After months of speculation about a pending shakeup within Beijing’s Taiwan apparatus, media outlets from Taiwan are now reporting that Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), who has been serving as the director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies (台湾研究所) at the government’s premier research institution—the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS, 中國社會科學院)—is stepping down.
Zhou began serving as ITS director in 2013, replacing Yu Keli (余克禮), who held the same position for a decade(2003 – 2013). Zhou, who was born in 1956, reportedly stepped down because he reached the retirement age of 60. Zhou’s supposed retirement ushers in a changing of the guard at one of the PRC’s leading research institutes on Taiwan. It should be noted that Zhou is still identified as ITS director on the institute’s website as of this writing.
Although Zhou is reportedly relinquishing his post as ITS director, he will retain his other title as the executive vice president and secretary-general of the non-governmental National Taiwan Research Association (全國臺灣研究會). The National Taiwan Research Association is part of the United Front system comprised of academics researching Taiwan across the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The president currently listed on its website is the late economist and former vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Cheng Siwei (成思危).
While never officially confirmed by the Chinese government, CASS-ITS is believed to be directly subordinate to the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Its funding and staff are reportedly provided by the PRC’s premier intelligence agency and ITS ostensibly serves an intelligence gathering and analysis function for MSS.
Zhou is reportedly being replaced by Yang Mingjie (楊明杰). The 52 year-old Yang (b. 1965) most recently served as associate dean of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (中國現代國際關係研究院). A graduate of the prestigious Peking University, Yang’s research has focused on arms control and Asia-Pacific security. Yang also spent several years abroad, including stints as a visiting scholar at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, visiting researcher at the DC-based Henry Stimson Center, and researcher at the Japan-based Institute of International Policy Studies.
According to an unclassified study released by the US intelligence community’s Open Source Center (OSC), CICIR is affiliated with the PRC’s Ministry of State Security. As the OSC study notes, “CICIR’s affiliation with the MSS is rarely acknowledged in the PRC media.” CICIR has a research institute focused on Taiwan policy studies. The current director of CICIR’s Center for Taiwan Studies (涉台事務研究中心) is Guo Yongjun (郭擁軍).
While Zhou was reportedly replaced because of reaching the mandatory retirement age, he had only been head of ITS for three years, compared to his predecessor’s decade in the same position. Another plausible explanation is that Zhou was dismissed in the aftermath of comments that he had made in late November at a cross-Strait conference in Guangxi province. Indeed, since Tsai Ing-wen has been in office, Beijing has been doubling down on the so-called “1992 consensus” and Zhou’s comments at that conference indicating that Beijing was open to alternatives to this formulation directly contradicted the official line. The official line was reiterated and reinforced by Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) in the most recently concluded Taiwan affairs meeting before the Lunar New Year.
Some observers believe that the change in personnel at CASS-ITS indicates an imminent shift in Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan. Such change is not likely in the near term, since policy is set at the much higher level of the Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group. Yet, a change in personnel does suggest an alteration in the approach towards Taiwan policy. Indeed, Yang is not a Taiwan expert per se like his two predecessors. Furthermore, given CICIR’s known linkages with the MSS, it would appear as though Beijing no longer feels the need to mask the intelligence function of CASS-ITS.
The main point: The personnel change at CASS-ITS likely does not indicate an imminent shift in Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan, but does suggest a new approach.
Correction: While Cheng was listed on the organization’s website as the president, he reportedly passed away in July 2015.