As China Rides High, a Downcast Taiwan Becomes More Vulnerable

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As China Rides High, a Downcast Taiwan Becomes More Vulnerable

China is convinced that history is on its side and that its political system is best – what does this mean for Taiwan?

As China Rides High, a Downcast Taiwan Becomes More Vulnerable
Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

After decades of living in the shadow of superpowers, the Chinese leadership today seems to believe it has developed a political system that is superior to any other on the planet. Combine that with the emergence of what is probably the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping and a party apparatus that feels it can finally get things done, and China could be forgiven for regarding itself as the new “shining city upon a hill.” That new sense of superiority has already manifested itself in the form of risky behavior in the East and South China Sea, and could have a substantial impact on Beijing’s “reunification” strategy for Taiwan.

Speaking in Taipei on December 26, long-time China watcher James McGregor argued that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary-General and President Xi Jinping is now the most powerful man in China since Deng Xiaoping. Unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, a somewhat out-of-date leader who never succeeded in getting the upper hand on the powerful Central Standing Committee, Xi has quickly seized control over the reform plan as well as the security apparatus, which the just-concluded Third Plenum made all the more evident, McGregor said.

With the Bo Xilai scandal, Xi’s CCP has also sent a powerful signal to other would-be challengers that defiance will not be countenanced and will be dealt with very swiftly, as Bo quickly learned. With the leadership in line and immense powers at his disposal, Xi is now in a position, as McGregor put it, to “use Mao Zedong’s tools to get Deng aims.”

While Xi’s ascension does not mark a return to the totalitarian rule under Mao, we now face a China that is more convinced than ever that history is on its side, a belief that was exacerbated by the Wall Street debacle and the global financial crisis. “The CCP believes it has surpassed democracy and that it now has a better system,” McGregor opined, referring to China’s “democratic centralism.”

Now, what does this means for the cross-strait strategy initiated by Hu, who if McGregor is right, never had a chance to truly flex his muscles? Will China retain the go-slow approach of economic engagement, or can we expect a sudden shift in policy? Although Hu’s CCP certainly regarded Taiwan’s democracy as a threat to the Chinese system, it never had sufficient ammunition to claim that China’s “democratic centralism” was in fact superior. Today, though, with a leadership in Taipei that suffers from single-digit approval ratings, political bickering, a stalled economy, and an industrial sector that is only a pale shadow of itself in much better years, Taiwan’s democracy seems to have lost some of its luster — at least in China’s eyes.

Seeing this, Xi and his close circle could conclude that rather than having to make concessions to Taiwan’s democracy, the Chinese model of governance might in fact be a better option for the island. Why offer a federalist system that accommodates Taiwan’s democratic way of life if a “re-unified” Taiwan would be more stable, and perhaps more prosperous, under the Chinese political model?

There are serious implications in this. While there is every reason to believe that the CCP’s aims have always been to slowly degrade Taiwan’s democracy — something that various cross-strait trade pacts could ostensibly facilitate — so as to minimize the contradictions that would exist in a “unified” China, a more confident CCP could now seek to convince Taiwanese and convert them to the virtues of its own system. In other words, instead of being destructive (undermining Taiwan’s democracy), China’s future approach could be regarded as constructive, as an alternative to an apparently discredited, or at a minimum dysfunctional, political system.

Doing so would achieve the same objective as that sought by Hu and his predecessors, which was to blur the contrasts between the Taiwanese and Chinese political systems (a similar phenomenon has been observed in Hong Kong). Only this time, Taiwanese themselves, or officials who Beijing succeeded in bringing to its side, would do the work on its behalf. Such “soft power” would be much more formidable a weapon to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese than Hu’s strategy, which all along was understood to be a destructive force — call it the “Trojan Horse theory” — or at best an attempt to buy out the island one ping at a time. (It is not impossible for the two approaches to be used simultaneously.)

There is no certainty that such an approach would work. Despite the appeal of a seemingly successful alternative political model, Taiwanese could very well decide to hold on to their hard-won democracy. This would be especially true if new leadership were to emerge that succeeded in inspiring Taiwanese, something that has been severely lacking in the past decade. In many ways, whether the Chinese success model under Xi appeals to ordinary Taiwanese will be largely contingent on the quality of future Taiwanese leaders.

As the presidential election of 2016 approaches, there is, sadly, reason to be skeptical. If President Ma Ying-jeou, who is limited to two terms, were succeeded by an equally uninspiring leader (given the likely candidates, this seems plausible), and if Taiwan as a result continued to underperform, the appeal of the Chinese alternative would be much greater. The more desirable the Chinese alternative becomes, meanwhile, the fewer concessions China would have to make to Taiwan ahead of possible unification, not to mention the added benefits of not having to explore the military option.

Conversely, a strong Taiwanese leadership and a rejuvenated nation confident enough about its resilience would compel the Chinese leadership to explore offers that go well beyond the flawed “one country, two systems” formula, and perhaps to explore more palatable alternatives (for Taiwanese) such as a federalist system — an offer that China would rather not make, as it would add a severe contradiction to the Chinese system, and perhaps prompt calls for similar treatment elsewhere in China. (There is another possibility, however. A hubristic China, even if it faced a strong Taiwan, could refuse to consider more charitable alternatives because of the belief in the superiority of its system.)

China is riding high, with a strong leadership fully in control and promising to get things done, while Taiwan is downcast, its leaders weak and uninspiring. Barring a sudden change in trends, Beijing’s job of bringing Taiwan on board could become much easier.