Beijing Launches Multi-pronged Offensive Against Chen Shui-bian

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 6

Beijing has waged a high-decibel, multi-pronged offensive in response to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian scrapping the island’s National Unification Council (NUC) and its National Unification Guidelines (NUG) last month. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has also put additional pressure on Washington to help rein in the allegedly separatist game plan of Chen and his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). President Hu Jintao and his aides fear that the DPP, which suffered a humiliating defeat in local-level polls last December, might try to claw back lost territory by going further, to the extent of revising the island’s constitution to effect de jure independence. Thunderous assaults from the mainland, however, might enable Chen—who has repeatedly managed to gain popular support by playing the “Red scare” card—to consolidate backing at least from native-Taiwanese voters.

President Hu, who heads the Party’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs, used the just-ended National People’s Congress (NPC) as a platform to slam Chen for doing away with the NUC, which was set up in 1990 by the Kuomintang (KMT) administration for the purpose of making plans for “eventual unification” with the mainland. While meeting People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegates attending the parliamentary session last weekend, Hu, also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), intoned that “we must give top priority to defending national sovereignty and security, and getting ready for military struggles” (Xinhua, March 11). It was announced at the beginning of the Congress that the PLA would be awarded an official budget of 283.8 billion yuan (around $35.1 billion), or 14.7% more than that of last year. It is understood that the “hidden budget” of the forces, estimated at about three times that of the publicized expenditure, would also be boosted by a similar rate.

Equally significant, a bevy of senior generals took advantage of the presence of more than a thousand domestic and foreign journalists in Beijing to fume against “troublemaker Chen.” General Huang Cisheng, a PLA deputy to the Congress, said: “We must be resolute in combating ‘Taiwan independence’… the PLA is ready any time to do well preparation work for military struggles.” Moreover, Yu Changqi, a political commissar with the navy, indicated that the PLA was ready to smash Chen’s “conspiracy” and “to render protection to Taiwan residents” (Xinhua; China News Service, March 5). While delivering his Government Work Report to the NPC, Premier Wen Jiabao elicited massive applause from the 3,000 deputies when he noted that “anybody who tries to damage the great trend [of national reunification] is doomed to failure” (People’s Daily, March 6).

Indeed, Beijing has the past fortnight orchestrated a full-blown propaganda offensive against Chen and fellow “splittists.” Nearly all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee have made statements on the Taiwan situation. The same goes for members of the NPC as well as the advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The official media has also started running reports on a series of exercises undertaken by the PLA Navy and Air Force along China’s eastern coast. At this stage, however, there are no indications that the Party or military leadership would repeat the series of provocative war games—including firing “test missiles” close to the island—that Beijing launched in 1995 and 2000 in response to then-president Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the U.S. and his statement that the mainland and Taiwan were “two [separate] states.” Diplomatic analysts in Beijing and Taipei said the Hu leadership had been advised by its Taiwan experts that excessive saber-rattling would backfire because it could deliver more “sympathy votes” to the DPP. The analysts added, however, that the vilification of Chen—particularly belligerent statements made by PLA generals before TV cameras—might already have allowed the wily Taiwan president to again seize the initiative in molding political debate on the island.

Irrespective of the effectiveness of Beijing’s latest round of psychological warfare against the island, it is true that the Hu leadership is exuding confidence that it has more—and much stronger—cards than ever to play against the out-gunned DPP administration. Apart from invoking fire and brimstone against Chen, Beijing cadres have played up the benefits that will accrue to the so-called “vast majority of Taiwan residents,” particularly businessmen, who have spurned the DDP’s siren song. As Premier Wen said in his NPC report, Beijing is readying a host of enticements for Taiwan investors and professionals working in the mainland. For example, Wen indicated that there would be better legal protection for Taiwanese investments, and that the central government would ensure the prosperity of cities and districts with a high concentration of Taiwan factories. “We are earnestly at the service of Taiwan compatriots,” he indicated (People’s Daily, March 6).

