Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) has finally taken over from Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). What is surprising about this succession is that Hu has also resigned from his post as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC). This is certain to have a considerable influence on Beijing’s future policies regarding Taiwan.
Most observers thought that the transfer of power in the CCP would be handled as it has been in the past, with the outgoing paramount leader staying on as chairman of the CMC for a while to give his successor a hand with the task of governing the country.
Hu took over as CCP general secretary in 2002, and as state president in 2003, but his predecessor in these posts, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民), did not give up his post as chairman of the CMC until 2004. Consequently, Hu only formally took charge of China’s Taiwan policies in 2005. Only when Hu handed over his CMC powers could Xi take over as leader of the CCP Central Committee’s Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs, reshuffle its members, confirm appointments to the CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Affairs Office and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), and thus fully take charge of Taiwan-related work.
So, if Hu had not given up all his official posts at the same time, Xi would not have been able to fully take charge of Taiwan-related work until 2014 or thereabouts.
In 2016, Xi will see the first Taiwanese presidential election during his term in office. If Xi had taken over in 2014 and then the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) candidate got elected in 2016, it would be seen as an achievement for Hu’s Taiwan policies. If, on the other hand, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the election, Xi would not bear a great deal of responsibility, because he would not have been in charge of Taiwan policies for very long.
Under such circumstances, the best thing for Xi would have been to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Otherwise, if he intervened too much and supported the KMT too strongly, only for the DPP to take power in Taiwan, it would mean that Xi had been defeated in his first battle on the Taiwan front, and that would not be a good thing for him at all.
However, now that Xi has taken over as chairman of the CMC, it puts him in charge of Taiwan-related work at an earlier stage. Consequently, he will be held fully accountable for whether the KMT stays on in government after 2016.
Looking back to the period when Hu was in charge, the KMT was voted back into power in 2008 and then re-elected this year. If the DPP were to return to power in 2016, with Xi in charge, that would mean that Xi’s Taiwan policies compare poorly with Hu’s. The pressures that Xi faces make it a good thing for the KMT that he has taken charge of Taiwan policy early on, but it will make life more difficult for the DPP.
If the DPP does not manage to propose a better idea for a cross-strait consensus than the KMT’s so-called “1992 consensus” before the 2016 election, the same thing will happen again as when Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) proposed a “Taiwan consensus” as part of her campaign for January’s presidential election.
Although President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government is currently being pilloried for its domestic performance, when the next presidential election arrives cross-strait relations will still be a key consideration for centrist voters when deciding which candidate to support.