Beijing Signals a Harder Line Policy on Taiwan Through the 20th Party Congress and Beyond

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 17

Xi speaks on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s retrocession to China and calls for faithful implementation of the "one country, two systems" policy (source: Xinhua)

Beijing Steps Up the Pressure on Taiwan in August

Following the visit to Taiwan by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in early August, military forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) conducted a high-profile series of military maneuvers around the island, intended as a demonstration of the PRC’s capacity to initiate a joint strike and blockade campaign against Taiwan (Global Taiwan Brief, August 24; September 7). The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theater Command, upon announcing the exercises and attendant closure areas on August 2, described their purpose in explicitly political terms as “stern deterrence directed against America’s recent major negative escalations on the Taiwan problem, [and] are a serious warning directed at ‘Taiwan independence’ forces striving on the ‘independence’ path” (Xinhua, August 2).

Although the military exercises—and the more provocative and coercive military posture they portend—understandably gripped world headlines, they were only one component of a larger PRC pressure campaign against Taiwan. Throughout the month of August, these military measures were matched by parallel  actions in the diplomatic and informational realms, which seek to communicate to audiences in Taiwan and the international community the PRC’s resolve to adhere to the eventual annexation of Taiwan under Beijing’s “One China Principle” (一个中国原则, Yige Zhongguo Yuanze) and the rigid framework of “One Country, Two Systems” (一国两制, Yi Guo Liang Zhi). Even more importantly, these moves are intended to assert to a domestic audience the authoritative position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership under General Secretary Xi Jinping in the lead-up to the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, which will convene in October.

Wang Yi’s Commentary on the “Three On Guard Againsts”

A prominent example of the PRC’s informational campaign against not only Taiwan, but also its international supporters, was the commentary offered by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) between August 7-10, in the final days of the declared PRC military exercises around Taiwan. Wang used the occasion of a visit to Bangladesh on August 7 to assail the United States for its alleged “three mistakes” (三方面错误, san fangmian cuowu) in conducting the Pelosi visit. These were, first, “crude interference in Chinese internal affairs” (粗暴干涉中国内政, cubao ganshe Zhongguo neizheng); second, “conniving in support of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces” (纵容支持“台独”势力, zongrong zhichi “Taidu” shili); and third, America’s “deliberately wrecking peace in the Taiwan Strait” (三是蓄意破坏台海和平, xuyi pohuai Taihai heping) (PRC Foreign Ministry, August 7).

This formulation was modified in subsequent messaging after Wang met with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and Nepalese Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka in meetings held between August 8 and 10. After these meetings, PRC media publicized Wang’s warning of the “Three On Guard Againsts” (三个警惕, Sange Jingti) in relation to the situation in the Taiwan Strait, which in turn were connected to “three dangerous tendencies” (三个危险动向, sange weixian dongxiang) in the region. Wang reportedly described these dangers as follows:

The first “On Guard Against” is that America is not reconciled to defeat, [and] is gathering partners to pour oil on the fire, expanding regional military deployments, promoting circumstances to further escalate, scheming to manufacture new and greater crises; the second “On Guard Against” is that “Taiwan independence” forces are erroneously judging circumstances, overestimating their own abilities, continuing to increase domestic and foreign connections, [and] insisting on going ever-father on their own path of splitting the country and the Chinese nation; [and] the third ‘On Guard Against’ is that political figures in some countries are ignoring right and wrong… to the point of scheming to follow the example [of America], carrying out political performances, [and] seeking to pursue selfish political interests. (Shangguan, August 14).

The PRC’s New White Paper on Taiwan Policy

An even stronger message was provided on August 10, when the PRC State Council Taiwan Office (国务院台湾事务办公室, Guowuyuan Taiwan Shiwu Bangongshi) and State Council Information Office (国务院新闻办公室, Guowuyuan Taiwan Shiwu Bangongshi) jointly released a new policy white paper titled The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era (台湾问题与新时代中国统一事业, Taiwan Wenti yu Xin Shidai Zhongguo Tongyi Shiye) (PRC Government, August 10). [1] This was the third official PRC white paper on Taiwan, having been preceded by earlier editions in 1993 and 2000. Both the earlier editions had promised Taiwan a high degree of autonomy following a future unification with the PRC. [2]

The new white paper largely reiterates boilerplate themes and slogans advanced under Xi Jinping’s tenure, but is  still worth examining for what it says—and perhaps even more importantly, what it does not. In broad-brush terms, five general themes stand out in the white paper, as summarized below. [3]

Historical Arguments for China’s Sovereignty Over Taiwan

Although the PRC has never governed Taiwan at any point since its founding in 1949, the white paper advances a series of selected historical arguments for China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. The paper declares that “Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times” (a questionable assertion, as the island existed outside Chinese administration for most of China’s imperial history) before proceeding in more modern terms to the legacy of World War II. Citing wartime agreements that provided for the retrocession of Japanese-held territories, including Taiwan, to the Republic of China (ROC), the paper asserts that the ROC ceased to exist in 1949—and that as its successor state, the PRC enjoys full sovereignty over those territories.

