On Wednesday, October 18, President Xi Jinping of China opened the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress with 3+ hours-long speech. The title of his report was “Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.” Xi covered many topics from military, China’s foreign policy, pollution, among other things, but the focus of this article will be on what Xi regarding Taiwan.
On particular thing that observers were keeping an eye on was how Xi would address the “Taiwan question.” Would he use stricter language in dealing with Taiwan? Would he further chastise President Tsai Ing-wen? Would he focus on Taiwan, or perhaps the pressing issue of North Korea or China’s relationship with Donald Trump? Taiwan, and the world, would have to wait until about two and a half hours into Xi’s speech to find out.
Xi’s Taiwan section hit many familiar notes. This section, which came immediately after Hong Kong and Macao, began by further pressing Tsai (though she was not explicitly mentioned) to accept the 1992 Consensus. There is much debate over whether or not a consensus even exists, and if one does, what exactly it is: the Kuomintang (KMT, the current opposition party in Taiwan) argues that an agreement does exist. Former President Ma Ying-jeou (a member of the KMT) says that the 1992 Consensus is “one China, respective interpretations.” However, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, the party currently in power) recognizes that a meeting took place, but does not recognize the existence of a consensus. China views the 1992 Consensus as the “One China Principle,” even stating in a 2000 White Paper that the two parties “reached the common understanding during talks on routine affairs that each of the two organizations should express verbally that ‘both sides of the Taiwan Straits adhere to the One-China Principle.'” Note the subtle, yet important, difference between Ma’s position and China’s. The 1992 Consensus has a long and complicated history, but its significance cannot be denied. In regards to the 1992 Consensus, Xi said in his speech,
The 1992 Consensus embodies the one-China principle and defines the fundamental nature of cross-Straits relations. Recognize the historical fact of the 1992 Consensus and that the two sides both belong to one China, and then our two sides can conduct dialogue to address through discussion the concerns of the people of both sides, and no political party or group in Taiwan will have any difficulty conducting exchanges with the mainland.
The implication here is that since Tsai has not accepted the 1992 Consensus, Taiwan and China cannot have any sort of relations or contact. In fact, China cut off all official forms of communication with Taiwan after Tsai took office in May 2016 for failing this test. While Tsai has not explicitly accepted the 1992 Consensus in such terms—and probably never will—she has accepted the status quo forged under this agreement. In her inaugural address, Tsai specifically said,
We will also work to maintain the existing mechanisms for dialogue and communication across the Taiwan Strait. In 1992, the two institutions representing each side across the Strait (SEF & ARATS), through communication and negotiations, arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings. It was done in a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences. I respect this historical fact. Since 1992, over twenty years of interactions and negotiations across the Strait have enabled and accumulated outcomes which both sides must collectively cherish and sustain; and it is based on such existing realities and political foundations that the stable and peaceful development of the cross-Strait relationship must be continuously promoted.
Accepting it as “historic fact” and respecting the stability that this “agreement” brought has not appeased China. As a result, relations have been at their lowest point in years. The final part of this paragraph is a backhanded way of referring to Tsai’s DPP, and it lays all of the blame on the DPP for the current poor state of cross-Strait relations.
Nothing in the above quote is particularly new in how Xi has addressed or treated Taiwan since May 2016. It is standard boiler-plate language about the 1992 Consensus and how Taiwan is to blame for the current state of cross-Strait relations.
Next, Xi moved on to the benefits that Taiwan and its people would receive after Tsai bends to Xi’s will as well as what would happen after unification:
We are ready to share development opportunities on the mainland with our Taiwan compatriots first. We will ensure that over time, people from Taiwan will enjoy the same treatment as local people when they pursue their studies, start businesses, seek jobs, or live on the mainland, thus improving the wellbeing of Taiwan compatriots. People from both sides are encouraged to work together to promote Chinese culture and forge closer bonds between them.
Here, Xi is playing hardball with Taiwan and the fact that Taiwan is heavily dependent on access to the Mainland economy. Everything that Xi mentioned in the above quote Taiwanese people can already do. Granted, some of these have become harder since Tsai took office making this part of his speech a veiled threat of removal of access to these areas. Taiwanese people can still study in China; in 2015, over 10,000 Taiwanese students were studying at universities on the Mainland. Also, there is estimated to be over one million Taiwanese people living and working in China. Yes, these people do not have the same and equal rights as Chinese citizens (neither do American citizens), but they are able to do almost anything that they desire in China despite the current state of cross-Strait relations. The only way to achieve unfettered access would be unification, but that is not likely to happen: only 22.4% of the population supports unification and over 70% believe that Taiwan is a sovereign nation.
The final part of Xi’s Taiwan section has caused the most controversy for its seemingly aggressive attitude. Xi implicitly threatens to invade Taiwan—or any “Chinese territory”—that tries to separate itself from the People’s Republic:
We stand firm in safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will never allow the historical tragedy of national division to repeat itself. We have the resolve, confidence and ability to defeat separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in any form. 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.
While the above quote sounds like an ominous threat of invasion—and there are even reports that China has a secret plan to invade Taiwan by 2020—what Xi said is nothing new or groundbreaking. In 2005, the CCP enacted the Anti-Secession Law which says that China would use force to prevent Taiwan from achieving independence/seceding from China. Article 8 of the law states,
In the event that the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The issue goes even further back than the 2005 law. A 1993 Chinese White Paper addressed the issue of Taiwan’s independence and discussed how reunification would happen. Another White Paper from 2000 did not rule out the use of force to achieve reunification. How is what Xi said any different? He just reiterated what is already law. He did not offer any new take on the issue of Taiwanese independence and the Chinese use of force to prevent it from happening.
Overall, Xi’s opening speech was an exercise in chest thumping and a minor sabre rattling over Taiwan. He offered both a carrot and stick to Taiwan: if Taiwan joins China, its people will receive great benefits; if Tsai bows to pressure and uses PRC-approved language about the 1992 Consensus, then we can talk again; but if Taiwan tries to declare independence, China will respond with force. It’s the same language used in past speeches, but with some extra bluster and the world’s attention. Instead of overplaying the words in Xi’s speech—which is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the week—observers should pay close attention to whether or not any changes in actual policies regarding Taiwan are made over the course of the week. Look out for something new, not just a restatement of what we already know.
*This article was updated to include a more thorough history and discussion of the 1992 Consensus on October 20, 2017.