On the first of this month, Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping met his counterpart from Taiwan’s Kuomintang, Hung Hsiu-chu, in Beijing. It was the first time the two spoke to one another as heads of their respective political parties.
The event highlights the continuing failure of Beijing, for all its evident power, to have its way with Taiwan.
During their meeting, both Xi and Hung expressed full support for the so-called 1992 Consensus, an understanding that there is only one China, that Taiwan is a part of that country, and that Beijing and Taiwan have their own interpretations of the situation.
The Communist Party believes Beijing is the sole legitimate government of that “one China,” while the KMT, as the Kuomintang is commonly known, maintains Taipei is.
The Consensus, which allows both “sides” to shelve the intractable issue of sovereignty, was the basis for the relatively quick progress on economic and other links that occurred when the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou was Taiwan’s president, from 2008 to this May.
“Our two sides share a common fate and we must resolutely uphold peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait based on the 1992 Consensus and its ‘one China’ principle,” Xi said on the eve of meeting Hung. Hung reciprocated with similar comments.
There is, however, a problem for Xi and the notion that China includes Taiwan. The KMT, which promotes the 1992 Consensus, has been thrashed in a series of elections, local and nationwide. In January, the party lost the presidency and, for the first time ever, control of the Legislative Yuan, the national law-making body. Taiwan’s current leader, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, has yet to affirm the Consensus, earning Beijing’s ire.
Beijing has attempted to punish Tsai and the DPP, as the ruling party is called, by ending business exchanges, cutting formal communication links, and limiting tourist visits. The punitive actions do not appear to have helped Beijing’s cause on the island.
The fundamental problem for China is that only a small, and declining, portion of the Taiwan population sees themselves as “Chinese.” An American Enterprise Institute study released late 2014, for instance, shows 60.4% of citizens say they are “Taiwanese” versus 3.5% responding “Chinese,” with the rest classifying themselves as both.
When Xi talks about “the Chinese people” and “Chinese nation,” as he does, he is alienating a large portion of Taiwan’s population.
And that is one of the reasons why the fiery Ms. Hung is unpopular at home. Her aborted run for the presidency—the KMT removed her as its presidential candidate mid-stream—helped the usually factious DPP score a resounding victory in January.
Hung makes the argument that the KMT has a responsibility to maintain exchanges with “mainland” China for the sake of Taiwan, but independence-minded Taiwanese suspect her real objective is to use discussions with Beijing to negotiate Taiwan’s absorption by the mainland.
Whether those fears are founded or not, she is now dividing her own party. A remnant seeks to put cross-strait relations at the center of the KMT’s platform while others see reform and localization as the keys to returning to power. The latter group looks to be more savvy because Hung’s China-focused diplomacy is not playing well on the island of 24 million.
“Taiwanese public and media also generally remain critical of the meeting,” writes Cary Huang, South China Morning Post columnist, about the Xi-Hung discussions. “They questioned the legitimacy of Hung as Taiwan’s representative in high-level talks and her claim to seek a peace accord with the mainland, without any authorization from the ruling government.” Huang also notes China’s “pro-KMT policy” can make the KMT even more unpopular.
Beijing may be playing this weak hand because it has no options. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Waldron told me this week, referring to the policies of Chinese leaders toward Taiwan, “They can’t win a vote, and they can’t win a war.”
The recent meeting between Xi and Hung suggests that, at least for the moment, China has lost its way when it comes to influencing the island that it so desperately wants as its own.