Is Xi Losing Control of China's ‘Peripheries’?

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As tens of thousands of activists continue to defy the authorities in Hong Kong by occupying entire city blocs in the heart of the city, and with weekly reports of escalating violence in restive Xinjiang, the central government in Beijing seems to be losing its grip on what the Chinese regard as the “peripheries.” Recent comments by President Xi Jinping about yet another piece in China’s puzzle of instability—Taiwan—suggest that the leadership may be panicking.

Before we proceed, it’s important to point out that the two territories and Taiwan are different issues altogether: The first two are politically part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) while Taiwan is a self-ruled entity operating under its own set of rules and constitution, that of the Republic of China (ROC). Furthermore, Taiwan is democratic and was never part of the PRC, whereas Hong Kong was “returned” to the PRC in 1997 and can only aspire to a democratic system, a situation that is at the heart of the current impasse in the former British colony, while Xinjiang is ruled with a mix of intermarriage, displacement, and repressive policies under a veneer of economic development and “ethnic harmony.”

Still, fundamental differences notwithstanding, Beijing has proposed—imposed, rather—a one-size-fits-all solution for Hong Kong and Taiwan, known as the “one country, two systems,” or 1C2S, model. Despite the model showing cracks in the one territory where it has been applied, as evidence by Hong Kong’s angry response to China’s White Paper on 1C2S in June, Beijing is adamant that it is equally viable as an instrument by which to bring about the “re-unification of China,” or, to put in terms that better reflect reality, the annexation of Taiwan.

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The 1C2S formula has been implicit for years as relations across the Taiwan Strait ebbed and flowed. Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership had until recently been cunning enough to know that stating this outright would be counterproductive, aware that 1C2S had very little appeal among Taiwan’s 23 million people, even those who tend to vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), a party that generally identifies more and favors closer relations with China. Consequently, while 1C2S remained a constant for China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in its engagement with its counterparts in Taiwan adopted a seemingly more conciliatory position and agreed to negotiate under the so-called “1992 consensus,” whereby both sides agreed there is “one China,” but differed on its interpretation. The creative formula was vague enough to allow for the substantial rapprochement that has occurred between Taipei and Beijing since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT in 2008.

Beyond serving as a platform for dialogue, the 1992 consensus was good enough for the Chinese, as it succeeded in halting what it feared most—a gradual slide in Taiwan towards de jure independence. For all his faults, Chinese president Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s predecessor, showed patience on the question of Taiwan. As long as things moved in the “right” direction—and there is no doubt that the 20 or so agreements signed between the two sides since 2008, added to the explosion in cross-strait tourism and exchanges, was the “right” direction insofar as Beijing is concerned—Hu adopted a “go slow” approach to unification, which largely succeeded in drawing Taiwan ever closer into its orbit without unduly alarming the Taiwanese population.

It was only a matter of time before this well-calibrated balancing act by Beijing would come undone after Xi replaced Hu. There were plenty of warning signs, starting with China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas and its more nationalistic, if not belligerent, tone on Sino-U.S. relations. Xi, who wasted little time ridding himself of his political opponents to arguably become the most powerful and ideological Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, is an impatient man. Consequently, whereas Hu was content with neutralizing Taiwan, Xi seems intent on dealing with the problem once and for all. And developments in Hong Kong, added to the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan earlier this year—whose impact was not, despite Mr. Ma’s claims, short lived—appear to be fueling that impatience by raising the specter of the permanent “separation” of Taiwan from the “mainland.”

To put it simply, Xi seems to have run out of patience not only with Taiwan, but with President Ma’s KMT as well. Despite the rapprochement that has occurred under Ma since 2008, Beijing hasn’t been able to initiate overtly political talks about Taiwan’s future, which was the plan all along. With fifteen months left to his second and last term in office, Ma has probably delivered as much as he can to Beijing. His party is divided, Ma’s image has been severely hurt by the Sunflower, and whoever aspires to filling his seat in 2016 will, given electoral pressures, be compelled to adopt a more centrist position, which by default means imposing more brakes on cross-strait dialogue (at least during campaigning).

A Chinese government that understands the tremendous pressures facing Ma and the KMT at the moment would take a step back and wait for future opportunities. Inexplicably, Xi has done the opposite.

During a meeting with a delegation led by Yok Mu-ming, chairman of Taiwan’s New Party (NP), and Hsu Li-nung, chairman of the Taiwan New Alliance Association, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 26, Xi abandoned all subtlety and affirmed his view that “one country, two systems” was Beijing’s “guiding principle” in solving the “Taiwan issue.” Although Xi had already met with representatives from the KMT, this was the first time that a Chinese leader met with overtly pro-unification politicians in Taiwan. In all, about 20 pro-unification groups from Taiwan were present at the meeting with Xi.

