Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 3

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Contrary to expectations, Vice-Premier Qian Qichen’s vaunted olive branch for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is unlikely to reduce Cross-Strait tension in the foreseeable future. Qian’s statement welcoming certain categories of DPP members to visit the mainland, however, has confirmed that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has decided to use relatively moderate means–particularly business leverage–to rein in President Chen Shui-bian’s perceived proclivities toward independence.

At a ceremony marking the seven-year anniversary of President Jiang Zemin’s “eight-point Taiwan initiative,” Qian said on January 24 that the majority of DPP members were to be distinguished from a “very small minority” of separatists–and that DPP members with the “appropriate status” could visit China. While Beijing’s apparent reversal of its DPP policy might have conjured hopes of some form of real dialogue across the Strait, subsequent developments have dashed the possibility of CCP-DPP contact or talks any time soon.

One day after Qian’s statement, the China-run Hong Kong paper, Wen Wei Po, quoted a senior Chinese official as specifying qualifications to Qian’s invitation to DPP members to visit the mainland. The official said that Beijing had not changed its policy of no official contact with the DPP–and that DPP members could only visit the mainland in private capacities. He added that top-level DPP members such as Chairman Frank Hsieh, who has expressed a wish to visit China, would still be barred. Given the fact that a number of mid-ranking DPP members have already made private visits to Chinese cities–including Macau, which has developed into a meeting point between officials from both sides–Qian’s “concession” looks less groundbreaking than it seems.

At most, the new dispensation might mean that a larger number of second-echelon DPP politicians could make private trips across the Strait. Pro-unification Taiwan politicians estimate that about twenty DPP legislators Beijing deems “moderate” might be allowed to tour the mainland in non-official capacities.

So far, most DPP leaders (including Chen) have reacted positively to Qian’s speech, saying that they welcomed any words or action that might relax tension in the Taiwan Strait. However, the chairman of Taiwan’s cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Tsai Ying-wen, said it was difficult to say whether Qian’s statement represented a “fundamental change” in Beijing’s Taiwan policy. His skepticism might also have been aroused by the fact that statements on Taiwan by China’s regional cadres have been much less positive or conciliatory. Qian’s remarks about a red carpet for certain categories of DPP members were not mentioned by provincial officials who also held meetings to celebrate Jiang’s 1995 initiative, the gist of which was that “Chinese will not fight Chinese.” At a talk in Wuhan last Friday, Vice Party Secretary of Hubei Province Yang Yongliang did not mention the DPP and merely appealed to Taiwan businesses to make more investment in the central province. The rhetoric of some regional officials was also harsher than Qian’s largely conciliatory speech. At a meeting in Shandong Province last Saturday, the provincial Vice Party Secretary Wu Aiying blasted Taipei authorities for pursuing separatism by using means that “instigate contradictions and engender social strife.”

Political analysts in Beijing said that the Chinese leadership would continue to adopt a cautious approach to relations with the DPP. Unless, of course, President Chen were to make a dramatic gesture in favor of some form of reunification. Analysts in Taipei said it was unlikely that President Chen, who was careful to retain the support of hard-line factions within his own party, would satisfy Beijing’s basic requirement that he recognized the one China principle. They said after his recent decision to put the words “issued in Taiwan” on passports issued by the island that Chen had further aroused Beijing’s suspicion by appointing to the new cabinet several politicians deemed loyal to former President Lee Teng-hui. Lee, who was ousted by the opposition Nationalists Party last year, is considered by Beijing the “godfather” of Taiwan independence. New cabinet members, including Finance Minister Lee Yung-san and Foreign Minister Eugene Chien, are considered close to Lee. A number of incumbents Chen retained, including the MAC’s Tsai, are also deemed Lee proteges.

It is expected that the Chen cabinet’s goal in the coming year or so would be to prepare for the presidential election of early 2004, and that Chen, dubbed an “election machine,” would weigh his words and deeds in light of his chances for re-election. And it is unlikely that Chen will come close to saying “I accept one China” unless there is a clear-cut mandate from the voters. While it is unlikely that the Qian initiative will achieve anything concrete in the near term, it is nonetheless significant as a gauge of Beijing’s evolving Taiwan strategy.

Since early 2001, President Jiang has called on his key advisers on Taiwan to come up with “new ideas” on how to speed up reunification, or at least stop the Chen administration’s pro-independence gambit. After a series of brainstorming, Jiang and his aides have come to the conclusion that as long as China can leverage economics and business effectively, it would be very difficult for Taipei to go further down the separatist road. “Some Jiang advisers have cited the example of the United States and Canada,” a Beijing source close to the Taiwan policymaking establishment said. “Despite Canada’s proud traditions, its lob-sided economic dependence on the United States means that Ottawa can’t pursue a foreign or defense policy that is independent of Washington’s.”

When Chen was elected president in March 2000, Beijing said it would adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Now this mode is apparently coming to an end. And Beijing has settled on a Taiwan policy that consists largely in wielding the economic card–and putting more, albeit indirect, pressure on the United States.

The Jiang leadership is readying a package of goodies to entice Taiwan businessmen as well as politicians–most of whom have close links to big corporations. For example, Taiwan will be offered something akin to what is being discussed between Beijing and Hong Kong: a quasi-free trade zone. As far as this arrangement is compatible with World Trade Organization regulations, Taiwan enterprises and professionals will be granted fuller access to the mainland market. Business leverage is closely allied to Beiijng’s time-honored united front tactics, defined as “isolating your enemy while making as many friends as you can.” Apart from inviting more members of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People’s First Party (PCP) to go to the mainland, Beijing will try to work the magic on second-tier DPP members–particularly those who have investments in the mainland or ties with Taiwan businesses. Then there is the policy toward the United States–in which economics also figures prominently. The gist of Beijing’s policy is to convince the United States that it is in Washington’s interest to rein in Chen. The Jiang administration has argued that Chen’s “incremental separatist moves” would raise tension in the Taiwan Strait, jeopardize regional safety and hurt American interests.

A key to Beijing’s gameplan is the assessment that, by the end of this decade or thereabouts, China and the United States will reach a state of mutual economic interdependence, meaning that America will need the Chinese market as much as China needs the American. “By that time, Beijing can pretty much lay the cards on the table,” a Taiwan affairs cadre said. “Beijing will tell Washington that mutual economic benefits require that the United States show at least enough accommodation of Chinese interests as to rein in the separatist movement on Taiwan.”

It is interesting that at one internal discussion session on Taiwan, Jiang compared the DPP to Monkey King–the prankster in the famous classical novel Journey to the West. Despite Monkey King’s magical powers to make mischief, he was finally subdued by Rulai, or the Buddha. “How can the Monkey King get out of the Rulai’s fingers?” Jiang reportedly said with reference to Chen. Be that as it may, some Jiang watchers believe the president has come to realize that reunification cannot be achieved within his lifetime. They say it is significant that while Qian was reading out his speech welcoming DPP members to visit China, Vice President Hu Jintao was on hand–and the likely successor of Jiang appeared on CCTV’s footage of the event wearing a somewhat benign expression. This may be Beijing’s way of saying that the CCP leadership now hopes substantial progress on the Taiwan front may be made within the tenure of Hu, who is expected to become party general secretary this October–and remain in that position until 2012.

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.