China’s shifting rhetoric towards Taiwan explained

Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.

In late October 1950, Mao Zedong ordered hundreds of thousands of People’s Volunteer Army soldiers to cross the Yalu River and join the Korean War, fighting against US, UN and South Korean forces.

On the side of the Americans was the most advanced air force, navy, and weaponry in the world, including the atomic bomb. On the Communist side, the Soviets were keeping their distance from the troubled Peninsula, with Joseph Stalin refusing to send troops to the conflict.

With Beijing standing alone, Mao’s only strategic advantage was China’s substantial population and the willingness of its more ideological members to die for the new China. Looking back at it now, that 1950 decision by Mao was, to say the least, an major gamble that could very easily have be lost—indeed an almost suicidal move for both himself and his country. So why take it?

Leaders in Beijing, from 1950 til today, have shared a strong sentiment that they bear a responsibility to return China to the old glory of its ancient empire. It was, they believed, the destiny of themselves as well as all Chinese people to sacrifice and pursue that restoration. This zealous belief goes some way to explaining the foreign policy making of the People’s Republic of China, of which its intervention in the Korean War was a prime example.

Skip forward 67 years to last October’s National Congress of the Communist Party of China. There, China’s President Xi Jinping consolidated his position as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao, renewing his term as General Secretary of the Communist Party and having his own ideology written in to the party’s constitution. Towards the end of opening speech to the congress, Xi chose to stress not the urgent economic issues facing China nor the still-tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. Rather, he issued a warning to Taiwan:

“We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”

This “any six” doctrine signaled a tougher approach by Xi to gaining sovereignty over Taiwan. Reacting to Xi’s pledge, Taipei said that only the Taiwanese people could decide their future. Since coming to office in 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen has not submitted to Beijing’s demand that she recognise and accept the “One China” policy.

Thus year, Xi officially began his second term as president. At the end of this keynote speech, he pressed yet harder on the Taiwan issue. “Every inch of our great motherland’s territory cannot be separated from China,” Xi said. “All acts and tricks to split the motherland are doomed to failure and will be condemned by the people and punished by history.”

Taipei fired back, stating: “Taiwan is a sovereign and independent nation. China cannot change this fact.

Some may speculate that Xi is planning to deliver his final resolution on the Taiwan issue in the coming years; however, such exchange of hostile rhetoric between Beijing and Taipei is not new.

The harder China presses Taiwan, the less likely Taiwan is to succumb to China. After many previous series of escalating moves, China has always changed tack in favour of more peaceful policies. Years later, of course, it will become belligerent again and fires off another round of verbal abuse, and so on and so forth. Tracing it back over the decades, the rhetoric from Beijing to Taiwan can be categorized into four areas.

Table 1 provides examples demonstrating how these four tacks have formed a cycle over the years.

pic 1
*Historical quotes translated from “Cross-Strait/Taiwan/People.cn”

We can identify an implication for each category, the first of which is the core principle of family togetherness.

From the beginning of the People’s Republic of China, Mao lay this “togetherness” as the foundation of Beijing’s attitude toward Taiwan. He had made a delicate calculation in choosing to confront the Taiwan issue. Although he did not insist on Chinese sovereignty over Mongolia, which was part of China during the Qing dynasty and whose territory is 50 times that of Taiwan, Mao wanted to take Taiwan as an act of and for nationalism, believing that doing so could consolidate domestic unity against foreign rivals.

The strategic ambiguity on the part of the United States, back up by the prospect of aircraft carrier battle-groups arriving in the Taiwan Strait, forbade China from realizing its long held ambition for unification. Therefore, Beijing has instead stressed the “familial” relationship between China and Taiwan, and casting a great vision of a strong, unified China. Picking up from Mao, who had said “we are all Chinese,” Deng Xiaoping began emphasizing people-to-people contact over bilateral government relations. Likewise Jiang Zemin, Hu Jinato, and Xi Jinping have painted pictures of a brighter future shared by a unified China and Taiwan—a vision crucial for the Chinese Communist Party to keep its legitimacy.

Acting according to this core principle, Beijing has taken up both the carrot and the stick in dealing with Taiwan. This policy making has been similar to parenting; China has made military threats but taken no real action and has provided economic opportunities without asking for economic returns.

Mao stated early in 1956 that Taiwan could enjoy de facto independence and benefit from commerce with China. Deng’s “one country, two systems” approach was a continuation of this. Jiang expanded the cross-strait links and Hu forgave former independence supporters. After President Tsai did not accept the “one China” policy, Xi continued seeking to lure Taiwanese people to the mainland with preferential measures. Throughout these decades, and without explicitly using the “war” word, Chinese leaders have used metaphors and indirect threats to warn of the use of force if Taiwan were to declare formal independence.

Lastly, the bottom line of Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan is to avoid foreign interference. Mao and Jiang both clearly identified the United States as the foreign presence in this context.

Without naming Washington explicitly, Deng, Hu Jinato, and Xi Jinping have repeatedly warned of foreign influence in cross-strait relations. While Sino-American economic relations have brought benefits to both sides of the Pacific, the Taiwan issue remains from a security standpoint a flashpoint and cause for concern.

In sum, Chinese leaders’ long use of emotional, family-centric messaging in addressing the Taiwan issue, on both sides of the Strait, has become something of a hindrance to them potentially adopting more practical measures to seize Taiwan. This is a disadvantage for Taiwan because China will never give up this core principle. But the decades of playing the family card is also an advantage for Taiwan—one that may prompt some in China to ask whether they’re willing to kill their own family.

Let’s finish where we started: the 1950s. Three years after China entered the Korean War, even amid very heavy casualties, Mao insisted:

“If American wants to continue to fight, we fight. We fight till we win the war.”

Five months later, newly elected U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the armistice and the war ended. Since then, historians have studied Mao’s bold decision to join the war. Many debates and puzzles regarding it persist, but one takeaway seems clear: Chinese leaders have long paid out-sized attention to their nation’s pride, history, and projection of unity, particularly under the spectre of foreign interference.

With the same legacy, Chinese leaders will continue talking to Taiwan with a mixture of passion, anger, and hope for the future.

Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. He published article focusing on cross-Strait relations, American foreign policy and international political economy. Image credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Command.

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