17th Chinese Communist Party Congress: Policy Implications on Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 21

As expected, no major “policy” surprise came from the 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress, particularly towards Taiwan. President Hu Jintao’s political report on Taiwan from now until 2012 will be more of the same. The Anti-Secession Law (fan fenlie guojia fa) provided the legal foundation, and Hu’s “four-point” guidelines are directing the policy [1]. Though conciliatory in tone, the policy remains unchanged.

Political rhetoric notwithstanding, there are still some interesting nuances worthy of pointing out. First, contrary to the general expectation, the report laid no direct refutation of Taiwan’s referendum for joining the UN. Second, in comparison with the 16th Communist Party Congress, there was no mention of “not giving up using force to settle the Taiwan issue,” a point hammered indiscreetly by former president Jiang Zemin. Third, the precondition for party-to-party dialogue has slightly changed from “recognize the ‘one China’ principle” (chengren yige zhongguo de yuanze) to “recognize that both Taiwan and Mainland belongs to one China” (chengren daliu he taiwan tongshu yige zhongguo). Whether those subtle differences indicate some real changes in China’s approach towards Taiwan for the next five years remains to be seen, however, those changes do suggest that Hu is in greater control of the Taiwan policy.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

The Taiwan section in the political report is a classic example of the “speak softly and carry a big stick” strategy. Not only did the report not lash out against Taiwan’s referendum for joining the UN, but it also did not mention “not giving up using force to settle the Taiwan question.” The report repeatedly emphasized the goal of peaceful unification and devoted a full paragraph on the various plans for cross-Strait economic cooperation—it even suggests a possible peace agreement.

Although there was no mention of “not giving up using force to settle the Taiwan question,” the military preparation against Taiwan has accelerated in recent years: missiles deployed against Taiwan are now close to 1,000, up from 500 just three years ago. The peace agreement is conditioned in Taiwan’s acceptance of the “one China principle,” which the majority of the Taiwanese people rejected. Also veiled beneath this peace agreement is the notion that acceptance of such an agreement vindicated the “Anti-Secession Law”: since Taiwan is not going to invade China, the peace can be easily achieved as long as China gives up using force against Taiwan. The peace agreement applies to two warring parties—a direct reference to the KMT-CCP civil war as described in the first article of the “Anti-Secession Law.”

China Continues Outsourcing Taiwan Policy to the United States

Although the report does not directly refute Taiwan’s UN referendum, Hu did something unprecedented by explicitly stating that “all” Chinese people have the right to “co-determine” (gongtong jueding) the future of Taiwan. This bears several readings. First, it can be seen as Hu preparing some wiggle room “to not act” should Taiwan’s UN referendum pass in March 2008. Since no matter what the referendum result is, it will not change the (believed) reality that Taiwan is still part of China and it will not be a part of UN, and that only Chinese people have the final say about the future of Taiwan regardless of the Taiwan’s referendum result.

Second, it can be seen as Hu seeking to move more in line with the U.S. position, as this formula seems to be more compatible with the current Bush administration policy toward cross-Strait relations, which is that “matters [are] to be resolved peacefully by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, absent the threat or use of force, and should be acceptable to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” Judging from this angle, it seems that China will likely continue to rely on the U.S. to rein in Taiwan, whether it is on the referendum issue or on other issues that China considers unacceptable.

TAO’s Approach on Taiwan Heavily Criticized

Hu’s silence on Taiwan’s UN referendum can be interpreted as Hu’s frustration with the effectiveness of its Taiwan policy to date. Compared with Hu’s statement back in 2005, in which Hu repeatedly brought up criticism about how unpopular the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) policy was among the Taiwanese people, there was no such confidence demonstrated in this report this time. Thus, Hu resorting to the “Chinese people to co-decide the future of Taiwan” indicates a lack of confidence on Hu’s part on the Taiwan policy.

Though China is aware of the DPP’s position on the referendum, the Kuomintang’s (KMT) followthrough on this issue presents a total surprise. The past two years of cultivating CCP-KMT relations by former KMT Chairman Lien Chan proves futile in this referendum episode since—as now revealed—Lien Chan has very little influence, if not inverse influence on the decision of the KMT’s presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou. There were also rumors in Beijing that the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) was heavily criticized for distancing itself too much from DPP and tying itself too close to the KMT, thus having no channels to influence DPP. As a result, CCP entangles itself in Taiwan’s polarized green-blue political mud fighting and virtually becomes hostage to KMT’s domestic political struggle, a position CCP avoided for the past five years.

