China’s bullying of Taiwan highlights its helplessness against the drift of Taiwanese society
J. Michael Cole says that Beijing’s hopes for a gradual reunification of Taiwan with the mainland have been frustrated, not by Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP, but by Taiwanese society’s growing drift from mainland China. Unable to admit this, China has resorted to heavy-handed tactics that are pushing the Taiwanese further away
The election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party in January 2016 marked the end of a phase in cross-strait relations when Beijing still believed in the possibility of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese through “goodwill” and economic incentives. Since then, Beijing has embraced a strategy that seeks to corner, isolate and punish Taiwan for its intransigence on the unification question.
Although many would ascribe that change in attitude to the 2016 elections and blame the Tsai administration’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called “1992 consensus” for the souring relations, this reckoning actually occurred earlier – two years earlier, in 2014, when the Sunflower student movement derailed the partial rapprochement that had prevailed since 2008 under former president Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang. More than an incident over a particular trade agreement, the movement epitomised a society’s refusal to associate too closely with authoritarian China, a reality that not only contributed to Tsai’s victory but also to the KMT’s dismissal of its initial candidate for the presidency, who was regarded as too ideologically close to Beijing – even for the blue camp’s taste.
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Unwilling to acknowledge this fact (at least publicly), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has conveniently attributed the downturn in relations to Tsai, her DPP and the deadlock on the “1992 consensus”. It has constantly depicted them as a reckless minority in Taiwan, a posse of extremists who refuse to embrace what Chinese President Xi Jinping has described as “historical trends” and the “coordinates of history”.
Xi and his top cadres probably know better. But they cannot admit it, as this would confirm the fact that Beijing’s Taiwan strategy over the years, especially under Xi, has miscarried. Not only have the sticks and carrots failed, closer contact in fact pushed the Taiwanese in the opposite direction – towards a deepening identification with Taiwan and the liberal democratic values that define it.
Although Beijing will not admit it, Zhu Chenghu, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army and arguably one of China’s most astute commentators, slipped earlier this year when he lamented that even the KMT was no longer committed to unification. This is a reality that those of us on the ground in Taiwan with access to both sides of the political spectrum have understood since several years ago.
The fact that the annual CCP-KMT forum probably won’t take place this year, and that Xi now only meets with elders like Lien Chan, whose relevance in Taiwanese politics has greatly diminished over the years, confirms that Beijing’s long-standing reliance on political parties to achieve its objectives has irreversibly come to an end. Even before Ma stepped down in May 2016, Beijing had begun bypassing the KMT and the central government in Taipei, a clear sign that Taiwan’s democracy, which both sides in Taiwan’s political spectrum have internalised, stood in the way of Beijing’s aspirations.
Thus disarmed, bereft of partners and unable to admit that its approach has failed, Beijing has blamed the chill on the Tsai administration. Out of frustration, it has decided to punish Taiwan by eroding its international space and assailing symbols of Taiwan’s statehood. No more sweeteners or “goodwill”: the aim is to pound Taiwan via a strategy of incessant assault on all fronts – military drills, poaching of official diplomatic allies, blocking Taiwan’s efforts to join multilateral institutions, sparking a brain drain through its “31 incentives”, and eroding Taiwan’s visibility in business, cultural, academic and even sporting circles.
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Responsibility for implementing that strategy rests with officials at all levels of the Chinese government and within the party. Punitive measures are abetted by a strident nationalism cultivated by the Communist Party and a set of rules, approved by Xi, that permit – and seem to encourage – their utilisation.
Beijing’s open-ended strategy encourages interpretation: officials and party cadres, whether in China or at embassies and consulates worldwide, find themselves guessing what is expected of them. This, in turn, encourages proactivity and escalation, which arguably explains why many of the coercive measures used against Taiwan in recent years – such as preventing an ensemble of young Taiwanese indigenous choristers from holding a scheduled performance in Vienna, or humiliating a teenaged Taiwanese pop star, to name just two recent incidents – have been tone deaf and counterproductive.
Rather than break the will of the Taiwanese, attacks on young Taiwanese or forcing the cancellation of an international youth sporting event in Taiwan have instead further alienated them from China and convinced them that the Communist Party does not have their welfare at heart. A regime that targets young children cannot be seen as benevolent, let alone one that one would wish to be ruled by.
Such behaviour has also created incentives and a sense of urgency for Taiwan and its allies worldwide to strengthen their ties – the opposite of Beijing’s aim to isolate Taiwan. (Though, arguably, Beijing’s assault has had some success in widening a split within Taiwan’s green camp, with the “deep greens” accusing Tsai of being too soft on China and calling on her to initiate a referendum on name rectification, a move that would give Beijing ammunition for further punitive action.)
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Xi is largely responsible for this state of affairs. Although it is hard to imagine his direct involvement in the formulation of all the punitive actions taken against Taiwan, he is nevertheless the one who has set the tone and provided the “legal” instruments to implement them. The ultra-nationalism he has encouraged makes it nearly impossible for him to de-escalate, or reverse policy, once he is presented with a fait accompli through the actions of his underlings. That would constitute a loss of face and exhibit a sign of weakness that Xi simply cannot afford.
Therefore, when overzealous officials decide it is a good idea to prevent young Taiwanese singers from performing in Europe, however damaging such incidents might be to China’s reputation, accusing fingers point back to Xi himself. For it is he who has allowed this to become Beijing’s “strategy”, a strategy that is now spinning out of control and cannot but ensure that the Taiwanese see even less appeal in a political union with China.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies programme, University of Nottingham, UK, research associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, and chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel