Preparing Taiwan for Unification

China hopes it can avoid having to use force against Taiwan to realize its political ambitions; an easier target is Taiwan’s democratic institutions
J. Michael Cole

Up until the beginning of March this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Standing Committee must have felt very pleased with the way things were going in the Taiwan Strait. Their plan to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese through economic largesse seemed to be on track, and Taipei’s ability to reciprocate by further opening up Taiwan to Chinese investment appeared to be unassailable. Then the Sunflower Movement took over the legislature and shook things up.

Before we turn to this unprecedented event in Taiwan’s modern history, it is important that we first discuss China’s Taiwan strategy under Xi and his predecessor, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Despite China’s impressive military buildup in the past decade, it is clear that the option of resorting to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to force unification on Taiwan is regarded as a last, and costly, resort, at least among the civilian leadership in Beijing. Along the spectrum of options available to Beijing to facilitate the process of unification with Taiwan, economic incentives, and the cultivation of social ties to foster a sense of family among people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, are the preferred and least costly options. It goes without saying that the economic card goes well beyond increasing Taiwan’s reliance on China for its economic survival and also involves the possibility of blackmail as well as the development of influential business tycoons who can lean on Taipei to adopt certain policies that are favorable to the process of unification or that will help accelerate that momentum.

Cultural exchanges are equally part of that process, and touch on a variety of sectors, from translation to the film industry, education to the media. As with economic interaction, cultural exchanges can serve as an instrument of positive power used to persuade Taiwanese of the benefits of joining China. They can also be used as a negative power when applied in ways that seek to undermine the quality of Taiwan’s democratic institutions, which includes censorship, disinformation, or espionage, to name a few.

All of this is part of China’s United Front campaign against Taiwan, of which the application (or threat) of force via the PLA is but one component. I had a chance to speak with Australian journalist John Garnaut at the weekend. Garnaut, who recently wrote a book about the downfall of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), is among a small group of Western journalists who have studied the power plays that have occurred under Xi and sought to shed light on the current leadership’s top priorities. Not everybody agrees with this, but Garnaut maintains that Taiwan remains very, very high on the CCP’s agenda. In his view (and mine), resolving the Taiwan “question” is very much part of Xi’s self-appointed mission to fix the CCP before the entire building collapses. (As Garnaut said, the Chinese leadership seems to have concluded that it must resolve domestic issues so that it can deal with challenges abroad, and must resolve problems abroad so that it can deal with domestic issues, an ambitious agenda to say the least.)

Beyond the usual rhetoric that the CCP’s credibility is contingent on the leadership’s ability to consolidate the Chinese nation is also the fact that Taiwan’s democracy remains a dangerous contradiction for authoritarian China, one that must either be destroyed entirely or downgraded to a level that no longer threatens the CCP.

Taiwan’s vibrant, albeit imperfect democracy and its internalization by the nation’s 23 million people is the reason why Beijing’s “one country two systems” offer to Taiwan — the best it has made to date — has had little appeal among Taiwanese. Its rhetoric notwithstanding, the CCP understands how unappealing its offer has been to Taiwanese, even among the many who vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). If Beijing’s flirting is ever to be taken seriously by Taiwan, it will have to make a significantly more generous offer, perhaps something like a federalist system.

But so far, it hasn’t been able, or willing, to do so. This is mostly because doing so would create jealousy back home. The better the offer China makes to Taiwan (e.g., retaining the ability to elect its leader, to keep its armed forces, or to interact with the international community), the starker the contradiction engendered by Taiwan’s absorption by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). And the greater the contradiction, the likelier it is that other parts of China, such as Hong Kong and other progressive parts of the country, would ask, “If Taiwan, why not us?” It’s easy to see why the CCP, which is obsessed with internal stability and spends more on domestic security than on the PLA, would apprehend such a scenario.

In many ways Beijing is stuck, unable to give too much to Taiwan in terms of concessions on future arrangements but also not wanting to use force lest doing so drag it into a costly armed conflict with the U.S. (not to mention the disastrous consequences this would have in terms of China’s image abroad and ability to continue building its economy). The alternative therefore is to undermine the quality of Taiwan’s democracy so as to narrow down the contradictions, which at this point are almost irreconcilable, between Taiwan and the rest of the PRC prior to unification.

There is no doubt that Beijing has accelerated the process in that regard over the past two to three years, and that it has relied on Taiwanese media moguls, corporate leaders, negotiators, academics, and legislators with a variety of personal interests in China to do so. The CCP has also turned to gangsters, such as Chang An-le (張安樂), to engage in United Front work in Taiwan through philanthropy, the promotion of unification, outright intimidation, and efforts to use Taiwan’s democracy against itself (e.g., fielding candidates in elections at the local and national level, organizing rallies, and so on).

[media-credit id=9 align=”alignright” width=”800″]DSC_7722[/media-credit]Confronted with this mix of PRC money, pressure, corruption, United Front work, a KMT that is increasingly authoritarian internally, and a largely neutralized political opposition, Taiwan’s democratic institutions have suffered, with processes, accountability, and transparency often lacking as a result. Rather than help fix the system, mounting public calls for scrutiny were met with police shields and action by the courts. Little by little, the CCP and its allies here have whittled away at the quality of Taiwan’s democracy. Even if this phenomenon was only an indirect result of greed and cronyism, that erosion was in Beijing’s favor. There was resistance, but it was easily ignored and underreported, and the China camp therefore had every reason to be optimistic about its ability to get away with it. Somehow, the current administration allowed this to happen, either through complicity or institutional inertia which a far more attentive Beijing may very well have exploited.

That is why the emergence of the Sunflower Movement in March 2014 was so important for Taiwan’s future, as it represents what could possibly constitute the last line of defense against an insidious process of de-democratization. Although the objectives of the largely student-led movement haven’t always been crystal clear, the activists have succeeded in sparking an awakening among Taiwanese of all ages. Among the key demands of the movement have been clean government and oversight mechanisms — the nuts and bolts, if you will, of a functioning democracy. The response by the government, which in recent weeks has passed draconian laws to combat future protests, pre-emptively detain certain individuals, and counter the propaganda war in “new media,” is a sign that Taipei understands the severity of the challenge, even if it officially seeks to downplay its importance.

The magnitude of the reckoning engendered by the Sunflower Movement will have repercussions for years to come, and that is why it is so important that the Taiwanese public and the international community understand what it is really about. Sadly, the response among foreign governments has been disappointingly simplistic and has tended to reflect Taipei’s official position or that of its media outlet, China News Agency. The reality is a lot more complex, and the reasons why foreign diplomatic missions and media have failed to truly comprehend the movement are many, though inattention and intellectual laziness seem to be the two most prominent factors. Many have bought the refrain that the Sunflower Movement was a creation of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or of its former chairperson, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Many others have accepted the notion that the protesters were anti-globalization or simply anti-China, an oversimplification that does not do justice to the depth and breadth of the students, academics, lawyers, artists, politicians, and ordinary citizens who took part in the occupation.

All those explanations are off the mark and fail to truly capture the heterogeneous composition of the movement, which all-importantly was neither “green” nor “blue.” Of course, the more simplistic explanations are reassuring, as this leads to the conclusion that the movement is temporary and only reflects the narrow interests of a few disgruntled students or opposition figures who have failed to make a difference. This in turn risks leading to the belief that nothing needs to be done about it, or that foreign governments should lend their support to Taipei as it deals with “irresponsible rioters.” Moreover, for those who subscribe to the notion that relations in the Taiwan Strait are headed in the right direction — reconciliation, lesser risks of war, perhaps even “peaceful unification” — the Sunflower Movement was a threat that risked derailing all the good work that had been accomplished in the previous six years, a myopic (though very convenient) interpretation of what is actually occurring on the ground.

I have every reason to believe that Beijing understands very well the scope and potential power of the Sunflower Movement, and that it does not regard it as an aberration that can easily be dispensed with (sadly this seems to be the U.S. view, at least that of the State Department). While Beijing has sought to erode the quality of Taiwan’s democracy in order to facilitate eventual unification and lower the contradictions caused by Taiwan’s integration, the Sunflower Movement has fought back on those very terms, with a heartfelt appeal for the public to pay closer attention to the quality of Taiwan’s government institutions and the individuals who run their country.

The million-dollar question then is whether this setback in the road to unification will force the CCP to re-evaluate its strategy on Taiwan. If, as I suspect, Xi and his entourage understand the movement, Beijing will be faced with two options, none of which involves doing more of the same. The first option will be to be more patient and to slow down the process of integration, perhaps by shelving future controversial agreements with Taiwan, such as a trade-in-goods pact or the reciprocal opening of political offices. While this would appear to be the rational approach to the situation, Xi’s behavior since his ascension to Zhongnanhai gives us reason to question his ability to be patient. The second, and perhaps likeliest option will be for the CCP to intensify its United Front efforts and cooperation with people in Taiwan who are willing to work with it on projects that seek to erode the quality of Taiwan’s democratic institutions, a campaign that is certain to cause further — and possibly more serious — clashes with the Sunflower Movement and its successor groups.

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.

7 Responses to “Preparing Taiwan for Unification”

May 14, 2014 at 3:14 pm, Snakepointb said:

It seems in terms of pragmatic solutions to a looming process of de-democratisation the establishment of inherently democratic movements, institutions and processes is paramount. Perhaps Taiwan can benefit from the experience of Hong Kong in this respect. There, just recently, a new museum was inaugurated to commemorate June 4, the Tiananmen Square Massacre (
In an interview its curator spoke of a USB flash disk that contains informative material on the incident, that is given to visitors to share with their friends and families. Taking the example of this museum, what other creative ways to incarnate democracy in Taiwan are under way or can be conceived of?


May 17, 2014 at 8:23 am, Iwa Kyu Gau said:

Mr. Cole’s analysis seems consistent with The Art of War (the PLA’s bible) in which Sun Tzu averred that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”


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