Beijing Can’t Understand Taiwan’s Democracy

The Communist Party is baffled — and angered — by the new activism across the straits.

Same-sex activists outside the parliament in Taipei on May 24. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)
Same-sex activists outside the parliament in Taipei on May 24. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

As Chinese President Xi Jinping settles into a second term, he has received fawning accolades from leaders around the world. Yet as Xi’s power at home consolidates, the relationship between Beijing and Taiwan has degenerated sharply, thanks to the Chinese Communist Party’s blindness to generational shifts that have taken place on the island.

Over the past decade, the Chinese economy has continued to grow, consumer choices have expanded, and the CCP has tightened its vice-like grip on power. But while China’s political horizons have narrowed, Taiwan’s democracy has bloomed — and that has made the island nation harder and harder for Beijing to understand.

When Taiwan was a single-party autocracy, China could glower across the strait at its Cold War adversary. Though the two sides were enemies, they were mutually comprehensible. When Taiwan became a democracy but was still dominated by the Kuomintang, a party the Communists had long dealt with, China could manage. However, today’s vibrant and participatory society in Taiwan confuses and dismays the CCP.

But Beijing’s habitual apoplexy isn’t simply reactive — it’s also strategic. By making every single item a line in the sand, China slowly squeezes Taiwan’s room for maneuvering. In going nuclear over minor matters, the People’s Republic of China has unilaterally changed the rules of its diplomatic game with Taiwan.

Take the furious Chinese reaction to the Taiwanese premier’s first address to the legislature. William Lai, a popular physician-turned-mayor who had ascended to the post in a September Cabinet shakeup, uttered the words “Taiwan” and “independence” in the same statement. But he was actually pointing out that since the island is already de facto independent, there was no need for a formal declaration to that effect — it was a way for him to avoid further provocations on the issue and get back to the business of governing. Indeed, before taking office, Lai, once a fierce member of the independence camp, had already been testing a number of softer positions, suggesting his position with the phraseqinzhong aitai,” “One can reach out to China, while still loving Taiwan.”

Lai’s statements nonetheless prompted an enraged response, including a declaration that “People who split China will suffer by their own hand” and fervent condemnation from state media editorials and government spokesmen.

A key part of the problem lies in Beijing’s misunderstanding of democracy — a blind spot when it comes to the genuine aspirations of the Taiwanese people. China may suffer from a type of great power myopia, of that kind that Edward Luttwak has previously described as a “collective national lack of situational awareness” that “reduces a country’s ability to perceive international realities” and the complexities of other societies “with clarity.”

Because the Chinese Communist Party artificially stokes nationalist outrage for political cover, it assumes the phenomenon must be the same everywhere else. In the Chinese conception, popular sentiment is contrived — managed, propagated, or quashed — by powerful elites. When the ruling party controls the media, as the CCP does; cuts off most other sources of public information; and handicaps civil society, that is an easy assumption to make.

For many years, this was the modus operandi of the Kuomintang in Taiwan as well. While the two parties were ideological opposites, they operated with similar authoritarian habits. After all, the KMT and the CCP were both Leninist political parties with dictatorial tendencies. Both parties used torture and arbitrary arrest; both persecuted citizens for thought crimes. Both deployed secret police to monitor the populace, massacred protesting civilians, and murdered dissidents to enforce the party’s will. T.J. Cheng at the College of William and Mary has called them “political twins.”

But as Taiwan liberalized over the past three decades, becoming a lively, albeit imperfect, democracy, public sentiment has gained a strong influence on governance. At the end of the day, politicians are responsible to their voters, not the other way around — and only elected officials responsive to public input are likely to stay in office for long.

The fate of the Kuomintang is a case in point. Under its last presidential administration (from 2008 to 2016), the party ignored the Taiwanese public’s growing concern about China. It was out of touch with the everyday struggles of working citizens and took a paternalistic “we know best” approach to governing, which alienated many younger Taiwanese voters. The KMT responded to Chinese overtures and signed a cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, then later acceded to Beijing’s demands by trying to ram through additional controversial economic accords. This helped engender the Sunflower Movement — a massive student-led protest against the KMT’s violations of democratic norms in the party’s headlong pursuit of further agreements with China.

The combination of doubling down on hard-line presidential candidates, ignoring a coalescing Taiwanese identity, and disregarding the role of genuine civic movements was tantamount to electoral suicide. In the aftermath of its vicious thrashing in the 2016 election, there are questions of whether the KMT can even survive as an ongoing political concern.

Yet before, during, and after the most recent presidential election, the CCP has conspicuously pointed out how closely the KMT’s position aligns with China’s interests, and it trumpeted (in a rather menacing way) how wonderful this would be for Taiwan’s economy — not realizing these statements are anathema to many Taiwanese voters and ultimately render the KMT less attractive.

Throughout this period of change, Beijing has appeared unwilling or unable to cope with the rise of the Democratic Progressive Party, the longtime democratic opposition that now leads Taiwan. Since Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s candidate, won the election and became Taiwan’s first female president nearly a year and a half ago, Beijing has regularly expressed its unhappiness with her.

