On November 30, 2016, Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷) stated in his opening remarks at a cross-Strait forum that China does not oppose finding a “creative substitute” to the “1992 Consensus” so long as it affirms that both sides belong to “One-China.” Zhou is the Executive Vice President of the National Society of Taiwan Studies (全國台灣研究會執行副會長) and the current head of the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Institute of Taiwan Studies (ITS) (中國社會科學院台灣研究所).
The gathering in which the suggestion was made, the Academic Forum of Cross-Strait Think Tanks (兩岸智庫學術論壇), is a multi-day conference held in China, founded by CASS, and co-hosted each year by Chinese and Taiwan academic institutions and think tanks.
The Academic Forum was established and first convened in June 2014, to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of CASS’s Institute of Taiwan Studies and aimed to build upon 30 years of progress in cross-Strait relations. A major impetus for the forum was the positive momentum generated by the meeting in February 2014, between the Minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Wang Yu-Chi (王郁琦) and the Minister of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Zhang Zhijun (張志軍)–the first official contact between the two sides since the Chinese Civil War.
The inaugural forum paid homage to this landmark event by featuring opening remarks from Li Yafei (李亞飛), Vice Chairman of the TAO and Vice President of its corresponding Association for the Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS). He commended the importance of the research undertaken by CASS’s Institute of Taiwan Studies and the forthcoming discussion among the participants and think tank representatives. Li went on, however, to espouse the importance of the so-called “1992 Consensus” and opposition to Taiwanese independence as the foundation of peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait. CASS Secretary General Gao Xiang (高翔) reiterated these views, asserting more explicitly that the then-opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) “pro-independence stance” served as the primary impediment. Accordingly, the conference discussion centered on deepening cross-Strait cooperation within the framework set by the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the People’s Republic of China.
As the DPP swept the local elections in 2014 and the parties mobilized for Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections, the October 2015 conference appeared to take on a softer tone, with greater consideration of the future of cross-Strait ties under a likely DPP administration (though the milder rhetoric may also have been due to less fanfare surrounding the event and the absence of government officials). Zhou, who became ITS director in 2013, called for the DPP to develop a “new model (新模式)” for cross-Strait relations, while representatives from KMT-leaning think tanks questioned whether the DPP could formulate an acceptable “alternative (替代方案)” to the “1992 Consensus” and noted the need to “stretch and even go beyond (延伸甚至超越) it.” Interestingly, the focus—at least according to publically available sources—was on what a future Tsai administration would do, rather than on China’s response.
Thus, Zhou’s recent hinting that the PRC would be willing to find a new formulation to serve as the basis for cross-Strait relations marks a shift. While other Chinese scholars and officials have before called for an acknowledgement of the “historical fact” of the 1992 Consensus and acceptance of its “core connotations” (the “One-China” principle) in lieu of outright acceptance of the Consensus, Zhou’s statement appears to be the first to explicitly indicate openness to an alternative formulation. In his speech, Zhou first reiterated the official government position on Taiwan, as outlined by Li and Xiang in their remarks. Beyond this baseline, however, Zhou noted that there exists a possibility for “creative” new substitutions for the existing framework, though this flexibility has its limits and should not be seen as a radical departure from existing policy. Zhou explicitly stated that both sides of the Strait belonging to “One-China” is a sine que non for cross-Strait relations and policy. Thus, “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan” policies remain anathema for Beijing.
His statement naturally raises the question of whether he is relaying the views of the Chinese government. Although there was speculation that he would be removed as head of the CASS Institute for Taiwan Studies for favorably analyzing Tsai’s inauguration speech, which did not explicitly affirm the “1992 Consensus”, Zhou’s retention of the role, his statements, and continued public involvement with cross-Strait issues suggests that he still enjoys the official confidence of Chinese authorities. Further, CASS, falls under the organizational framework of the State Council, and is a source of high-level briefing papers for senior policy makers on various foreign and domestic policy issues including Taiwan Studies.