The paper distorts the text of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, passed in 1971 to give China’s U.N. seat to the PRC, to assert that it represented U.N. recognition of PRC sovereignty over Taiwan (United Nations, October 25, 1971). Finally, the document quotes the PRC’s own 2005 Anti-Secession Law (反分裂国家法, Fan Fenlie Guojiafa) to state that “Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China [and] China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity brook no division…The state shall never allow the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces to make Taiwan secede from China under any name or by any means” (China.org.cn, March 14, 2005).

PRC state media has made extensive use of persons from the marginal pro-unification spectrum of Taiwan politics to convey a narrative that most Taiwanese favor unification. Image left: The new white paper is depicted alongside a caption that reads: “Voices within the island: ‘The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era’ white paper has great significance.” Image right: Wang Feng (王豐), chairman of the board of the pro-Beijing China Times (中國時報) newspaper in Taiwan, appears on a PRC state television program to praise the new white paper (Source: CCTV, August 10)

The Villains: The United States and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party

The paper’s preamble notes that “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation.” In its explanation of why this vision remains unfulfilled, the PRC blames two sets of villains: the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, and Taiwan’s primary international patron, the United States. The paper asserts that “in recent years the Taiwan authorities, led by the DPP, have redoubled their efforts to divide the country, and some external forces have tried to exploit Taiwan to contain China, [and] prevent the Chinese nation from achieving complete reunification.” Much opprobrium is also directed at the U.S., where “Some forces… are making every effort to incite groups inside Taiwan to stir up trouble and use Taiwan as a pawn against China.” Such “anti-China forces… try to deny the legitimacy and justification of the Chinese government in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and are “using Taiwan to contain China and obstruct China’s reunification, which should be thoroughly exposed and condemned.”

The Heroes: The CCP and Its Leader

As there are villains, there are also heroes: the CCP and its leader, Xi Jinping. The document, from its opening preamble, is effusive in its praise of Xi, asserting that “Under the strong leadership of the [CCP] Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core, the [CCP] and the Chinese government have adopted new and innovative measures in relation to Taiwan.” Xi is particularly lauded for “propos[ing] major policies to advance the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations and the peaceful reunification of China in the new era.” These policies have included “seeking a Two Systems solution to the Taiwan question;” “abiding by the one-China principle;” “further integrating development across the Straits;” and “forging closer bonds of heart and mind between people on both sides of the Straits and strengthening joint commitment to peaceful reunification.”

Alongside such vague blandishments, the paper places a strong emphasis on the benefits of cross-Straits economic integration. It promises that: “After reunification, the systems and mechanisms for cross-Straits economic cooperation will be further improved… Backed up by the vast mainland market, Taiwan’s economy will enjoy broader prospects, become more competitive, develop steadier and smoother industrial and supply chains, and display greater vitality in innovation-driven growth.”

The Centrality of “One Country, Two Systems”

Beijing’s longstanding framework of “One Country, Two Systems” under which Taiwan is promised broad autonomy for coming under the PRC flag—remains the central pillar of PRC policy towards Taiwan. (The 2022 white paper repeats these earlier promises, vowing that “[A]fter peaceful reunification, Taiwan may continue its current social system and enjoy a high degree of autonomy in accordance with the law. The two social systems will develop side by side for a long time to come.”) However, OCTS has been explicitly rejected by most mainstream political leaders in Taiwan including President Tsai Ing-wen (Taipei Times, October 11, 2019). Furthermore, Beijing’s harsh crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong has shown its OCTS promises there to be hollow, and significantly soured public opinion in Taiwan towards any theoretical unification under the OCTS framework (Taiwan News, August 7, 2020).

Despite this, the white paper adheres with the broader PRC policy of rigidly insisting on the OCTS framework. It asserts that “It is a fact that since Hong Kong and Macao returned to the motherland and were reincorporated into national governance, they have embarked on a broad path of shared development together with the mainland… The practice of One Country, Two Systems has been a resounding success.” The only reason for any dimming enthusiasm for OCTS is to be found with the evil scheming of the DPP: “Ever since [OCTS] was proposed, certain political forces have been misrepresenting and distorting its objectives. The DPP [has] done everything possible to target the principle with baseless criticisms, and this has led to misunderstandings about its aims in some quarters of Taiwan.”