The slight change in condition for party-to-party dialogue in Hu’s political report also invites speculation on criticism of TAO’s approach. In the past, it was “recognize the one China principle;” the new language is to “recognize that both Taiwan and Mainland belongs to one China.” Though it presents no major difference in principle, some observers did suspect this change is aimed particularly at DPP’s presidential candidate Frank Hsieh. Frank Hsieh, before assuming the chairman of DPP in July 2000 and then the Kaoshiung city mayor, once said that both Kaoshiung and Xiamen are “one nation, two cities” (Sintao Daily, July 2, 2000). Frank Hsieh also mentioned that the current ROC constitution endorses a “constitutional one-China” in principle (Central News Agency, July 16). Despite receiving heavy criticism during the DPP party primary, Frank Hsieh has not changed his interpretation of the current constitution in Taiwan, only to say that it presents a problem to be reckoned and dealt with. Since Hu’s “both sides belong to one-China” is an even more vague approach on the so-called “one China” principle, it can easily be bridged over with Frank Hsieh’s “‘constitutional’ one-China,” so long as Frank Hsieh does not advocate constitutional reform that will touch the sovereignty issue, as argued by some observers. If this is indeed the case, it indicates some subtle changes from TAO’s tactic of “unite with the KMT to constrain the DPP.”

The election result of the 17th Central Committee members might reveal the trace of how the party reviews the TAO’s work. Due to retirement, Director Chen Yunlin is no longer elected as a member of the Central Committee, but the Deputy Director Cheng Li-Chun, whom many believed is in line to succeed Chen to assume the directorship, received votes only to enable him to be a 18th supplementary Central Committee member. As a result, it is almost certain that when the new TAO director is appointed next March, it will be someone from outside the TAO.

Whether the perceived displeasure toward the current TAO’s efficacy represents a shift in Taiwan policy in the making remains to be seen. Hu is still the chairman of the Taiwan Task Force (zhongyang duitaigongzuo lingdaoxiaozu). TAO plays the role of implementing policy made by the Taiwan Task Force, though its director is also part of the task force. No evidence suggests that the change of personnel in the Taiwan Task Force following the result of the 17th CCP Congress will result in the change of policy.

March 23: The Aftermath of Taiwan’s 2008 President Elections

The overall impression of Hu’s political report to the 17th CCP Congress is that economic development trumps all. The Chinese government is also determined to have a successful Beijing Olympic event. Not to mention that China would like to avoid becoming a factor in Taiwan’s two upcoming elections. Thus, the conventional wisdom suggests that there will be no action expected from China before the March 22 presidential election in Taiwan. How, then, would China start to move in the election’s aftermath when the next president is known?

There are speculations in Taiwan that China might start to push something after March 22 by offering discussion on items to be included in the “peace agreement,” in order to probe how much the new president-elect is willing to compromise. It is likely that China will take the May 20 inauguration speech as the first measure to decide what Beijing will do afterwards. The various tools associated with the Olympic event can also be applied by China toward Taiwan. These are premature suppositions, but observers in Taiwan are expecting that China may make this move right after the conclusion of the presidential election—even before the start of the Beijing Olympic event.

Taiwan’s Uncertain Political Outlook to Remain Until the End of Beijing Olympics

No matter the result of legislative and presidential elections—there are four possibilities—a major power transition will take place in the party that loses the presidential election. If Frank Hsieh loses, it is possible that the “four kings and one queen” that dominates the DPP will cease being the leaders and the issue of generational power transition will come to the fore. If Ma Ying-jeou loses, KMT will face another major power struggle. Whether Lien Chan and James Soong will come back to take back the helm, or some leaders of younger generation will surface, begs all kinds of speculation. This process definitely will be messy and Taiwan’s political outlook will become quite uncertain for sometime to come. It will remain so all the way into September 2008, the second legislative session that year, for it to settle down.

The aforementioned projections indicate a cross-Strait scenario that when translated suggests minimal conditions for conflict before September 2008, since when the new president is sworn in, both sides will be busy with their own respective businesses: Beijing Olympics for China and indulgences in the consequence associated with the power transition for Taiwan. There is one caveat, however, as numerous failed predictions on cross-Strait development in the past suggest, while evidence indicating continuity will rule the day, surprises (be it from China, Taiwan or even the United States) always prevail.


1. In the guideline, Hu said that the China will “never sway in adhering to the one-China principle, never give up efforts to seek peaceful reunification, never change the principle of placing hope on the Taiwan people, never compromise in opposing ‘Taiwan Independence'” (Xinhua, March 5, 2007).