In the last week of 2016, the Chinese-language media began buzzing about the possibility of a significant change in the Taiwan policy apparatus within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). According to one report in the Taiwanese media outlet Wealth Magazine (財訊), the head of the PRC State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), may soon be replaced by Shanghai Municipal Committee United Front Work Department Director Sha Hailin (沙海林).
The alleged personnel change will reportedly take place before an upcoming meeting of the CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group (TALSG; 中共中央台灣工作領導小組會議) in February 2017, after the lunar new year. The TALSG is the supreme policymaking body in the PRC’s party-led system that designs and spearheads policies government wide.
Zhang has held the office of TAO director since 2013. He replaced Wang Yi (王毅), who now serves as foreign minister. Wang was in his post as head of TAO for five years between 2008 and 2013; his immediate predecessor, Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), served in the position from 1997 to 2008. If Zhang is indeed replaced in February, he would be one of the shortest-serving directors to hold the title, second only to the first director, Ding Guangen (丁關根), who served for just two years (1988 to 1990) before becoming head of the CCP Central Committee’s United Front Work Department (中共中央統戰部). Not yet at retirement age (he is currently 63 years old), the reports were not clear about where Zhang will be reassigned if he is, in fact, removed.
Prior to his post at TAO, Zhang worked his way up the bureaus of the CCP Central Committee’s International Liaison Department (中共中央對外聯絡部)—which serves both policy formulation and intelligence functions for the Party—ending up as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2008-2013, before being assigned to lead the implementation of Xi’s Taiwan policy.
Taiwan is a core issue for the CCP. At a November 2016 meeting with the leader of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (KMT), Xi Jinping reportedly told the visiting chairwoman that “The Communist Party would be overthrown by the people if the pro-independence issue was not dealt with.” This is also a critical year for Xi since there will be a power transition taking place during the 19th Party Congress in the fall. Many experts see the Party Congress as a test of Xi’s expanding grip on power, and replacing the head of the TAO—which is in charge of implementing Taiwan policy set by the TALSG—may be seen as an attempt for Xi to exert more control in redirecting its failing Taiwan policy. Sha is considered part of Xi’s inner circle.
In the speculative fervor leading up to his reign, Xi was considered among the Chinese leaders who “know Taiwan [faction]” (知台派), due in part to his long background in Fujian (1985-2002) and as party chief of Shanghai and Zhejiang, an identity that perhaps portended an “opening up” in the PRC’s irredentist Taiwan policy. Yet, Xi’s administration has overseen a hardening of the PRC’s positions on Taiwan, which has led to a widening disconnect between the people of Taiwan and the Beijing government.
Unlike Zhang, Sha will already be a known quantity in Taiwan if he becomes the TAO director. Most recently, Sha was sent as Shanghai’s representative to the annual Taipei-Shanghai Forum last August, which is typically hosted by the mayors of the two cities. As the former PRC Ambassador to Ireland and trained under the United Front Work Department system, Sha is a seasoned diplomat and steeped in the tradecraft of political warfare work.
Since 2012, Sha has been in charge of United Front operations in Shanghai, a city with the largest population of people from Taiwan working and living in the PRC. In 2010, there were reportedly 700,000 people from Taiwan living in the city alone (this is not including the migrant business community). During his speech at the Taipei-Shanghai Forum, Sha noted that around 550 Taiwanese work in Shanghai’s high-tech sector, high schools and hospitals; around 2,200 Taiwanese students enroll in Shanghai universities and high schools every year; and around 30,000 Taiwanese started businesses in Shanghai in 2016.
Whether or not reports of the personnel change are true, the Party leadership will be loathe to admit that its Taiwan policy has failed in spite of the many clear signals pointing in this direction. While it has long been known that Beijing’s formula for unification under “one country, two systems” （一國兩制）is completely unacceptable to the people of Taiwan, the Xi administration continues to insist on it as the only model. The need for a change in the PRC’s approach to Taiwan should have been clear in the aftermath of the student-led Sunflower movement in March 2014 and, ultimately, with the landslide defeat of the Nationalist Party in Taiwan’s 2016 presidential and legislative elections. Yet, possibly appointing someone steeped in the united front system will likely raise more questions about Beijing’s motives.
There are signs that the PRC may be considering alternative approaches to Taiwan. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) Institute of Taiwan Studies (中國社會科學院台灣研究所)—reportedly staffed and funded by the Ministry of State Security—has been headed for a decade by Yu Keli (余克禮), who was replaced in 2013, ostensibly due to his reaching retirement age. The new head, Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), attended a cross-Strait dialogue in late November 2016 in Guangxi, and stated that Beijing, “does not oppose the idea of the 1992 consensus being substituted by a creative alternative.” It remains to be seen if Zhou’s statement signals a genuine offer from Beijing to discuss alternative formulas in the PRC’s Taiwan policy. In any case, whether or not a change in personnel will take place, it behooves Beijing’s leaders to unfreeze dialogues with the Tsai government and update its irredentist policy towards Taiwan for the 21st century.
The main point: Whether or not a change in personnel will take place, it behooves the leaders in Beijing to change its policy towards Taiwan.
Correction: The earlier version of this article omitted Xi Jinping’s long tenure in Fujian.