This past fall, Taiwanese waited uneasily for the outcome of the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, a conclave held every five years to confirm the leadership and set the agenda for the PRC. Sitting in a café next to the National Taiwan University in September, the activist Lin Fei-fan said the past few years had seen a lull in pressure on the island from Beijing.
Lin was a leader of the 2014 Sunflower protests that successfully pushed back against the PRC’s economic influence, aided by the ruling Nationalist, Kuomintang (KMT), party. Those protests were followed by devastating losses for the KMT in municipal elections later that year and the victory of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen in the 2016 presidential election. After President Tsai declined to endorse the “one China” principle in her inaugural address, Beijing retaliated by cutting off diplomatic contact and the flow of Chinese tourists. For the time being, Lin said, tensions had eased, “but after the 19th Party Congress, we expect more.”
Lin was right. Somewhat overlooked amid the attention to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s breathtaking consolidation of power at the Congress was a subtle but potentially significant change in course on Taiwan policy. Chinese leaders appear to recognize that the prospects for enticing Taiwan’s people to abandon their democracy and de facto independence are diminishing rapidly and probably irretrievably. In addition to boilerplate language (“all activities of splitting the motherland will be resolutely opposed by all the Chinese people”), there was an intriguing omission. The Party dropped a reference to the “Taiwan people as a force to help bring about unification.”
According to Richard Bush, this might reflect the Party’s frustration with the growing, distinctly Taiwanese identity among the island’s inhabitants and their related attachment to democratic self-rule. Additionally, Xi’s language might reflect the Party’s awareness that the KMT’s electoral decline means that it is no longer equipped to advance the goal of unification.
Beijing is taking this challenge seriously, using every means of pressure and influence at its disposal. A few weeks after the Congress, a Chinese court handed down a five-year sentence for subversion for Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese democracy activist arrested inside China last March. PRC air patrols are extending farther around Taiwan’s east coast. Furthermore, Taiwan is more than a military target for Beijing. Taiwan, as one of China’s seminal “core interests,” has become a vehicle for projecting China’s influence and power in international organizations and for coopting democracies.
Despite the change in the geopolitical situation, America’s policy hasn’t changed much since it adopted the “one China” position in the 1970s, when Taiwan was under authoritarian rule and China was too weak to pose a threat to the island, or to the international order. As Beijing uses Taiwan as a wedge to project power and influence beyond the island, America’s approach to Taiwan as a discrete subordinate issue within U.S.-PRC relations no longer makes sense.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the PRC. After nominal rule by China’s last two imperial dynasties, the island was ceded to Japan after China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Taiwan did not gain independence; instead, the wartime allies, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek agreed that the island would revert to China’s recognized government, the Republic of China, successor to the Qing dynasty, ruled by Chiang himself.
Taiwan’s retrocession, and later Chiang’s defeat in the civil war with the communists, led to an influx of “mainlanders,” who long formed the backbone of Chiang’s authoritarian KMT rule. They and their descendants constitute about 14 percent of Taiwan’s population. The vast majority, more than 80 percent, are “Taiwanese,” defined as descendants of earlier migrants from China. (Approximately 2.5 percent of Taiwan’s inhabitants are aborigines who arrived on the island from Austronesia centuries before the arrival of Han immigrants.)
Chiang never renounced his ambition to govern both Taiwan and China. His rule on the island was characterized by Chinese chauvinism, including repression of Taiwanese language and culture that developed largely independent of the mainland. As a result, writes Mark Harrison, Taiwanese democracy is deeply rooted in resistance to foreign (that is, Chinese rule), which “created a political landscape in which democratization and Taiwanese identity became the intertwined bases of oppositional politics.”
As Taiwan took steps toward political liberalization in the late 1980s and 1990s, Taiwanese were able, tentatively at first, to assert their distinct identity. In polls taken by the Election Study Center of the National Cheng-chi University, the number of those identifying themselves as exclusively “Taiwanese” rose from just below 20 percent in 1992 to 60 percent in 2015. At the same time, the number of those identifying themselves as Chinese” fell to low single digits.
To clarify, most Taiwanese acknowledge Chinese origins and cultural roots. Indeed, Chinese culture on Taiwan is often considered more pure than in the PRC, where it has been degraded by communist rule. “[W]hat has shifted among most people in Taiwan with regard to their national identity is the political/state aspect of their identity,” writes Yang Zhong, a political scientist at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “When most people in Taiwan say they are Taiwanese instead of Chinese, they are simply identifying themselves as nationals of Taiwan as a sovereign state and rejecting being nationals or citizens of the People’s Republic of China.”
