The gulf that separates Taiwan and China is getting wider (1)

Written by Daniel Jia.

Image credit: 习近平 Xi Jinping by China News Service/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY 3.0.

The Chinese Communist Party concluded its 20th National Congress with “a complete success”, as trumpeted by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Party’s Secretary General Xi Jinping secured a third term unprecedentedly.

Xi delivered a Report at the opening ceremony, the most important document published during the current Congress. The Report summarises the achievements of the Party in the past with particular emphasis on the preceding five years and lays out the Party’s roadmap for the coming centenary.

One section of the Report is specifically directed to Taiwan, along with Hong Kong and Macao, under the subtitle “Upholding and Improving the Policy of One Country, Two Systems and Promoting National Reunification”.

Xi sets the tone for “national reunification” by claiming that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan.” It would be more precise to state that “Taiwan” is the CCP’s Taiwan”, as Xi puts it in the same speech, “realising China’s complete reunification is, for the Party, a historic mission, and an unshakable commitment.”

Xi warned Taiwan that “We [the Party] will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.” At the end of the section, Xi boldly declared: “The complete reunification of our country must be realised!”

The question, then, is why the CCP’s “reunification” agenda faces increasing resistance from Taiwan?

The answers are in Xi’s Report and will be even more obvious compared to another speech given by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen a week earlier at a National Day ceremony on October 10.

The following are six takeaways from Xi’s Report that merit a close examination.

Governance

Xi promised to the Chinese people in his report to “build a country, government, and society based on the rule of law.”

China under the CCP has never been a country of “the rule of law”. While the CCP has been emphasising since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reform the importance of law in maintaining social stability, it has at the same time been actively altering the interpretation of existing laws and creating new laws to meet its administrative needs. Thus, China is, at best, a nation of “rule by law”. The latest revision of the Party’s Constitution at the National Congress to reflect and reinforce Xi’s personal vision highlights the arbitrary nature of Chinese law.

Xi’s pledge is the same old slogan being chanted for four decades without bearing a single fruit that could benefit the Chinese people and society.

By contrast, Taiwan is a “democratic, free, prosperous, and culturally diverse” society, as described by President Tsai. Tsai did not resort to the term “the rule of law” to boost confidence and optimism because it has been the most important cornerstone of Taiwan’s society even during its authoritarian era. The legal system in Taiwan is the continuation of the one established in the late 1920s. Because the legal codes were modelled after western-style, the ROC’s law has many aspects in common with those in modem Western countries. 

“The greatest duty for all of us living on this land is to do everything we can to give the next generation a better country and to give the world a better Taiwan,” Tsai concluded her speech by motivating the Taiwanese people to aim for an even brighter future.

From a legal system point of view, the structure and order of the society of China are lagging behind that of Taiwan by at least 90 years. China’s likelihood of establishing a true “rule of law” society in the near future after seven decades of inaction is bleak.

Prosperity

Xi put a great emphasis on the Party’s achievement in bringing prosperity to the Chinese people.

“We have, once and for all, resolved the problem of absolute poverty in China, making significant contributions to the cause of global poverty reduction,” Xi declared.

For a party that claims that “Working for the people’s wellbeing is an essential part of the Party’s commitment,” it does not sound like a great achievement to take 70 years to eradicate absolute poverty in China. But the reality is much worse.

The untold truth is not only that China’s official threshold for “absolute poverty” is much different from and thus lower than the international standard. China has quietly replaced the widely accepted international measurement, i.e., “living on less than US$1.90 a day”, with its own cut-off line of “earning income” without further definition.

In addition, while China has already advanced from a developing country to a mid-income country, China is still using the international threshold designated for countries with much weaker economies and low living costs to gauge its population under the poverty line.

Moreover, during China’s “poverty eradication” campaign, even the already lowered “property” threshold has still been subject to arbitrary change and interpretation at local levels.

Therefore, the CCP’s greatest First Centenary achievement is not much different from a fraudulent act.

Nonetheless, Xi presented a rosy picture to the Chinese people, promising to build “China into a great modern socialist country in all respects” in the Party’s Second Centenary.

Time will soon tell how well the Chinese people receive Xi’s Second Centenary promise.

In Taiwan, Tsai’s speech did not explicitly mention wealth and poverty. This is understandable. Taiwan’s per capita GDP is three times China’s, and Taiwan’s household income per capita will be UD$17,000 in 2021, or four times China’s (i.e., 30,000 yuan or US$4,000 per capita in 2021, cited in Xi’s Report). Taiwan has long passed the phase in which eradicating absolute poverty was regarded as a great accomplishment.

With the economy slowing down, unemployment going up, and the real estate market collapsing in China, China’s economic growth is on track to become the slowest among Asian emerging markets, as warned by the Asian Development Bank in September. As a result, countless middle-class families face the risk of being set back financially and falling into poverty again.

It took China 70 years to come out from an extremely poor economy left by Mao Zedong and become a moderately developed one. It would be much harder for China to escape the so-called “middle-income trap” stemming from rising labour costs and declining productivity that have been manifested in China in recent years and advance further to become a high-income country like Taiwan.

Equality

Although China is in name a socialist country, the reality is that ordinary Chinese enjoy few public services. Moreover, half of the population does not have access to basic social security protection (the 800 million peasants, for instance, are not covered by the state-funded employment-based retirement pension and healthcare programs), as reported in a 2021 article in the China Labour Bulletin.

To address inadequate public service and social inequality issues, Xi, in his Report, pledged to “maintain and promote social fairness and justice, bring prosperity to all.”

Xi’s solution to China’s lack of adequate social protection is to “develop a better multi-tiered social security system.” At present, the Chinese people have already been encouraged and often forced to finance a major portion of their medicare and retirement through savings and commercial insurance.

This can largely explain Chinese families’ high saving rates that have been puzzling the world for quite some time.

As for China’s wealth inequality, Xi also has solutions. “We will enhance the roles of taxation … in regulating income distribution.”

In his manual, the regulation is to “keep income distribution and the means of accumulating wealth well-regulated.” And it shows the real power of a communist state. “We will protect lawful income, adjust excessive income, and prohibit illicit income.”

Well, in a country where rule-of-law is still in the planning, the state holds an absolute power to decide, often retrospectively, what is “lawful”, “excessive”, and “illicit”, as shown repeatedly in the past and at present.

As China is entering economic turmoil and the government is struggling to keep the balance sheet, Xi’s recipe for eliminating wealth inequality is likely to take an easy path: depriving the rich instead of raising the poor.

In contrast to CCP’s social failure and Xi’s frightening solutions, Tsai, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, presented the government’s measures to enhance social equality and social safety protection for the Taiwanese people. “We have raised salaries, cut taxes, and increased benefits to reduce the burden on our people … significantly and consistently increased annual spending on social services.”

Tsai reassured the people of the availability of social safety protection to every member of Taiwanese society. “Continually strengthening our social safety net and ensuring help for all who need it is a duty our government must fulfil.”

In essence, “Working for the people’s wellbeing” — a phrase borrowed from the CCP’s propaganda slogan, is indeed what the Taiwanese government is doing.

This is the first part of a two-part analysis of the Taiwan-China comparison and perspectives. Part Two, which covers three more aspects, emphasises the fundamental diversion between Taiwan and China that sets the two societies apart.

Daniel Jia is the founder of consulting firm DJ Integral Services. He writes analytical reports on public-related matters, focusing on China-related cultural and political issues. There is no conflict of interest to be disclosed.

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