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Cross-Strait Relations Caught in a Time Warp

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China Power

Cross-Strait Relations Caught in a Time Warp

Beijing is dusting off the cross-strait playbook it used under the last DPP president. Will the old approach still work?

Cross-Strait Relations Caught in a Time Warp

Hung Hsiu-chu visits Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China, (October 31, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

History is repeating itself in cross-strait relations. Once again, faced with a democratically-elected government that Beijing finds distasteful, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has cut ties with Taipei – only to offer repeated olive branches to administration’s political rivals. That dynamic was on full display this week, when Kuomintang (KMT) party chief Hung Hsiu-chu met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, even while China has refused all official communications with President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Hung made sure to highlight the dichotomy. “Amid the suspension of official cross-strait communication channels, it is the KMT’s unshakeable responsibility to assist private organizations and help address relevant problems through the KMT-CPC communication mechanisms,” she said from Beijing.

The situation is familiar to Taiwan watchers. When the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian won presidential elections in Taiwan in 2000 and 2004, Beijing made no secret of its preferred candidate – Lien Chan, who ran unsuccessfully as the KMT’s nominee in both races. In April 2005, Lien, who was the KMT chairman at the time, made a ground-breaking visit to China. His meeting with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao, in Hu’s capacity as CPC secretary general, was the first meeting between KMT and CPC party chiefs since the Chinese Civil War.

The Lien visit made crystal clear what China’s approach to cross-strait relations under the DPP would be. Rather than dealing with the elected government, Beijing chose instead to build its relationship on the party-to-party level, dealing almost exclusively with the KMT. The message to Taiwanese voters was clear, as the KMT continued to build ties with China even as the government proper had its efforts rebuffed. From Beijing, Lien even pledged to set up the KMT’s own party-to-party platform for economic engagement with China, bypassing the DPP government entirely.

While in China, Lien decried talk of “desinification” in Taiwan, and urged Chen to hold more dialogue with Beijing – an ironic request, since Beijing had already decided it wanted nothing to do with the Chen administration. The CPC, for its part, gave Taiwan’s public a peek at the benefits that could be theirs, offering to end tariffs on fruit imports from Taiwan and remove restrictions on mainland tourists visiting the island. China Daily drove the CPC’s point home by writing at the time, “However, it is up to the Taiwan authorities headed by independence-minded DPP leader Chen Shui-bian whether the offerings will be accepted and implemented.”

Lien’s visit was a win-win for the KMT and CPC. The KMT could showcase itself as the “responsible” party in cross-strait relations, able to bring home the goods from China. Meanwhile, Beijing could point to a Taiwanese political leader saying all the right things about the “Chinese nation” spanning the Taiwan straits, and denouncing “Taiwan independence” as going against the “well-being” of the people. That played well for Beijing’s domestic audience at a time when Taiwan seemed in danger of slipping away for good.

Fast forward 11 years, and Taiwan is once again under DPP rule. Current President Tsai has pledged to uphold the “status quo” in cross-strait relations and stressed that she is open to dialogue with Beijing. However, she has not met Beijing’s constant demand for an overt embrace of the 1992 consensus, which holds that there is one China but leaves each government free to claim to be that “China.” In response, China appears to have dusted off its Chen-era playbook, and is prepared to give Taiwan’s elected government the cold shoulder while feting opposition politicians.

Hung’s visit served the same purpose as Lien’s for the KMT and CPC. For Beijing, it provided a platform for Chinese and Taiwanese officials to extol the virtues of the 1992 consensus; for Hung and the KMT, it was meant as a reminder to the Taiwanese public that their party has a seeming monopoly on cross-strait dialogue.

Hung’s visit is just the highest-profile example of this strategy. Local-level exchanges involving KMT officials are allowed to continue, while their DPP counterparts are punished for their party affiliation. The annual city forum between Taipei and Shanghai, for example, took place as scheduled in August. Sha Hailin, the Shanghai official who headed the city’s delegation to Taipei, was blunt about the reason, saying Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s respect for the 1992 consensus had made continued exchanges between Taipei and Shanghai possible (Ko is an independent). Visits to local governments in Taiwan are contingent on such a “political consensus,” Sha said. Invitations to visit China are dispersed on the same basis — in September, China hosted a delegation of eight local government leaders from Taiwan, six affiliated with the KMT and two independents.

China’s playbook is clear – what’s less clear is whether it will work this time around. Hung is certainly not a perfect interlocutor; she was ousted from her own party’s presidential ticket just months before the 2016 election due to her abysmal polling numbers. On cross-strait policy in particular, Hung pronounces policies far outside the mainstream. Witness, for example, her recent call for a peace deal with China, which Hung says is the spirit behind the KMT’s new “peace-centered” policy platform.

In particular, the new party platform removes the latter half of the “one China, different interpretations” formula that underpins the 1992 consensus – leaving open the question as to how Taipei and Beijing can share the same interpretation of “one China” without a radical change in the status quo. Notably, the status quo – de facto statehood without any move toward de jure independence – has the overwhelming support of most Taiwanese.

The Taiwanese public is not ready for “one China, same interpretations,” as Hung famously put it during her aborted campaign, or for a peace deal, which would require moving beyond economic to political negotiations. Former President Ma Ying-jeou called for a peace deal in his reelection campaign in 2012, but found it politically impossible to move forward with such plans.

In other words, Hung wants to more forward on cross-strait ties, even while the rest of Taiwan is taking a pause reconsider the pros and cons of the current relationship. As China Post pointed out, a key difference between Hung’s visit and Lien’s is that, this time, the KMT itself is split on the wisdom of Hung’s trip. With the party having been dealt a stinging blow in the last two rounds of elections — local polls in 2014 and national elections in January — there is dissent within the ranks about the wisdom of being seen as the “pro-China” party. Thus, KMT “legislators called on Hung to be sensitive to the KMT’s current image problem, pleading for her to make ‘certain statements’ at ‘appropriate settings,'” China Post reported.

If even the KMT is having doubts about repeating the Chen Shui-bian era blueprint for cross-strait relations, Beijing should take heed.