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Xi Jinping Turns the Screws on Taiwan

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China Power

Xi Jinping Turns the Screws on Taiwan

The government in Beijing is upping its pressure on Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou as he nears the end of his presidency.

Xi Jinping Turns the Screws on Taiwan
Credit: Xi Jinping image via

Not unlike other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes throughout history, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always had a paranoid streak, whose stridency has ebbed and flowed according to the times. In periods of high instability, such as during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP leadership went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate its enemies — real and imagined. Unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and signs that Taiwan may be “slipping away” after half a decade of cautious rapprochement, seem to have engendered a new phase of paranoia in Beijing, as evidenced by the detentions of and travel restrictions imposed against dozens of Chinese individuals in recent months.

Those measures have been accompanied by an increasingly xenophobic line in Zhongnanhai. President Xi Jinping, the hoped-for reformer who, as it turns out, is very much the strongman, has repeatedly warned against “pollution” by Western values and has directed the implementation of policies to counter such nefarious influences. Chinese agencies and propaganda outlets, meanwhile, claim to have uncovered “evidence” of several plots hatched abroad to destabilize China.

If we believe the rhetoric, Uyghur “terrorists” from Xinjiang have been acting on behalf of foreign organizations and Taiwanese “separatists” are pawns of American and/or Japanese forces. Meanwhile the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, which has brought part of the metropolis to a standstill, is said to have simultaneously been funded, scripted, fomented, and influenced by a plethora of disparate foreign groups, including the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED)Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai, the CIA, British agents, the Oslo Freedom Forum, and out-of-favor Taiwanese politicians. Even American jazz musician Kenny G, who briefly visited a protest site last week, was sniped at by Chinese authorities.

Besides highlighting a heightened sense of paranoia in China, which is fueled in part by the growing sense of “us versus them” that naturally accompanies budding nationalism, the emphasis on foreign forces is a political tool used by Beijing to downplay the severity of the crises. By blaming external agents, the CCP hopes to minimize the importance, scope, and reach of the movements to portray them as a misguided minority. It thus seeks to discredit their grievances with a domestic audience as part of containment efforts. Rather than stem from indigenous forces animated by legitimate grievances, the activists are either fools who are easily deceived by duplicitous foreign agents (who must be brought in line), or downright enemies of the CCP and, by default, China (who must be defeated). Of course the grievances are very real, whether it be broken promises in Hong Kong or repression in Xinjiang, and the locals are sufficiently intelligent and resourceful to organize without foreign help. But China doesn’t want its citizens to believe the dangerous — and potentially infectious idea — that this is the case.

Although the depiction of unrest as foreign-controlled is very much a rational move on the part of Beijing, the growing paranoia isn’t. In some cases, this may have led Beijing to miscalculate.

It would be tempting to regard Beijing’s recent behavior vis-à-vis Taiwan as part of that downward slide towards irrationalism. Since 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT was elected president in Taiwan, Beijing had showed a surprising level of sophistication, and no small amount of patience, amid its efforts to resolve the hugely sensitive conflict with the democratic island of 23 million people, which it regards as a “renegade province” awaiting “reunification.” Yet after nearly seven years of careful diplomacy, it looked like China had committed its first major faux pas late last month when President Xi overturned Beijing’s cross-strait policy by declaring that the “one country, two systems” (1C2S) formula, discredited though it may be in Hong Kong, was the only platform for dialogue between Taipei and Beijing. Although 1C2S has always been Beijing’s ultimate offer to Taiwan, Beijing had until now played along with the “1992 consensus” formula favored by the Ma Ying-jeou administration (“one China, with different interpretations of what ‘one China’ signifies”).

Xi’s sudden insistence on a formula that has no traction in Taiwan, not even within Ma’s KMT and much less within Taiwanese society in general, left many analysts wondering what the Chinese leader was up to (and secondly, who his audience was). We can only speculate on the causes. It may be that Xi is not receiving the intelligence he needs to make informed decisions on Taiwan. Another explanation would be that Xi, who is quite possibly the strongest — and arguably the most ideological — Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, is losing patience on the “Taiwan question,” which suffered a major setback in the spring with the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan (the parallels with Occupy Central certainly matter). Xi may have decided to draw lines in the sand, regardless of the political mood in Taiwan. Fearing that he may be losing control of the “peripheries,” Xi may have concluded that a tougher stance is the only way to bring about Beijing’s desired outcomes, especially as the CCP seems to be losing faith in the ability of President Ma and his KMT to deliver. Despite their claims to the contrary, Ma and his party were severely discredited by the Sunflowers.

It is only after having established this context that we can attempt to make sense of Beijing’s latest allegations against Taipei. On Monday, the Global Times, a subsidiary of the state-run People’s Daily, alleged that Taiwan’s National Security Bureau (NSB), the island’s top civilian intelligence agency, had been recruiting Chinese students in Taiwan to conduct espionage in China. Citing “related agencies,” the Global Times said it had identified three NSB agents who were responsible for 40 cases of recruitment since 2009 with agents active on as many as 20 university campuses in Taiwan. According to the report, the Chinese students were encouraged to take exams and join Chinese government agencies after returning to China to access sensitive information.