The Role of “Peaceful” Unification in China’s “Rejuvenation”

The “great rejuvenation [or “revival”] of the Chinese nation” (中华民族伟大复兴, Zhonghua Minzu Weida Fuxing) has been a staple slogan of CCP propaganda under Xi’s tenure. The white paper explicitly links this endeavor with the annexation of Taiwan, asserting that the recovery of Taiwan “is indispensable for the realization of China’s rejuvenation.” In the English language edition of the document, the word “rejuvenation” appears 28 times. This emphasis is even heavier in the Chinese edition, where fuxing (复兴) appears 34 times, and where Zhonghua Minzu Weida Fuxing (中华民族伟大复兴) appears 15 times.

It is noteworthy that the white paper maintains an emphasis on “peaceful reunification” (和平统一, heping tongyi), a phrase that appears 36 times in the English version, and 40 times in the Chinese edition. PRC state media has also this message in its coverage of the document (CGTN, August 11). However, the document does not back away from any of the PRC’s previous threats to employ military force if it feels that other options have been exhausted.

Conclusion

The PRC’s coercive military activities directed against Taiwan in August have been accompanied by an informational campaign intended to reinforce Beijing’s increasingly hardline positions. Wang Yi’s comments—and to an even greater degree, the white paper—were among the most prominent elements of this campaign, intended to drive home four broad themes: the inevitability of unification; the ultimate futility of the nefarious schemes of America and the DPP to prevent it; the PRC’s unyielding resolve to achieve this unification on its own terms; and the of the CCP and its leadership in pursuing this goal as a fundamental component of “national rejuvenation.”

As the centerpiece of this propaganda effort, the white paper is noteworthy for what it says: in particular, its rigid insistence on the “One Country, Two Systems” formula, and the fact that its promises are made conditional on it (“Once peaceful reunification is achieved under One Country, Two Systems…”). However, as demonstrated by the example of Hong Kong, Beijing’s conception of OCTS would strip Taiwan of any genuine autonomy, and the formula enjoys negligible support in Taiwan outside of the fringe pro-unification spectrum of the island’s politics. Far from demonstrating the “innovative” policy approaches praised in the white paper, the CCP’s dogmatic adherence to OCTS shows how inflexible and moribund its Taiwan policy process truly is.

In this vein, the document is also noteworthy for what it omits: most significantly, the promise of the 1993 and 2000 white papers not to station PLA troops or CCP administrators in Taiwan. [4] This stands alongside public comments such as those made by PRC Ambassador to France Lu Shaye on August 3, and PRC Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian on August 10, that Taiwan’s citizens would need to be “re-educated” after reunification in order to have a “correct understanding” of their relationship to the “motherland” (Taiwan News, September 7). Such remarks, which are made to please bureaucratic superiors in Beijing rather than local audiences, further reinforce that the CCP leadership intends to bring Taiwan to heel using the same heavy-handed methods it has already employed in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s actions and messaging on Taiwan since early August, while playing poorly to the international community, have been intended primarily for a domestic audience. The CCP’s nationalist stance should be understood as a hard line set up to bolster Xi Jinping’s bid for a third term as CCP General Secretary at the upcoming 20th Party Congress. It would, however, be a mistake to assume a softer line after the conclusion of the party congress. If anything, once secure in a third term Xi will likely have a freer hand to pursue even more aggressive and destabilizing moves in the Taiwan Strait. The hard line in Beijing’s messaging this summer is likely a portent of further things to come.

John Dotson is the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank focused on Taiwan-related economic and security issues. He is a former editor of Jamestown’s China Brief.

Notes

[1] It is worth noting that the State Council Information Office is an alter ego of the CCP Central Propaganda Department (中央宣传部, Zhongyang Xuanchuan Bu); the two names are used by the same bureaucratic entity, depending on whether it is acting in a party or outward state role.

[2] The 1993 document, The Taiwan Question and Reunification of China, was released in the course of the initial opening of CCP-Kuomintang negotiations in the early 1990s, and included the promise that Taiwan would be “distinguished from the other provinces or regions of China by its high degree of autonomy,” and that “the mainland will not dispatch troops or administrative personnel to the island” (PRC State Council, August 1993). The 2000 document, The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue, was issued in February of that year—after Lee Teng-hui had infuriated Beijing with his 1999 statement that relations between the two sides represented “special state-to-state relations,” and immediately prior to the March 2000 elections in Taiwan that brought a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential administration to power for the first time. This document echoed the promises of the 1993 edition, promising that “after reunification, Taiwan will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, and the Central Government will not send troops or administrative personnel to be stationed in Taiwan” (PRC State Council, February 2000).

[3] Quoted sections of the text are drawn from the official English-language version of the white paper:

The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era (PRC State Council Information Office, August 10, 2022). https://english.news.cn/20220810/df9d3b8702154b34bbf1d451b99bf64a/c.html.

[4] See endnote #2, above.