Even as these shifts took place, ethnicity remained a significant issue in Taiwan’s politics. Lee Teng-hui, the first elected President of Taiwan, sought to create an inclusive Taiwanese identity based on citizenship, to bridge the ethnic division, and orient the KMT, in which he forged his career, away from its authoritarian, mainland roots. By contrast, his successor, Chen Shui-bian, the first President from opposition DPP emphasized ethnicity as vital part of Taiwan’s identity. “In the lingo of political science,” writes Shelley Rigger in her book Why Taiwan Matters, “Lee was advocating civic nationalism—nationalism based on the shared experience of democratic self government—while Chen promoted ethno-nationalism—nationalism based on an ethnic bond.” Both were reactions to Chinese authoritarianism imposed by foreign regimes.
Lee’s vision may have been premature, but it has taken hold. Although ethnic divisions have not completely disappeared, today, says Chang Mau-Kuei, a sociologist at the Academica Sinica in Taipei, age is the main dividing line when it comes to Taiwanese identity and the political views that stem from it. Even a decade makes a difference. In National Cheng-chi University polls, 70 percent of people younger than 40 identify themselves as Taiwanese, while among those 29 or younger, 78 percent hold an exclusively Taiwanese identity.
During two terms in office, from 2008–16, the KMT spearheaded closer economic ties between China and Taiwan on the grounds that the island’s economy would benefit. However, during its tenure, the KMT was increasingly seen as willing to subordinate Taiwan’s interests to a vision of cross-strait unity. Indeed, the proportion of Taiwanese who believe that China will force a merger through economic leverage more than tripled—from 22 to 68 percent—from 2008–12.
Over the past several years, such younger Taiwanese have fueled civic movements directed against the economic influence of the PRC. The Sunflower movement, led by Lin Fei-fan and others, occupied Taiwan’s legislature with activists protesting the KMT’s attempt to adopt a trade pact without the promised scrutiny of provisions that would deepen or expand Chinese investment in Taiwan. The Sunflower protests, writes Ian Rowen, and other civic movements reflected “deep misgivings about the political and economic relationships that the Ma administration and its allied business interests were forging with China.” In 2012, another movement blocked the expansion of media holdings by a pro-unification Taiwanese tycoon with extensive investments inside China.”
Several months after the Sunflower movement forced the cross-strait trade pact’s withdrawal, the KMT suffered devastating losses in municipal elections—on a single day losing more than half of the cities and counties under its control. The DPP gained ground outside its traditional base in the south, capturing offices in the center and north, including the capital, Taipei, and Taichung, now the country’s second-largest city. Just over a year later, in January 2016, Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide 56 percent of the vote to the KMT challenger’s 31 percent to become Taiwan’s first female President.. Tsai won 21 of Taiwan’s 22 electoral districts, giving her party a clear majority in the legislature
In her inaugural address, Tsai stressed cooperation with Beijing but pointedly did not endorse the “one China” principle. (Specifically, she did not invoke the “1992 consensus”—a term of art employed by the KMT that accepts the idea of “one China” but leaves open to each party’s interpretation which government should rule. Beijing hasn’t endorsed the formulation either, but it is considered the threshold for further discussion and maintains the prospect of Taiwan as part of “one China.”)
Beijing’s tourism cut-off badly hit Hualien, a thinly populated county stretching along Taiwan’s rugged east coast, whose tourist industry catered to PRC package tours. Hualien’s legislative representative, Hsiao Bi-khim is trying to find opportunity in adversity. Hsiao believes that Taiwan can orient itself away from China, and that her constituency’s stunning coastline, national parks, and international-standard airport can help to attract tourists and investment from the rest of Asia. At the same time, she says, Taiwan can showcase its most valuable attribute—the free society that constitutes the country’s “soft power.”
Hsiao’s vision makes sense, and not only because of China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea and increasingly around Taiwan’s east coast. Taiwan’s “soft power,” unlike the PRC’s, is authentic. As David Shambaugh writes, soft power, comes “largely from society—specifically, cultural, political and social values . . . [and] . . . is “premised on the clear demarcation that exists in democratic societies between state and non state spheres,” a distinction that does not exist in a one-party communist system. Yet Beijing’s projection of its ideological interests has, until recently, gone largely unchallenged abroad.
What Beijing wields—and what the West often mistakes—as “soft power” should be renamed as “sharp power” according to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In a recent report, the NED argues that efforts by leading authoritarian regimes such as Communist China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to “wield influence through initiatives in the spheres of media, culture, think tanks, and academia is neither a ‘charm offensive’ nor an effort to win ‘hearts and minds,’ the common frame of reference for ‘soft power’ efforts. This authoritarian influence is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead it centers on distraction and manipulation . . . at the same time . . . [taking] advantage of the openness of democratic systems.”
A great deal of China’s “sharp power” is deployed through United Front work, a Leninist invention adopted by the CCP in the early phase of its movement to enlist non-communist allies during the war with Japan. Later, the strategy was institutionalized within the Party bureaucracy with a mission to advance the Party’s objectives on issues including Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, through activities that appear to be independent of the Party. Xi Jinping calls them a “magic weapon.”
In the United States, perhaps the best example of China’s United Front agenda is the Confucius Institutes, PRC-operated entities based on colleges and other campuses to provide instruction in Chinese language and culture. They adhere to the Chinese Communist Party line on Taiwan, Tibet, and other issues. Although some campuses and academic groups have rebuffed the institutes, they continue to operate, and the U.S. government has generally maintained a positive attitude toward them. In 2016, while attending a so-called “people-to-people” exchange event in Beijing, Secretary of State John Kerry called the operation of the Confucius Institutes at hundreds of campuses a “win-win” proposition.
Beijing’s agenda to advance its line on Taiwan relies heavily also on the tacit acceptance of its claim to Taiwan, as well as Tibet and Xinjiang, which the PLA invaded in the 1940s and 50s, as “core interests.” In a word, a core interest is something the Party regards as “non-negotiable,” writes Michael Swaine. By identifying a “core interest,” Beijing makes “a more vigorous attempt to lay down a marker, or type of warning, regarding the need for the United States and other countries to respect (indeed accept with little if any negotiation) China’s position on certain issues.”
While gaining deference to its core interests has been among the PRC’s highest priorities in relations with other countries, American leaders thought it best to avoid upsetting the Party over what they saw as extreme sensitivity over a status quo the United States had no interest in challenging: Tibet and Xinjiang were under the PRC’s control, and Taiwan was beyond Beijing’s grasp.
Yet while the United States has remained tethered to a policy toward Taiwan as “one China,” the PRC’s concept of its core interests has proved elastic, with the addition of the South China Sea and a possibly other areas. Chinese officials have also referred to a large swath of Northeastern India as “Southern Tibet” and backed away from a longstanding proposal to settle the disputed border between Chinese-occupied Tibet and India. PLA incursions across the “line of control” have risen over the past several years.
Furthermore, although originally discrete and territorial, the PRC’s non-negotiable “core interests” have expanded to include ideology, norms, and values. For nearly a decade top Chinese officials have framed the concept broadly to include its system of government, view of human rights and economy, national security, and sovereignty. In other words, the PRC’s enumerated “core interests” are increasingly subsumed within a broader assertion of global leadership. Taiwan, as well as Tibet and Xinjiang, now serve as vehicles not only for China’s projection of military power but also for the erosion of liberal democratic norms and the governments and institutions that are in charge of safeguarding them.
According to a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report, China is using to the “one China” policy as a vehicle for exporting its political values and censorship, and for undermining international norms. “By establishing political tests for NGOs that require them to hew to the Chinese position on Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and other issues,” HRW reports, “China is compelling NGOs to self-censor and seeking to prevent those unwilling to accept the Chinese party line from participating at the UN.”
Beijing’s is also using Taiwan to corrupt and coopt European democracies. Last year, under Chinese pressure, Spain deported to the PRC, without due process, dozens of Taiwanese accused in a telecommunications scam. Beijing’s strategy may be to move first against unsympathetic targets, in this case con men who have preyed upon poor Chinese. Several of China’s closest autocratic partners have already deported Chinese dissidents and Uighur refugees. Once a standard is compromised, further capitulations are easier. It’s not far-fetched that European countries would acquiesce to demands for the deportation of Taiwanese activists or even officials. China insists that Taiwanese are “Chinese compatriots,” and it even rejects foreign naturalization of Chinese, insisting that they are “first and foremost Chinese.” Economically ailing European countries, or those showing signs of authoritarian drift, may find cooperation with Beijing on such matters irresistible.
American policy was forged during the Cold War, at a time when China was weak and recovering from the instability of the Mao era, and thus posed no threat. Even at the time, some American diplomats objected that the commitments undertaken to consider Taiwan as part of China did not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of Taiwan’s people. And for a time during the 1950s and 1960s, American statesmen regretted, albeit privately, the decisions made at Cairo to return Taiwan to Chinese rule.
America’s rapprochement with the PRC ended all such notions. The United States subordinated Taiwan to relations with Beijing as part of a worldview dominated by the confrontation with the Soviet Union. A great deal of time has passed and circumstances have changed. Taiwan’s democratization has exposed, and deepened, a Taiwanese identity separate from China. For the activist Lin Fei-fan and a growing number of Taiwanese, the idea of coming under PRC rule holds no appeal. “We already formed a democratic country,” he says.
Beijing has taken account of this historic development. So far America has failed to similarly revise its approach and see Taiwan as central to China’s increasingly assertive ideological as well as military challenge.