Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 17

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Hawkish officers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have cited Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian’s remarks on the island’s statehood and its readiness for a referendum on the issue to urge an early “liberation” of Taiwan. Chen’s statements could also buttress the Jiang Zemin camp’s bid for the septuagenarian Chinese president to remain in power after the 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress.

While taping a video for a Taiwanese group in Japan on August 3, Chen said: “Taiwan and China on the other side [of the Strait], each side is a [sovereign] country.” The leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also asked 23 million Taiwan residents to seriously consider legislation on holding a referendum to decide the island’s future.

Beijing waited two days before coming up with an official reaction. On August 5, a spokesman of the cabinet-level Taiwan Affairs Office slammed Chen for reneging on his earlier pledge not to seek independence–and for “nudging Taiwan toward disaster.” It was the first time after Chen became president in March 2000 that he was directly and specifically vilified by Chinese officials.

It is significant that the CCP leadership has not threatened military action on a par with the missile drills close to Taiwan that were staged in 1999 and 2000 soon after former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui enunciated his so-called “two states theory.” Beijing’s Taiwan expert such as Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Zhu Weidong pointed out that “we are not yet on the point of waging war [against Taiwan].” Added his colleague Sun Shengliang: “Now is not yet the time for a showdown.”

At least for the foreseeable future, Beijing is expected to wage psychological warfare against Taiwan residents by playing up reports about annual military exercises along the coast that the PLA has held from April to October for more than ten years. Certain maneuvers, particularly those along and off the Fujian coast, might be modified to highlight potential threats to Taiwan. China’s united front specialists will also work overtime to woo Taiwan businessmen who think Chen’s “reckless” remarks have dampened the stock market and put their mainland investments in jeopardy.

Beijing sources close to the PLA, however, said hawkish officers had seized upon Chen’s provocative remarks to urge the CCP leadership to speed up military preparations. The sources said a group of generals had in early summer written a paper to Jiang that said military action–mostly “surgical missile strikes”–should be taken against Taiwan before Washington was to launch an attack on Iraq.

The proposal said with the United States preoccupied with Iraq and other fronts, Washington would not have time and resources to come to Taiwan’s rescue should the PLA launch a short-duration missile strike against military installations as well as civilian facilities such as power plants. The paper said it might be “too late” for China after Washington’s Iraqi campaign because, if the United States were successful, it might be emboldened in playing global cop–and it would not hesitate to come to Taipei’s defense.

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said it was unlikely that Jiang, who chairs both the Central Military Commission and the CCP’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs, would take up the suggestions of the PLA hawks any time soon. For one thing, the president and party chief is preparing for what could be his last official visit to the United States in October: Jiang is due to hold a summit with counterpart George W. Bush at the latter’s Texas ranch on October 25. It is probable that Jiang will use Chen’s pro-independence remarks to buttress arguments that Washington should help rein in the DPP president, and to downgrade the sale of arms to Taiwan. Rattling the saber by means including provocative missile drills close to Taiwan will undercut Jiang’s argument with Bush and other senior U.S. officials.

However, despite Jiang’s forbearance, it is likely that in the longer term, the PLA will succeed to getting more funds and resources toward “war preparation.” Immediately after the DPP’s Chen swept to victory in presidential polls in March 2000, Beijing’s reaction was “we shall weigh his words and watch his action.” This weighing and watching mode is in effect over. And should the opposition parties–the Kuomintang and the People’s First Party–fail to regain the presidential palace in early 2004, military and other nationalistic elements will seem to have more arguments in their favor.

Equally important, Jiang and his aids are taking advantage of the rise of nationalistic, anti-Taiwan feelings to strengthen the president’s position in the run-up to the 16th party congress. Jiang’s assistants have since early this year encouraged nearly 1,000 generals, ministers and provincial party secretaries to write petitions to the party leadership urging Jiang to postpone his retirement “for the sake of national stability.”

It is understood that Chen’s pro-independence gambit–and the Bush administration’s decision to do “whatever it takes” to defend the island–figures prominently in the generals’ plea that Jiang should remain both party chief and CMC chairman. According to a PLA source, one petition cited factors including “treacherous international developments, the rise of hegemonic politics, and Chen Shui-bian’s perseverance with “splittism” with the help of anti-China forces on the world stage” as argument that China needed a leader as experienced as Jiang to be at the helm for at least a few more years.

The source said recent separatist statements by Chen would tend to support arguments by both civilian and military cadres that Jiang was required to handle tricky situations including Taipei’s perfidy and America’s resurgent “hegemonism.” After all, Politburo members attending the 15th Party Congress in 1997 already arrived at the conclusion that those over 70 should retire. While longstanding Jiang foe Qiao Shi had to go under this criterion, an exception was made for the 71-year-old president because, the Politburo decided, he had to tackle challenges including his summit with then president Bill Clinton later that year.

In any case, Jiang and his advisers have made it doubly clear to their opponents in the Politburo and Central Committee that the CMC Chairman has the generals’ full support for hanging onto power. The elaborate festivities and ceremonies marking the August 1 Army Day were staged with only one major objective: to highlight the fact, in the words of Defense Minister Chi Haotian, that “officers must self-consciously safeguard the leadership authority of the Party Center with Jiang Zemin as its core.” And while General Chi still seemed to follow Deng Xiaoping’s injunctions against cults of personality by mainly saluting the Party Center, his fellow CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Wannian swore his allegiance personally to Jiang. The Liberation Army Daily quoted Zhang as telling officers that “all actions [of the PLA] must obey the orders of the Party Center and those of Chairman Jiang.”

Apart from propaganda campaigns, Jiang and company have also taken concrete steps to ensure the CMC chairman’s staying power. The official media revealed on Army Day that Jiang had since early this year promoted more than 100 officers as major and lieutenant generals. These were in addition to the seven full generals that he had appointed last June. One goal of this remarkable personnel move was that even if Jiang were obliged by force of circumstances to hand over the baton to Vice President Hu Jintao, the Third Generation elder would still be confident of the allegiance of a good number of generals.

Should tension over the Taiwan Strait continue to rise, the generals would seize the opportunity to strengthen their political clout while the CMC chairman might maneuver to boost his staying power. President Chen certainly could not have foreseen the impact that his pro-independence remarks could have on the mainland’s domestic politics. While the island seems more exposed to the PLA’s missiles, the return of dynastic norms as represented by Jiang’s power bid will further weaken China’s fragile political system. The possibilities for mischief and miscalculations have never been higher.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best-known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.