Taiwanese authorities have vehemently denied the allegations, despite one Chinese PhD student at National Taiwan University telling the state-owned Central News Agency that approaches by intelligence agencies were “a common phenomenon.” Though we should avoid assuming that everything the Global Times reports is a reflection of official policy in Beijing, the fact that the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) under the State Council has commented on the matter reinforces the view that the accusations against Taiwan are sanctioned by the state and therefore not mere media sensationalism.

Despite Beijing’s claims, it is unlikely that the NSB sought to recruit Chinese students. In democratic societies, the laws on intelligence activity on campus tend to be very strict. Furthermore, given that Chinese students are constantly under surveillance by their peers and must report to various Chinese agencies before and after studying in Taiwan, the chances that attempted recruitment by Taiwanese intelligence would be reported are extremely high, something that the NSB is surely aware of. Also, while some Chinese students appear to have taken a liking to Taiwan’s liberal democracy (a few participated in the Sunflower movement), others have hardened their position on China’s claims on Taiwan following their exposure to Taiwanese society. In a recent incident, Chinese students filed a complaint with National Chengchi University (NCCU) after staff referred to them as “Chinese students” rather than “Mainland Chinese students,” which they saw as the proper way to describe themselves.

Given the high risks of being exposed — and the political cost thereof — the NSB very likely stayed away from trying to recruit Chinese students, who moreover would not be expected to immediately have access to sensitive political or military information following their return to China. Other mitigating factors include likely guidance by the Ma administration to avoid intelligence targeting of one of the most visible symbols of cross-strait rapprochement, reported frustrations within the NSB at its inability to initiate new collection operations against China, and a recruitment strategy that in recent years has instead focused on recruiting businesspeople with access in China.

As such, the student spy allegations are probably false. Yet Beijing deliberately chose to play up the matter in a way that constitutes yet another blow for President Ma, who has touted the presence of Chinese students (more than 6,500 are currently enrolled in Taiwanese universities) as one of his greatest achievements.

So what do we make of all this? Why would Beijing, twice within a month, openly slap President Ma in the face, one month prior to major local elections and a little more than a year before Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections? One possibility is that Beijing has given up on the KMT — or rather, that it has chosen to continue pressuring the KMT while simultaneously working directly with pro-unification elements in Taiwan — following the Sunflower occupation, which succeeded in stalling implementation of the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and the follow-on trade in goods agreement. (Beijing may also have conjured the student spy allegations in retaliation for the controversy surrounding former Mainland Affairs Council deputy chief Chang Hsien-yao, who earlier this year was accused of passing secrets to China, leading to his dismissal.)

Against all odds, and largely due to social activism earlier this year as well as other factors inherent to democracy, the KMT may have fallen out of favor with Beijing. The CCP is aware that the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) could make a comeback in 2016, and remains unsure whether it can work with the DPP or should seek to discredit it altogether (the CCP appears to be divided on the subject, though there are now indications that it may lean towards the latter option). Given this, there are several indications that Beijing has therefore increased its United Front Work in Taiwan by relying on non-governmental institutions in the cultural, religious, and political spheres, as well as triad-linked organizations, such as Chang An-le’s Unification Party. Much of that strategy appears to have focused on influencing Taiwanese at the grassroots level (community leaders, or “Lizhang,” have been primary targets) with bribes and all-expenses-paid trips to China. Those individuals can then influence elections through “bloc voting” or vote buying (funded by China), or they can pressure legislators on policies regarding Chinese investment, among other things. For example, during TAO Minister Zhang Zhijun’s local visits on his June trip to Taiwan in June, the Mainland Affairs Council, the government body in charge of cross-strait exchanges, was excluded in favor of grassroots contacts. At some point during his groundbreaking tour, Zhang requested he not be accompanied by Taiwanese officials, saying he had organized his own meetings with locals. The request was granted, and it is not known whom the Chinese official met with.

With approximately 14 months left to his second and last term in office, President Ma is aware that his legacy — undoubtedly a major component of his decisionmaking — hinges on Beijing’s recognition. It now seems that Beijing is threatening to deny Ma his shot at making history through an emphasis on 1C2S and spying accusations and through the direct engagement of alternative social forces which effectively bypass government and KMT institutions. By doing so, Beijing may be playing pro-unification agents against the KMT to maximize its returns, with the implied message being: “If a KMT that abides by democratic rules can’t deliver, others will.” In other words, the CCP may be trying to force Ma to act on his fears of irrelevance (his entire presidency can be said to hinge on rapprochement with China, with the ultimate goal of securing a summit with Xi, and perhaps a peace agreement) by delivering more than he intends to — or more accurately, more than society allows him to. This pressure, in turn, may result in increasingly autocratic rule in Taiwan and further unrest in 2015 as civil society reacts accordingly. If that is the  case, then we can only conclude that Beijing’s plan is to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions in order to better align them with China’s authoritarianism.

Paranoia and political calculations are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in the Taiwan case they are two sides of the same coin; President Xi has harnessed both in order to increase the pressure on President Ma before he steps down in early 2016. Whatever Beijing’s policy may be, it is not irrational.