According to recent media reports, Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), head of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences — China’s highest institution for Taiwan studies — has stepped down and is to be replaced by China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations Vice President Yang Mingjie (楊明杰). This information has been met with great interest, as the institute is closely connected to the Chinese Ministry of State Security and its Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO).
Yang is 52 years old, which means that academics born after 1960 are now taking over in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) think tanks. Yang’s predecessor was 57 when he took over at the institute, meaning he is being promoted to a leading position at a younger age. In addition, Yang holds a bachelor of arts degree from Peking University and a doctorate from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, the best educational track record of all TAO heads.
The institutes, where Yang worked for 26 years, is a direct subsidiary of the Chinese Ministry of State Security. Yu Keli (余克禮), another former director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies, also came from the ministry, providing evidence that it is becoming more involved in Taiwan studies.
Could Yang’s appointment serve as a prelude to the replacement of TAO Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍)? Zhou may have turned 60, but the age limit for officials is not carved in stone.
After President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inaugural address on May 20 last year, Zhou said it was clear that Tsai’s cross-strait policy was flexible and that she was trying to create favorable conditions for a breakthrough. This expression of goodwill toward Tsai has been criticized as a mistake, and there were rumors that he would be made to retire.
Could Zhou’s sudden replacement be the beginning of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) adjustment to China’s Taiwan approach? Zhou was appointed head of the institute at the same time Zhang was made minister in 2013. This could mean that Xi is unhappy with these two officials who have been simultaneously involved with Taiwan, and he might also replace Zhang to bring in new blood.
This theory might have credence, as it has also been rumored that Zhang would be replaced.
Yang has not had much contact with Taiwan studies. His expertise is in arms control and antiterrorism, which implies that Xi wants to discard the promotional approach and look for people in other fields.
Yang also has a good understanding of US diplomacy, which is an indication that Taiwan is quickly becoming even more important in US-China relations following US President Donald Trump’s call with Tsai and recent rhetoric regarding Taiwan.
This is something the current Institute of Taiwan Studies team finds hard to handle, which is why Xi is making changes.
Trump only called Xi 22 days after his inauguration. This was of greater concern to Xi than to Trump, because by that time, Trump had already spoken with 16 other heads of state. Trump wants to create the impression that he does not care about China, which, in the words of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), could be described as “strategically taking the enemy lightly while tactically taking them seriously.”
When Trump implied that he would not accept China’s “one China” principle, the CCP questioned Xi’s approach to the US, so he was anxious for Trump to mention “one China” before the meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing next month.