wu (吳志揚), due largely to limited contact and interactions. Furthermore, upon becoming KMT chairman, Chu had urged the Chinese authorities to “look squarely” at cross-strait issues in view of the differences between the two sides, a bolder response to China in comparison to that of his predecessor. Chu had also intended to distinguish himself from the meetings between then-KMT chairman Lien Chan and Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), and to isolate his meeting with Xi from forum. All these had prompted China to watch Chu with a vigilant eye, and consequently Beijing became more eager to observe him at close range.
The KMT’s internal strife and declining popularity in last year’s “nine-in-one” elections, as well as during the Sunflower Movement, could help Tsai win the presidency, and even subject it to the loss of its majority in the legislature in next year’s elections. But those are not Xi’s only concerns.
The above circumstances could lead to pushback by pro-China forces in the blue camp who support ultimate unification, prompting “Taiwan-centrism” to appear as the mainstream within the KMT, just as it did in the late 1990s. This would constitute a deviation from Lien Chan’s model for “one China” and CCP-KMT cooperation.
The CCP and KMT have joined hands over the last decade to oppose Taiwanese independence, ostensibly aiming at Taiwan’s ultimate unification with China. The collapse of CCP-KMT cooperation and breakdown of the CCP’s allied forces in the blue camp are a much worse nightmare than the possibility of a Tsai victory in the 2016 elections.
The Chinese authorities did not only regard the Chu-Xi meeting as a chance to convey Beijing’s stance and bottom line to non-KMT political forces in Taiwan — primarily the DPP— but saw it as an opportunity to closely interact with Chu and the KMT to assess the right dosage and formula for interventions in the 2016 elections, and to prevent the KMT from becoming “Taiwan-centric.”
Whatever China said during Chu’s visit was ultimately aimed at the KMT. It is a pity that neither Chu nor the KMT were aware of this, and instead used the occasion as a platform for pursuing economic cooperation. This may not only be a problem for Chu, but also that of the entire KMT. Fear of the great power of China has made the party unable to make comprehensive analysis with diverse perspectives.
The CCP defines the cooperation
Yu Zhengsheng played a pivotal role in the forum in Shanghai. He recalled that the previous Cross-Strait Economic, Trade and Culture Forum had insisted on “upholding the 1992 consensus and opposing Taiwan independence,” “focusing on people’s livelihood and be at the service of the people,” and “adhering to the principle for inviting opinion from a wider spectrum of people.” Yu advised the forum to maintain its unwavering stance on “peaceful development, “mutual political foundation” and “continued efforts for the wellbeing of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait,” while proposing four other recommendations for future forums.
Yu’s statement concluded with references to the forum’s achievements, its response to the present cross-strait situation, as well as its future missions. These could be interpreted as China’s description of its demands for future cooperation from the KMT, and a sign that the CCP will be more proactive in taking control of the forum in future. In fact, it may very well expand the scope of issues to be covered at the forum.
Subsequent to Yu, Xi further requested the KMT “blatantly oppose any comment and behavior that may endanger the “1992 consensus.” Under no circumstances should the hard-earned achievements that were once compromised be put at risk, he said, and thus both parties are obliged to proactively explore “frameworks for a feasible system paving the way for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.” In addition, Xi proposed that both political parties focus on the bigger picture to “strengthen political trust by upholding the consensus and resolving any differences, rather than simply seeking common ground while putting aside differences.” He called on the KMT to “bravely face” and “proactively explore solutions” for the long-standing political differences and challenges regarding cross-strait issues, so as to take up its “noble responsibility” to revive the glory of “ethnic Chinese,” to ensure the wellbeing of the people, and to build peace across the Taiwan Strait.
So much for Chu’s expectations of Xi’s generosity.
Xi put his emphasis on the “1992 consensus,” threatening that “the Earth will move and mountains will shake” as a result of any rejection or challenge to the basis of the “‘one China’ principle”. However, what he asked from the KMT is more than adhering to the consensus or the principle: The KMT must now take the initiative to cooperate with the CCP to proactively defend against any comment or behavior that is deemed detrimental to the political foundations of cross-strait relations.
Consensus or status quo
The “1992 consensus” has been a password to cross-strait relations. Its definition, which has evolved over the past decade, implies the volatility of the seeming mutual understanding.
The fact that the political foundations for both sides is always fragile and under constant pressure from China may support what Xi said as to “the Earth will move and mountains will shake” when the 1992 consensus becomes unstable. The fragility is doomed because there never was a consensus.
The “1992 consensus” formulated by the KMT and the CCP was leveraged by Chu’s Chinese counterparts for intimidation purposes during Chu’s visit. Eventually, fearing that Beijing was really “shaking the Earth and moving the mountains,” Chu felt compelled to pull back from his party’s previous bottom line of “one China with respective interpretations.” You reap what you sow…
The common expectation of Taiwan, China, Japan and the U.S. about cross-strait relations is maintaining the “status quo” of peace and stability rather than a superficial peace with a constantly changing and unstable status. Since the “1992 consensus” has been proven ineffective at maintaining peace and stability after 10 years, it is perhaps not a worthy paradigm. The new paradigm should be an idea that can maintain the balance across the strait based on Taiwan’s democratic principle, one that is accepted by all parties. Reaching a consensus with Beijing should not be a prerequisite of that idea. The key factor, therefore, would not be reaching a new consensus but hitting the question head-on: Which “status quo” is preferred, and how to maintain it.
Some would argue that the status quo could not be maintained if it is not clearly defined. The status quo, however, will always be dynamic. How to achieve that balance and what would be needed to do that is more important than explaining what it is. Even if we were able to define it, that doesn’t mean we would have the ability to defend it. The status quo should be more a set of principles for interaction so that both parties can establish a mechanism of predictable exchanges and interaction which produces predictable results.
During his meeting with Chu, Xi proposed that the KMT and CCP discuss the establishment of a framework to safeguard peaceful development in the Taiwan Strait. But he apparently was not referring to a peace agreement, as the proposed framework sounded more like “reasonable arrangement” before unifying Taiwan. Xi’s intentions makes maintaining the status quo a more urgent issue, as the “arrangement” between the KMT and the CCP should never become the “new status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.
Lai I-chung is deputy chief executive of Taiwan Thinktank. This article was originally published in Chinese on the Thinking Taiwan Forum. Translated by Serena Chuang.