In direct response to the concerns of Taiwanese voters, Tsai — an avowed moderate with a doctorate in law from the United Kingdom — has opted for a more careful approach than that of her KMT predecessor. Most notably, she has chosen not to kowtow to the “One China” principle outlined in the “1992 Consensus.” This phrase was coined years after the fact, in 2000, and then utilized by the KMT in 2008 to describe the cross-strait negotiations of 1992, where each side of the Taiwan Strait essentially agreed to disagree. By mechanically intoning the existence of “One China [but crucially] with different interpretations” and intentionally leaving ambiguous the meaning of what “China” actually is, both sides could dodge the issue of sovereignty and move on to address more pragmatic concerns.

However, for a Taiwanese leader today, acceding to the idea of “One China” in the 1992 Consensus is a difficult precondition to swallow. In addition to being unpopular with DPP voters, this line prematurely boxes in Taiwan’s fate, instead of leaving the issue truly open for future generations to decide.

Though she declined to concede on this point of rhetoric, Tsai has avoided other provocations, and actively sought out new formulations to meet Beijing in the middle. In her May 2016 inauguration speech, Tsai declared her “respect for the historical fact” of the negotiations “in 1992” that led to “joint acknowledgements and understandings.” This near-acknowledgement is likely as close as a DPP president can get to saying “1992 Consensus” without inciting her supporters. Beyond repeated public and private statements of goodwill, her administration also dropped Taiwan’s annual bid to join the United Nations, because it was seen as needlessly provocative. These efforts have been duly ignored by Beijing.

Instead, the CCP has vociferously denounced Tsai and moved to further clamp down on Taiwan’s international space, bribing more countries to switch recognition to Beijing and blocking Taiwan from taking part in global events.

This year, Taiwan was pushed out of the World Health Organization’s policy-setting body, the World Health Assembly, in which it had participated as an observer since 2009. At a May summit to discuss conflict diamonds, the Chinese delegation “hijacked the microphone and loudly interrupted” the Australian hosts, insisting all Taiwanese representatives be ejected. Ugly interference by China also briefly marred the summer Universiade games, and in an especially petty move, Taiwanese visitors to the U.N. headquarters are now barred from entering the premises when using their Taiwanese Republic Of China passports as identification.

The CCP’s ire at Tsai seems to stem from a mistaken belief that political leaders can simply issue dictums to an obedient nation. In Taiwan today, the opposite is true: As a responsible elected head of state, Tsai must represent the aspirations of the people who voted her into office. The democratic reality is that Tsai serves at the pleasure of her constituents: She can continue to reach out to Beijing and maintain a friendly attitude, but if she simply ignores grassroots sentiments as her predecessors did, she could be booted from office. Despite these constraints, Tsai has gone out of her way to seek common ground. Unfortunately, China refuses to engage in dialogue and continues to denounce her, often in brutally personal terms, labeling every action defiant and “provocative.”

Fury at Tsai’s “provocations” has led to a series of spiteful cross-strait actions. For example, to apply economic pressure on Taiwan, Beijing limited Chinese tourist permits this year, though this spectacularly backfired. More visitors from Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia have increased tourism to Taiwan, while popular sites appear to be cleaner and more orderly, now that the influx of mainland tourists has settled at a lower, more sustainable level. The CCP also tried to entice Taiwanese mayors to undermine the Tsai administration, and there are whispers of covert “united front” campaigns to support more thuggish pro-China elements in Taiwan — some of whom allegedly showed up at a concert to assault student protestors.

But by cutting off direct communications and suffocating Taiwan’s international space, far from forcing a reset, the CCP has worsened cross-strait relations. Callous acts and a bullying attitude engender public ill will, which will eventually hamper continued outreach toward China by Taiwan’s leaders. After all, they cannot ignore for long the wishes of the Taiwanese public.

Even the DPP is already finding itself out of step with many young Taiwanese on issues such as LGBT rights. After the nation’s constitutional court ruled in favor of gay marriage, the DPP dithered on amending the civil code to allow for it, due to vocal opposition by a numerically small, but stridently loud, religious minority. With legislation on LGBT rights and other social justice measures stuck in electoral purgatory, there are increasing rumblings by young Taiwanese voters and legislators who are frustrated with the DPP. Talk of supporting alternative parties abounds — parties that are not only more socially progressive, but also more independent-leaning. The DPP will eventually have to tack to meet this challenge.

Chinese leaders frequently invoke the “new normal” in its pattern of economic growth. Likewise, given these new democratic realities in the Taiwan Strait, it is crucial for China to recognize that its erstwhile partner, the KMT, is unlikely to regain its past dominance. To maintain stable and peaceful relations across the Strait, the Chinese Communist Party will need to deal with the leadership in Taiwan, whoever is in office. That may mean joining in efforts to newly describe and creatively understand those relations. It can choose to act now and improve ties while Tsai and the DPP lead, or wait until even more radical Taiwanese parties join the fray.

By seizing the moment to act collaboratively, there are numerous social, cultural and environmental benefits to be realized that could remedy some of China’s own domestic troubles. Intense pollution and environmental degradation? Popular unrest and public protests? Rapid economic transformation in a globalizing world? Taiwanese society has faced all of these challenges and come up with some ingenious solutions.

In Taipei, disappointment has not yet hardened into resentment. During her Oct. 10 National Day address, Tsai once again extended a hand in friendship, celebrating 30 years of fruitful exchanges across the strait and declaring that “our goodwill has not changed.” She expressed her hopes that the two sides could build on this foundation and “seek a new breakthrough in cross-strait relations.” China did not respond.

Kevin Fan Hsu teaches International Policy Studies and Urban Studies at Stanford University. He co-founded the Human Cities Initiative.

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