The Great Cross-Strait Doublethink ActAs long as the governments in Taipei and Beijing remain pragmatic and flexible, the sky won’t fall over the Taiwan Strait
With the May 20 inauguration approaching, it’s increasingly safe to say that the analysts who were predicting a rapid souring of cross-strait relations or punitive action by Beijing following Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) landslide victory in the Jan. 16 elections were too alarmist. Both sides have demonstrated an ability to act pragmatically, and even though the fundamentals remain unresolved, a new modus vivendi is in the making that will conceivably ensure stability and continuity in the Taiwan Strait for years to come.
The sticking point, of course, is “one China” and the so-called “1992 consensus” that Beijing has repeatedly insisted on as a prerequisite for continued dialogue. During the election campaign, a struggling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) repeatedly sought to exploit the consensus—which it has adhered to wholeheartedly—by warning that the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) refusal to recognize it would seriously harm relations with Beijing.
With the elections behind her, president-elect Tsai dispelled most of those fears by stating during an interview with the Liberty Times that she recognized as a historical fact that discussions between the two sides had indeed taken place in 1992.
Ostensibly aware of the significance of Tsai’s strong mandate, that same week some Chinese academics were already arguing that Beijing should soften its stance.
“Maintaining the current relationship is what really matters,” one academic told the Washington Post, “not the 1992 consensus.”
Also speaking to the Post, Zhang Nianchi (章念馳) of the Shanghai Institute for East Asia Studies, said that China “shouldn’t be unsatisfied with her not accepting the 1992 consensus. Tsai was chosen by Taiwanese people, and that is a reality we have to face, too.” This was the same Zhang that, back in 2004, had expressed support for passing a “unification law” and defining the conditions under which war against Taiwan would be “permitted.”
There were further signs of an emerging modus vivendi on Feb. 25 when Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Yi (王毅), discussing how Beijing intended to work with the DPP at a conference in Washington, D.C., referred to the (Republic of China) constitution and indicated that substance, rather than personality or symbolism, were what really matters. Interestingly, Wang did not mention the “1992 consensus” in his address.
Although we should not read too much into the foreign minister’s comments—for example it is unlikely that Beijing will recognize the legitimacy of the ROC government, as some have argued—it nevertheless hints at the possibility of a more flexible, and perhaps more pragmatic, approach to Taiwan.
Wang, of course, balanced that statement with his usual insistence on “one China,” while Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, cautioned that we should not “misread” Wang’s remarks and that Beijing’s policy on Taiwan had not changed. And on Thursday, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference issued a report reaffirming the “one China” principle and the “1992 consensus.” But that’s the kind of thing that Beijing officials have to say.
Wang’s remarks we no landmark, as some academics were quick to point out, and there is no doubt that Beijing’s long-term objectives vis-à-vis Taiwan remain unchanged, as pro-independence activists rightly pointed out. But the hint was in the details, in the language. What wasn’t said mattered just as much as what was said. The crucial point is that if relations in the Taiwan Strait are to remain stable, Beijing and Taipei must develop the ability to live with contradictions, to engage in what Orwell called doublethink.
Only under this necessary modus vivendi can Beijing both insist on (Zhang) and downplay (Wang) the importance of the “1992 consensus,” or refer to constitutions and “constitutional frameworks” (Tsai) in vague enough a manner to allow for different interpretations that meet the needs of both sides. Also important is who says (or doesn’t say) what, in what setting, and to whom they are speaking. We must therefore weigh remarks by a foreign minister speaking in Washington against those of a lower-ranking official under the State Council. My bet is that Wang was speaking primarily to the U.S. and to Taiwan, while Zhang was addressing a domestic audience. All things in balance. Doublethink.
As long as Taipei and Beijing engage in this doublethink, the sky won’t fall. And for the time being, Beijing seems to be proving that it is willing to dance with President Tsai.
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. His latest book, 《島嶼無戰事：不願面對的和平假象》, was published on Feb. 3. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone.