New Leaders: New Attitude?

Recent examples have some concerned that Beijing is taking a tougher line on a number of issues, including cross-Strait relations.

In the lead-up to the once-in-a-decade Chinese leadership transition in November, most experts on China agreed that new party chairman Xi Jinping was unlikely to institute any drastic changes in Beijing’s foreign policy — at least initially — as the dust settled and Beijing ensured a smooth transition. However, contrary to predictions of continuity, the past three weeks have instead shown signs of a rapid hardening of China’s positions on a number of issues,, a worrying development for stability in the Asia Pacific.

No sooner had the composition of the new Politburo been made public than the Hainan People’s Congress announced new regulations that, depending on how one interprets them, gave Chinese maritime authorities the legal right to inspect, detain or expel foreign ships “illegally” entering waters under Hainan’s jurisdiction, which may or may not extend all the way to the Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea. The text of the regulations had enough built-in ambiguity to give Chinese authorities room to maneuver, while its issuance by a local government could allow Beijing to backtrack if foreign reactions are too hostile. Nevertheless, the new rules once again increased tensions in an area that had enjoyed relatively calm since last summer’s crisis, and underscored a growing willingness on Beijing’s part to disrupt the status quo by creating new facts on the ground.

Equally daring, given the progress that has occurred since 2008 in relations between China and Taiwan under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was Beijing’s unilateral announcement on November 29 that this year’s Chinese Music Charts Awards will be held in Taipei on December 29 — an announcement that was made before the Taiwanese government had had time to review the project. The move is akin to organizing a party at someone else’s house, inviting various guests and making provisions of alcohol and snacks all before informing the owner of the house that the venue is to be his living room.

Adding insult to injury, even before the various government agencies involved in a “joint commission” comprising the Ministry of the Interior, the National Immigration Agency and the oftentimes Sino-centric Ministry of Culture sat down to evaluate the proposal — a meeting was held on December 4, but no conclusion was reached— Chinese travel agencies were already offering various tour packages to Taipei to attend the end-of-year event at the Taipei Arena. A second meeting to review the matter will be held next week.

Readers who worry about possible “secret” deals will find it interesting to learn that among the alleged would-be organizers of the event in Taipei are Chao Shao-wei, the brother of Chao Shao-kang, a former chairman of the pro-unification New Party and current chairman and general manager of the Broadcasting Corporation of China, as well as a number of New Party Taipei officials, among others.

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Although since 2004 Taiwanese artists have been included in the Chinese Music Charts Awards, which is celebrating its 20th edition this year, this is the first time the organizers are seeking to hold the ceremony in Taiwan. The decision to hold the event in Taiwan at this juncture is a clear indication that for Beijing, arts and politics can serve the same purpose: While the ceremony is not organized by the Chinese government, it is hard to imagine that the organizers would not have consulted Beijing before deciding to hold the event in Taiwan, a “renegade” province that China seeks to “reunify.” Furthermore, the inclusion of Taiwan alongside Hong Kong in one of the two categories (the other being “mainland China”) is problematic to the majority of Taiwanese, as it is seen as putting Taiwan on par with the Special Administrative Region, which was returned to China by the United Kingdom in 1997.

While Taiwanese authorities said they had three options in dealing with the request —accepting, refusing, or accepting with conditions — the pressure will now be on green lighting the project, if only by Taiwanese artists, who would be loath to see themselves excluded from the oldest and one of the most popular music chart awards in China (at this writing, word on the street has it that the event will be conditionally approved). This puts the Ma Ying-jeou administration in a very difficult situation, as turning down the application would risk undermining its relations with Beijing, while green lighting it post facto will undermine Taipei’s legitimacy as the government of a sovereign country, which is likely Beijing’s aim.

As with the controversy surrounding the new People’s Republic of China passport, the Ma government’s insistence on improving relations across the Taiwan Strait (often times on Beijing’s terms) makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Taipei to stand up to Chinese pressure, which thus compels it to adopt policies that often times run counter to the interests of the majority of Taiwanese. While some could regard a music award as a minor event, the injury upon Taiwan’s sovereignty, along with the symbolism of the Taiwanese government’s acting as an authority that is peripheral to Beijing, would be immense. China has a long history of belittling Taiwan’s sovereignty at various international venues. This time around it seeks to move the battlefield to the Taiwanese homeland, which is a significant escalation. If Taipei gives in, rather than seek the steady progress in cross-strait relations that took place under Hu, Beijing could be emboldened to seek far, far more, and to do so much earlier than expected.

All of this has occurred within three weeks of Xi assuming control of the CCP. Analysts, this author included, had long assumed that Xi wouldn’t initially venture far from the cautious policies of his predecessor. Maybe we were wrong.