Like most observers, the Chinese government was taken by surprise by the size and intensity of the Taiwan protests to the cross-strait services pact. As my colleague Shannon noted on this blog, late last week China and Taiwan were both still carrying on with cross-strait relations as if the Sunflower Movement had not taken place.
Beijing seems to have finally caught its footing, however, as the beginning of China’s response to the Sunflower Movement is becoming clear.
As the South China Morning Post reports, Chinese officials who deal with Taiwan and cross-strait relations have outlined what appears to be the initial response to the protests by the mainland. First, and most notably, Fan Liqing, a spokeswoman for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a press conference this week that China is hoping to increase its student exchanges with Taiwan in the wake of the protests.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
“We have long encouraged more exchange activities among students on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and are willing to provide more aid in this area so that young people on both sides can increase their understanding of actual developments in cross-strait relations,” SCMP quoted Fan as saying.
Additionally, Yu Zhengsheng—the Politburo Standing Committee’s (PBSC) fourth ranked official and the PBSC official in charge of the Taiwan issue—hosted a delegation of Taiwanese labor union leaders and called on them to support stronger economic ties with the mainland.
The moves are notable because students and labor unions were two of the key actors in sparking and sustaining the three-week protests that saw the protestors seize the Legislative Yuan and other government buildings. Fan, the spokeswoman from the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, outlined the Chinese government’s thinking on the issue. “We are willing to take a further step to listen to the opinions from various social sectors in Taiwan over cross-strait exchanges and co-operations so that we can allow more Taiwanese people to benefit from the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”
That China would respond this way to the huge protests against the cross-strait trade services pact isn’t altogether surprising. Even inside China, this is the approach that the government has generally taken to deal with emerging powerful interests. For example, after the economic reforms of the Deng era and the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese Communist Party perpetuated its rule by allowing new segments of society to join its ranks inside the Party. This strategy has been extremely successful.
However, I’m not sure the approach is likely to work in this case simply because I don’t think Taiwanese students and labor unions’ opposition to the services pact was born out of their misunderstanding. For example, student leaders were generally calling for greater transparency from the Taiwanese government in its approval of the trade services pact with the mainland. They made this demand despite the fact that the Taiwanese government had held numerous public hearings about the services pact.
Thus, it seems unlikely that Taiwanese students studying in China will make them more amenable to an eventual political unification with the mainland. After all, the Chinese government is hardly known for its transparency, and therefore its control over the government in Taipei would almost certainly make the latter less transparent rather than more so.
Similarly, the labor unions’ opposition to the trade services pact with China stemmed from their fear that the trade deal would negatively impact Taiwanese workers and the labor unions on the island. In general, they are probably right—free trade deals almost never serve to strengthen labor unions. Furthermore, this particular trade pact would’ve allowed Taiwanese firms to invest in more industries on the mainland, which would have allowed some of them to move their businesses from Taiwan to China, where labor costs are far less expensive. More generally, given the sorry state of labor unions on the mainland, it’ll to be tough to convince Taiwan’s labor unions that they would benefit from an eventual unification under the Chinese Communist Party system.
In sum, China’s initial response to the Sunflower Movement is predicated on the notion that the protesters’ grievances were based on a bunch of misunderstandings. This doesn’t seem to be the case, however.