Beijing has indeed been wielding the economic card aggressively in the past year. Taxes for certain types of Taiwan agricultural produce have been reduced, and regional branches of the Taiwan Affairs Office and the United Front Department have pulled out all the stops to woo mainland-based Taiwan managers and technicians. For example, the latter are told that China’s 11th Five-Year Plan (2006- 2010) would offer inducements for Taiwanese businesses in areas ranging from computers to bio-tech. Additionally, Taiwan students attending Chinese universities are able to pay local tuition. Cross-Strait trade reached $91 billion in 2005, with Taiwan enjoying a surplus of more than $58 billion, according to Beijing statistics. Fully 37% of Taiwan’s exports are destined for China, while 75% of the island’s output of electronic products is manufactured in coastal China. It is little wonder that most of Taiwan’s captains of industry who had supported Chen during his first and second presidential campaign in 2000 and 2004 respectively have dissociated themselves from the DPP. Moreover, United Front Department cadres have had little difficulty persuading several mainland-based Taiwanese chambers of commerce to express reservations about the abolition of the NUC and NUG.

Hu and his colleagues in the Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs have concluded that given Taiwan’s ever-growing economic reliance upon the mainland, the DPP and other radical separatists have already lost the “economic foundation” for seeking independence. Such dependence will likely increase further after the establishment of the “three direct links,” a reference mainly to direct air flights across the Strait. At the same time, Hu’s diplomats are working hard to further constrict the diplomatic options of the Chen administration. If no major country is willing to recognize a Taiwan that has declared formal independence, the Taiwan separatist campaign will remain an exercise in futility. As the official Global Times journal noted in a commentary: “Various countries have expressed revulsion against [Chen’s] abolition of the NUC—and the world will not give any opportunity to ‘Taiwan separatism’” (Global Times, February 22).

Officially, Beijing is still holding onto its oft-repeated line that Taiwan is an “internal Chinese matter that brooks no outside interference.” In the past two years, however, the Hu leadership has been calling upon the U.S., Japan and other countries to, in effect, take part in a joint effort to rein in Chen. Thus, after Taipei had scrapped the NUC and NUG, the Chinese Foreign Ministry appealed to “relevant countries” to “jointly safeguard the stability and development of the Taiwan Strait area” (Xinhua, February 23). Since late last month, Chinese newspapers and news agencies have been replete with statements made by dozens of countries, big and small, about their staunch “one China policy.” For example, Xinhua news agency last week ran a big story on the reaction of African countries to Chen’s NUC caper. It quoted a leading parliamentarian in Namibia, Asser Kapere, as expressing “strong condemnation” of Taipei’s “unilateral separatist and secessionist activities” (Xinhua News Agency March 10).

On the surface, Beijing seems largely satisfied with the repeated warnings that the U.S. State Department served on Chen the past month or so for actions that might alter the status quo of the Taiwan Strait. It was owing to U.S. pressure that instead of declaring the outright abolition of the NUC and NUG, Chen used the euphemism of their having “ceased to function.” Yet during his NPC press conference, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing noted that the U.S. should not “send wrong signals” to the Chen administration—and that Washington should “make joint efforts with China to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” (China News Service, March 8). A political source close to the Party’s Taiwan policy-making establishment said senior cadres suspected Washington of “playing tricks” to perpetuate Taiwan’s de facto independence. He said while on the one hand Washington did not want Chen to push the separatist envelope too far, the U.S. government was on the other hand disturbed by the possibility that the KMT—tipped to form the next government after presidential polls in early 2008—would get too close to Beijing too soon. Former KMT chairman Lien Chan caused a stir in mid-2005 when he visited Beijing and held cordial talks with President Hu about the possibilities of eventual reunification. It is true that current KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou—the frontrunner to replace Chen as president—had reiterated that his party favored the continuation of the status quo. Yet the Harvard-educated Ma might be forced by circumstances—especially the mainland’s fast-growing economic, military and diplomatic clout—to bow to Beijing’s demands.

Analysts say Beijing is still paranoid about Washington’s alleged anti-China containment policy; that is, the U.S. conspiring with allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia—and Taiwan—to encircle China and halt its emergence as a quasi-superpower. Recent statements by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the need for the U.S., Australia and Japan to formulate a common policy regarding China’s precipitous rise have further fed the Hu leadership’s suspicions about U.S. intentions. While Hu’s aides have been telling the president all along that more posturing by the PLA will only alienate China’s neighbors—and scare Taiwan residents into Chen’s embrace—it is likely that the Beijing leadership will redouble the threat of invasion even as it dangles multitudinous economic inducements for the Taiwan public and particularly its business community.