China lures Taiwanese into ‘brainstorming’ talks on island’s future

Discussions take place as President Xi seeks to show progress on unification activity

China has started pulling mainland-based Taiwanese businesspeople and students into "brainstorming" sessions on the future of the de facto independent nation, as President Xi Jinping seeks to show progress in moving towards unification.

During the past month, officials from China's Taiwan Affairs Office, which sets and implements Taiwan policy, have invited members of the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland to "study sessions" and "discussion forums" on Xi's latest Taiwan policy lines, according to six members in Shanghai and the provinces of Fujian and Jiangsu.

Taiwanese students in Guangzhou and Chengdu said local authorities had organised meetings with Chinese student associations to discuss how Taiwan should be ruled after unification. And in Taipei, the Labour party, a splinter group with links on the mainland that advocates unification with China, held a forum debating Xi's policy proposals.

The push by mainland authorities follows a speech in early January in which Xi promoted "One Country, Two Systems" as the path for bringing Taiwan into China's fold – a formula long rejected by Taipei and which has been further discredited following Beijing's growing encroachment on civil liberties in Hong Kong, the territory where it was first applied.

Taiwan's president Tsai Ing-wen, with whom Beijing has refused to engage, greeted the speech with scorn. In the West, it was widely perceived as further raising pressure on Taiwan, as Xi said China would not renounce the threat of using military force against Taiwan, which it claims as part of its territory.

But cross-Strait policy experts view Xi’s speech and the recent “discussion” sessions as an attempt to fend off domestic pressure for an even harsher line.

"The reality on the ground is that Taiwan is not getting closer, it was not even under Ma Ying-jeou [Taiwan's former president]. So Xi wanted to buy himself some time," said Alexander Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taipei and former deputy head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the cabinet-level China policy body.

‘Complete unification of the motherland’

Huang said since China had failed to achieve a breakthrough during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, who pursued a softer approach to China and sought further economic integration with the mainland, Xi’s goal of “complete unification of the motherland” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was looking harder to achieve.

Apart from a summit with Mr Ma in 2015 shortly before the end of Ma's presidency, Xi had "achieved nothing in Taiwan policy in his first term", Huang said. "The problem is the 20th Communist party congress in 2022. If he doesn't show progress in his second term, some of the people he purged could use this against him."

Indeed the tone on the Chinese domestic scene on Taiwan is turning increasingly belligerent, with a senior military official threatening what he called “supporters of Taiwanese separatism” last month.

“If we are forced to use force to settle the Taiwanese issue, they will be held responsible. In other words, they will inevitably be considered war criminals,” said Lieutenant General He Lei, a former regional military commander and vice-president of the Academy of Sciences.

Some observers take such talk seriously. Su Chi, a former China policy official in Taiwan's cabinet and national security chief in Ma's first term, expressed deep concern over the risk of a Chinese military attack on Taiwan – even though defence experts think the People's Liberation Army is far from ready for a full-scale invasion. "It is not about invading and occupying. They could just decide to teach Taiwan a lesson," Su said.

‘One Country Two Systems’

Compared with such a scenario, Xi’s recent line indeed looks soft. In his January speech, China’s president said both sides of the Taiwan Strait should “explore a Taiwan model of ‘One Country Two Systems’”.

The recent seminars for Taiwanese businesspeople and students are presented as part of such allegedly open discussion, and Chinese academics are propagating the initiative as a first step on a concrete path towards unification.

"The raising of this important political proposition appears to foreshadow that the central government has made the Taiwan issue an important political agenda, and started progress towards cross-Strait peaceful unification," wrote Wang Jianmin, a researcher at the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in an article published last month.

Wang said Beijing was willing to give Taiwanese a say in how they would be ruled by China, and this reflected lessons learned in Hong Kong, where disagreements over national identity were undermining stability. He urged Taiwan society to “make a rational and wise choice”.

For Taiwan, however, such rhetoric is too far removed from political reality to be taken seriously. Even politicians from the opposition Kuomintang, which formally sees Taiwan as a part of one China, have taken pains to stress that Xi’s insistence on One Country, Two Systems was unacceptable because it removed all the ambiguity that would have allowed mainstream Taiwanese politicians to engage.

Those Taiwanese who are invited to Beijing’s unification seminars, however, are careful not to ruffle any feathers. “I had to go to one of those lunar new year gatherings with the Taiwan Affairs Office,” said a financial services professional from Taipei who has worked in Shanghai for more than a decade. “I smiled and said, of course I am in favour of One Country, Two Systems. And in my heart, I thought, screw you.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019