Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 12

By Willy Lam

President Hu Jintao will intensify both united front tactics and “military readiness” after having taken over the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs. The LGTA is the country’s policy setting organ for reunification matters.

Chinese sources in Beijing have confirmed the composition of the new LGTA. It is headed by party chief and President Hu. The vice-head is Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member and chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Jia Qinglin. Hu and Jia have replaced former president Jiang Zemin and former vice-premier Qian Qichen, respectively, who had retired from the Politburo at the 16th CCP Congress last November.

Other members of the secretive organ include the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), General Guo Boxiong; the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) vice-chief of staff and intelligence chief, General Xiong Guangkai; State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan; CCP United Front Department (UFD) Director Liu Yandong; Minister of State Security Xu Yongyao; and Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Director Chen Yunlin. Decisions made by the LGTA, which meets about once a month, are carried out by civilian and military departments including the TAO, Foreign Ministry, UFD, Ministry of Commerce, as well as the General Staff Department and other units of the PLA.

The composition of the LGTA has major implications for Chinese politics as well as for probable new initiatives by Beijing toward Taiwan. The securing by Hu of the top Taiwan slot occurred at roughly the same time that the 60-year-old Fourth Generation supreme leader took the helm of the CCP Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), the nation’s foremost diplomatic policy making organ. Hu has therefore replaced the 73-year-old Jiang as China’s foreign policy czar. It is expected that Hu, currently first vice-chairman of the CMC, will take over Jiang’s last remaining official position–that of CMC chairman–in a couple of years.

The biggest surprise of the LGTA lineup is that PSC member and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong did not make it. Deemed to be an alter ego of former president Jiang, Zeng had played a sizeable role in Taiwan affairs. Until the mid-1990s he had represented Jiang in so-called secret talks with the emissaries that former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui had sent to Hong Kong and the Zhuhai special economic zone. And until the early spring of this year, Zeng had shown up at important state functions on Taiwan-related issues.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing believe the 63-year-old Shanghai Faction stalwart, who is considered a political rival of Hu’s, is now left with the sole portfolio of party affairs, including ideology and personnel matters. In addition, Zeng is not a member of the newly reshuffled LGFA. Last month, the former vice-party secretary of Shanghai surprised analysts by failing to show up during the Beijing visit of the secretaries-general of Japan’s three major political parties. It was Zeng, one of Jiang’s principal advisors on Japanese and Korean affairs, who had first relayed the invitations to the three Japanese politicians.

Given that Hu will likely remain China’s preeminent politician at least until the 18th CCP Congress in 2012, the president will have a dominant say in Taiwan affairs for the coming decade. Sources close to Beijing’s Taiwan policy establishment said that, for the foreseeable future, Hu would focus on winning hearts and minds on the island while keeping open the option of the “military liberation” of the self-ruled island.

The emphasis on united front and psychological warfare work is reflected in the induction of Jia and Liu into the LGTA. A long time crony of former president Jiang, Jia’s portfolio in the PSC is united front and liaison work with “non-party elements”–including members of the so-called “eight democratic parties”–as well as with Taiwan politicians and businessmen. Given his experience in Fujian Province, where he was governor and party secretary in the 1990s, Jia has had substantial exposure to Taiwan affairs.

One of China’s highest ranked women, the UFD’s Liu is a veteran member of President Hu’s Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction. Liu, 57, who was made a member of the CYL party committee as early as 1982, has maintained a close professional relationship with Hu since she became deputy director of the UFD in 1991.

In the near term, at least, Beijing will put its emphasis on building bridges to Taiwan businessmen–who invested a record US$3.85 billion in coastal China last year–as well as to sectors outside the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In mid-March, in his first major speech on Taiwan since becoming party chief, Hu said that Beijing would “deeply implement the goal of vesting its hope [in reunification] in the Taiwan people.” The president added that the mainland would engage in dialogue with any of those parties and groupings that did not advocate independence. And Hu did not mention the military option at all.

The CCP leadership evidently hopes that a low-key, apparently conciliatory approach to Taiwan will help unseat President Chen Shui-bian in the presidential polls scheduled for next March. The chances of the opposition–the so-called Pan Blue Alliance of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the People’s First Party–have been enhanced by the decision of their two chairmen, Lien Chan and James Soong, respectively, to run on a joint ticket against Chen.

Moreover, the economic recession that began in 2000, as well as Taipei’s mishandling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, has made a big dent in Chen’s popularity. A poll conducted in early June by a major Taiwan TV station said a Lien-Soong ticket could secure 53 percent of the ballots next March. The same survey indicated that Chen, while keeping Annette Lu as his vice-presidential candidate, would garner only 32 percent of the vote.

Beijing, of course, has hardly shelved the “military liberation” option. President Hu’s recent stress on defense modernization partly reflects the PLA’s perseverance in preparing actively for a military solution to the reunification question. General Guo, the new senior PLA representative on the LGTA, is a former deputy chief of staff and renowned military strategist. An important item on General Guo’s curriculum vitae is his service as commander of the PLA’s annual coastal exercises. These usually include simulated amphibious landings on Taiwan beaches.

Sources close to the PLA said the Taiwan angle figures prominently in modernization of the PLA’s weaponry as well as in its procurement of sophisticated hardware from Russia. One focus of modernization since the mid-1990s has been improving the accuracy and sophistication of missiles, some 500 of which are stockpiled along the coast off Taiwan. Most PLA “invasion scenarios” involve using missiles to knock out military installations on the island. And the PLA is developing missiles that it hopes will be effective against American aircraft carriers–which are expected to be deployed to the Taiwan Strait in the event of a Beijing-Taipei showdown.

From now until Taiwan’s presidential polls, Beijing’s main worry is that President Chen may play the “mainland card;” that is, that he may raise cross-Straits tension in order to boost his reelection chances. Traditionally, saber rattling over the Taiwan Strait has favored the incumbent in major polls on the island. Beijing is convinced that Chen is upping the ante in the DDP’s long-standing campaign of “creeping separatism.” The LGTA was miffed by Taipei’s aggressive efforts last month to gain observer status in the World Health Organization. Taipei’s rationale was that only by having some form of WHO representation can it play a meaningful role in the global fight against epidemics such SARS. Moreover, Taipei has hardly let up in its efforts to secure advanced weapons from the United States, including Aegis-class destroyers and anti-missile batteries.

Beijing is also closely watching whether the DPP leadership makes a move on threats, first stated last year, that Taipei will enact legislation on a plebiscite to determine the island’s future. The Chen administration briefly flashed the “plebiscite card” when it indicated–soon after its WHO bid was shot down by Beijing–that a referendum might be held to determine the stance of residents on Taiwan gaining representation in the world body.

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.