Xi Jinping’s early focus on Taiwan

By Fan Shih-ping 范世平  / 

Fri, Nov 23, 2012 - Page 8

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.

Swing voters may not expect the KMT to offer them anything better as a result of its cross-strait policies, but they will worry about what they might lose if cross-strait relations do not continue as before.

If the economy is this bad now, even though economic and trade relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are closer than ever and Chinese tourists are pouring into Taiwan, then is it not conceivable that it might get even worse if cross-strait relations became tense again?

In January last year, DPP Central Standing Committee member Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) proposed a “constitutional consensus” (憲法共識) formula for cross-strait relations, but faced a lot of criticism for it from within his own party. The Chinese government does not accept it either.

As for the KMT, it ridiculed Hsieh’s “constitutional one China” (憲法一中), and “constitutions with different interpretations” (憲法各表) proposals, saying that they were the same as its own “one China with different interpretations” (一中各表).

DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌), his predecessor Tsai and other potential candidates for the nation’s top job are trying to think how to get out of the tight spot they are in over the “1992 consensus.”

However, DPP mayors and county commissioners in central and southern Taiwan are not keen on seeing such a breakthrough, and the party’s traditional supporters are not anxious to see it happen either.

If this goes on, the DPP will have to resort to tossing the thorny issue of whether to recognize the “1992 consensus” back into the hands of the KMT and CCP by making it known that it will only be possible for the DPP to recognize the “1992 consensus” if the CCP recognizes the idea of “one China with different interpretations.”

However, now that Hu has mentioned the “1992 consensus” in his political report to the CCP’s 18th Party Congress, causing the phrase to be written into the party’s official documents for the first time, such an opportunist approach by the DPP would not win the party much trust from the public.

China’s 12th National People’s Congress is scheduled to go into session next year, and personnel changes will have to be made in the People’s Central Government, also known as the State Council.

In addition, “seven-in-one” municipal and local elections will be held in Taiwan in 2014. The surest way to prevent cross-strait issues from affecting those elections is for Xi take over where Hu left off and keep on working along the same lines, in the realization that it is sometimes better to leave things as they are.

One important political achievement that would be a continuation of Hu’s policies would be for the two semi-official bodies responsible for handling cross-strait dialogue — China’s ARATS and Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation — to set up offices in each other’s territories. Given these considerations, we will probably have to wait until after 2014 for Xi’s own Taiwan policies to become distinct.

Agreements about cross-strait economic cooperation have already been inked and implemented during Hu’s tenure, so if Xi is to make any breakthroughs, they will probably come in the form of cultural agreements.

However, culture is part of the social superstructure and as such is still quite politically sensitive. Notably, China may make it clear from the outset that, in its view, people living on both sides are “all Chinese” and “all part of the Chinese nation.” Such issues of cultural identity are likely to be raised alongside those belonging to the economic base, such as cultural and creative exchanges and mutual visits by arts groups.

When issues of identity are raised, they are sure to become matters for attack and defense between Taiwan’s rival pan-blue and pan-green political camps.

The next wave of cross-strait negotiations is going to be fraught with difficulty if, as seems likely, the process is subject to heavy criticism by the DPP, and this may even have an impact on the outcome of the 2016 general elections.

While Xi’s early succession as chairman of the CMC will enable him to get a firm grip on power, it also means that he will have to shoulder responsibility for the successes or failures of China’s Taiwan policies earlier than would otherwise have been the case.

Fan Shih-ping is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.

Translated by Julian Clegg