Hence, Zhou’s remarks may be interpreted as a signal by Beijing that it may be interested in reversing the recent deterioration of cross-Strait relations or at least halting the negative trajectory. Supporting this assertion, a Taiwan participant noted that Zhou called for “efforts to eliminate cross-Strait pressure points” (著力消除兩岸壓力點). Such a move could be motivated by several factors, ranging from the broad strategic uncertainty that has beset the region in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration to perceived Japanese militarization amidst a deepening relationship between Taipei and Tokyo. Indeed, State Council Member and former Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, recently traveled to New York to meet with the incoming US National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn. Yang is believed to enjoy the personal confidence of Xi Jinping. Given the many flashpoints in the region and heightened volatility due to greater uncertainty, the Chinese government may be reassessing its strategy writ large. It is likewise too soon to tell if the December 2, 2016, Trump-Tsai call prompted another strategic reassessment.
If Beijing is indeed amenable to an alternative formulation to the “1992 Consensus”, then this shows a maturation of its approach to Taiwan—specifically in how it engages with the DPP. Following the tumultuous years under previous DPP President Chen Shui-bian, the PRC government appears to have applied resources to remain engaged with the DPP and its affiliates during the KMT administration through unofficial channels, such as think tank conferences like CASS’s Academic Forum, in order to keep abreast of DPP perspectives and to convey Chinese views. Zhou’s statements highlight not only the continuation of these efforts—specifically as official channels between Taiwan and China remain closed—but also represent a means for China to draw back rhetoric to fit strategic needs without committing to a very public and potentially risky policy shift at the official level. Despite these steps, the Chinese Communist Party continues to be clear in its preference for the KMT over the DPP as its negotiating partner across the Strait. Zhou was keen to emphasize that, in addition to continued adherence to the “One-China” principle, the two sides must not dismiss or devalue the historic role of the KMT in forging cross-Strait relations, particularly during the previous Ma Ying-jeou administration. On a related note, sources on the Taiwan side say that CASS’s Academic Forum did not extend invitations to DPP-affiliated scholars or think tanks, though it did seek pan-green individuals who later debriefed the party and called for future inclusion of DPP think tanks at the conference.
Furthermore, the onus for restarting relations and for devising a “creative substitute” is clearly still on Taipei. It remains to be seen if such an alternative is possible. To the PRC the basis for relations remains the “One-China” principle, while the DPP’s party platform asserts that Taiwan is “sovereign and independent” and “does not belong to the People’s Republic of China;” these seem to be inherently contradictory and incompatible.
Finally, the degree of flexibility in China’s position should not be exaggerated. Zhou himself was adamant that neither “extreme” nor “flexible” Taiwan independence will be tolerated and that China is willing to fight and shed blood over the island.
The main point: Zhou Zhihai’s comments show the potential for an alternative cross-Strait modus operandi, though it remains to be seen if the central government will adopt this strategy from its toolkit and whether the DPP is capable of coming up with a mutually acceptable formulation.
 For reference, the inaugural Academic Forum of Cross-Strait Think Tanks only included Chinese organizations as co-sponsors. In 2015, Taiwan’s Foundation on Asia-Pacific Peace Studies (亞太和平研究基金會) and 21st Century Foundation (財團法人21世紀基金會)—both blue or blue-leaning think tanks—served as co-hosts. 21st Century Foundation joined again in 2016. See: https://cass.its.taiwan.cn/zjlc/sy/201409/t20140904_7220489.htm, https://2011csr.xmu.edu.cn/Taiwan/Journalism?id=a653b09f-ec44-4176-a53d-fe745e01c93c, and https://news.sina.com.cn/o/2016-11-30/doc-ifxyawxa3181783.shtml.
 CCP’s 2007 17th National Congress used almost identical language regarding the need for Taiwan to recognize the “One China” principle as Zhou Zhihuai used in his speech: 「台灣任何政黨，只要承認兩岸同屬一個中國，…，什麼問題都可以談。」