Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen has torn up the 1992 one-China consensus. What does Xi Jinping do next?

  • Tian Feilong says the 1992 consensus reached by China and Taiwan has always been a weak agreement. The mainland needs to strengthen it, win the Taiwanese public’s consent and design a ‘one country, two systems’ framework specific to Taiwan
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 1:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 2:17am

On January 2, in a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the pro-unification “message to compatriots in Taiwan”, Chinese President Xi Jinping affirmed the 1992 consensus and proposed launching a cross-strait consultation on using the “one country, two systems” framework for unification.

The move sent shock waves through Taiwan. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party has rejected the 1992 consensus and “one country, two systems” wholesale. The opposition Kuomintang has reiterated the consensus that the two sides are allowed their own interpretations of what “one China” means, which is as good as declaring that there is no market for “one country, two systems”.

The mainland’s push to expand cross-strait relations from the 1992 consensus to “one country, two systems” has received pushback from Taiwan. More than ever, we need a complete understanding of the complex connotations of the 1992 consensus, and its relationship with “one country, two systems”.

Since the DPP came to power in 2016, the 1992 consensus model between the mainland and Taiwan has been suspended, and there have been important setbacks in the process of eventual reunification through “peaceful development”.

Beijing expects Taipei to fill in its “incomplete test answer” to the question of the one-China principle. This expectation implies that the mainland still recognises the 1992 consensus model but also that, in the face of realistic political changes, it has to kick-start the process of unification on its home ground.

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At the 19th National Congress in 2017, Xi set the ultimate goal of “full reunification”, which would be achieved with the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation”. By implementing 31 preferential policies for Taiwan and issuing residence permits, Beijing has expanded its plan for giving Taiwanese equal rights and integrating them into the mainland. Also, Beijing has further squeezed Taipei’s international space.

Meanwhile, the DPP has emphasised Taiwanese localisation and is looking to stay in power, to take advantage of a window of opportunity to declare independence. Externally, China’s trade war with the United States is in full swing, touching off a power struggle in the global order, and Taiwan is a valuable card to play.

The US has signed the Taiwan Travel Act, the National Defence Authorisation Act and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, giving false signals and improper support for Taiwan independence. The DPP has torn that “incomplete test answer” to pieces.

Given that the 1992 consensus might not be accepted for a long time, the mainland must seriously consider designing a new policy framework and strategy for Taiwan. Born of cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, the 1992 consensus has always been a relatively weak policy consensus. More than 20 trade and other agreements have grown out of the concept, but none has seriously touched on how to move towards substantive reunification.

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After 1992, and especially during the Ma Ying-jeou administration, the two sides put forward proposals for agreements on cross-strait peace, military confidence-building and more substantive issues, but shelved them because of all kinds of difficulties. Today, Beijing is even less likely to achieve a breakthrough in cross-strait relations on the basis of the 1992 consensus.

The core meaning of the concept is: the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one China”, but they can interpret the legal form of, and govern, “one China” differently. The consensus implies a vague acceptance of a dilemma: in the same territorial space, there are effectively two governments.

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The 1992 consensus is wisely ambiguous, and allows for delayed decisions.

However, the concept is also future-oriented and intended as a starting point for second and third steps. Originally, a KMT administration could have prepared for the next steps, forming a third United Front with the Communist Party and rebuilding a republic.

However, since the 1980s, localism and radical democratisation have taken shape in Taiwan. Such groups, voted into power, have neither historical sympathy for, nor identify with, the “one China” that is the basis of the 1992 consensus. Taiwan’s independence movement is also future-oriented, but its goals are secession and self-determination.

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The 1992 consensus actually includes three progressive levels. At the lowest level, there is the intentional consensus between the KMT and the Communist Party. This is the original meaning of the concept, which mainly includes the two parties’ overlapping consensus on understanding cross-strait relations.

It was reached in 1992 as the parties sought common ground but reserved differences. It is the cornerstone of the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. But, in her inaugural speech in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen only acknowledged the fact of a 1992 meeting, not the consensus and the one-China principle.

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At the middle level would be a political consensus marked by a peace treaty between the governments of the two sides. This would be an institutional breakthrough. A peace treaty means that the two sides would declare an end to the civil war. This would lay the foundation for constitutional reunification.

At the highest level, there would be a constitutional consensus on eventual reunification. This would be the ultimate expression of the 1992 consensus. This level has not been reached. Even during the KMT years, there was more talk of peaceful development than full reunification.

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In its constitution, in its Anti-Secession Law and at the 19th National Congress, China has underlined its intentions of unification. But the DPP administration cannot possibly accept such unilateral declarations, and there is a lack of practical conditions for the Taiwanese public’s constitutional consent to reunification.

This is evident from the response to Xi’s speech from various circles in Taiwan. However, public opinion can be transformed by concrete political wisdom and creativity.

Beijing’s wait for the DPP’s “test answer” presupposed the consensus it built with the KMT. But it was too idealistic to expect the DPP to be like the KMT. Consider the DPP’s performance in the past two years, and Tsai’s eager rejection of Xi’s proposal.

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Beijing must discard its fantasy and prepare for a struggle. On the basis of the 1992 consensus, it must build a clear consensus on unification.

With such a constitutional consensus and the package of equal rights, it could smooth a practical path to unification, and seriously consider a “one country, two systems” framework specific to Taiwan. Xi’s speech has greatly accelerated this process.

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The traditional, cultural commonality of the “cross-strait family” must be established. So must the core meaning of “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to ‘one China’”. A cross-strait community must be created that firmly recognises itself as one country, as well as its common destiny. Only then could there finally be full reunification.

Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing. This article is translated from Chinese