In his remarks, Xi dispensed with the conveniences of the 1992 consensus and affirmed that Taiwan and China belong to “the same China” and added that 1C2S was the best way to “bridge the cross-strait political divide.” Expressing impatience with the “status quo,” Xi argued that secessionism was “intolerable” and that both sides must curb forces that stand in the way of the dream of unity.

Seemingly unwilling to admit that very few Taiwanese experience such dreams in day- or nighttime, Xi then stressed that China understands and would presumably respect the “social system” and “living style” of the Taiwanese people. Left unsaid was what China would do with Taiwan’s political system—its democracy.

Xi’s decision to meet with the pro-unification groups and to bluntly propose 1C2S as the only formula to deal with Taiwan is as difficult to understand as it is counterproductive. Within 24 hours of Xi’s remarks, President Ma, Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Mainland Affairs Council Minster Wang Yu-chi were all forced to state that “one country, two systems” was unacceptable to Taiwan and that Taipei continued to operate under its “three noes” policy of “no unification, no independence, and no use of force.” Ma, who had recently come under fire for comments about the two Germanys serving as a model for future relations between Taiwan and China, also re-emphasized that the ROC was a sovereign country built upon democratic ideals.

While threatening to damage trust between Taipei and Beijing, Xi’s remarks also further undermined the little credibility that Ma’s still enjoyed with the Taiwanese public and forced the Taiwanese president into a corner. It was now clear that the status quo and the 1992 consensus, which had buttressed Taipei’s entire China policy since 2008, were no longer good enough for Beijing. All of a sudden, Ma’s careful management of cross-strait ties was coming undone, the illusion exposed.

So why did Xi do what he did, knowing that this would put Ma, his safest counterpart in Taiwan, in a bind? One possible explanation is that Beijing understands that Ma has been neutralized by both the Sunflower Movement and the pressures arising from the 2016 elections. There are already signs that Beijing has been bypassing the KMT and dealing directly with influential leaders at the local level across Taiwan. Initial research by some Taiwanese academics, who recently discussed their work with this author, has yet to draw a full picture of the network upon which the PRC relies to funnel money and influence into Taiwan. Nevertheless, enough is known to positively state that the liberalization that has occurred under Mr. Ma has created manifold opportunities for Chinese officials, investors, and intelligence agents to inject money into Taiwan in return for political favors. Moreover, initial findings by a Taiwanese academic also point to possible role as go-between by a former presidential candidate, who has met with Xi and whose son, a candidate in the Taipei mayoral race in late November, runs a foundation in Hong Kong that, according to sources in the financial industry, is reportedly very close to Chinese “princelings.”

It could very well be that the CCP under Xi has run out of patience with the KMT and is aware that it won’t be able to get what it wants under a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration—a distinct possibility from 2016—and that it sees its greatest hopes through cooperation with parties such as Yok’s NP, or gangster Chang An-le’s Unification Party, Taiwan-based organizations that while unelectable (Yok’s party only obtained 10,678 votes, or 0.08 percent of the total, in the 2012 elections), are ideologically in-tune with Xi (Chang, an ex-convict and head of the Bamboo Union triad who has reinvented himself as a politician, has been a vocal proponent of 1C2S since his return to Taiwan in June 2013 after spending 16 years on the run in China). Given the irrelevance of such parties in Taiwanese politics and their ostensible ties with the Chinese intelligence apparatus, we can conclude that Xi, having lost faith in his ability to use Taiwan’s democratic system against itself, has decided to bypass Taiwan’s democratic institutions altogether by cooperating more closely with parties and associations that would have done rather well under Mao’s doctrine of “constant revolution.” (In case anyone has any doubts about his interest in reviving Maoism, Xi has repeatedly emphasized the need to revive Maoist thought, warning that failing to do so would result in the demise of the CCP and “chaos” across China.)

Another explanation for Xi’s otherwise counterintuitive move last week is that Beijing is seeking to force the KMT to deliver more political concessions by playing the more Beijing-friendly parties (Yok’s, Hsu’s, Chang’s) against Ma’s party, though Beijing’s ability to do so would be severely undermined by the lack of appeal that those parties have with Taiwanese voters.

Two other options present themselves. One is that Xi’s advisers are so bad as to believe that Taiwanese indeed share the “dream” of unification the Chinese leader was referring to last week. Given the deeply flawed nature of authoritarian regimes, this wouldn’t be the first time that the man at the top was denied intelligence that contradicts his views of the world. Another possibility is that the crises in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, added to pressures that are unknown to us given China’s opaque system and signs that Taiwan is “slipping away,” may have combined to create a sense of panic among the CCP leadership, forcing it to emit edicts that threaten to undo years of calibrated policy on the Taiwan “issue.

Whatever the explanation, Xi’s about-face presages greater tensions across the Taiwan Strait, and perhaps an intensification of Beijing’s assault on Taiwan’s democratic institutions.

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