The Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) in the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—which implements the policy towards Taiwan set by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—will reportedly have a new deputy director. According to Taiwan media outlets, Zheng Shanjie (鄭柵潔), who now serves as the deputy director of the State Council’s National Energy Administration (NEA), may become the TAO’s next standing deputy director (常務副主任). Zheng would replace Gong Qinggai (龔清概), who was once considered the leading contender to eventually replace the current director, Zhang Zhijun (張志軍).
In a rather surprising turn of events, Gong was taken down as part of Xi Jinping’s trademark anti-graft campaign in early 2016—which has left few stones unturned. The former TAO deputy director, touted by the media as a Xi loyalist, had served in that position since October 2013. On April 20, Gong was sentenced by a Chinese court to 15 years in prison for allegedly using his political positions to illegally obtain US $770,000 (5.3 million yuan) in assets over a nine year period, lasting through 2015.
The appointment of a new deputy director at TAO had been expected, given the vacancy left by Gong’s sudden departure, but also follows a stream of speculation about substantial changes in the PRC’s Taiwan policy apparatus, which was clearly shaken by the presidential election victory of Tsai Ing-wen. The first salvo was apparently fired a year later. In early February 2017, noted Taiwan hand Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), who was serving as the director of the Ministry of State Security (MSS)-backed Institute of Taiwan Studies (台湾研究所) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) was replaced by Yang Mingjie (楊明杰). Yang, who has very limited professional experience on Taiwan policy, was the associate dean of the MSS-affiliated China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (中國現代國際關係研究院).
Zhou’s interesting replacement by Yang at the brain trust for PRC Taiwan policy was quickly followed by the announcement in mid-February that Senior Chinese statesmen Dai Bingguo (戴秉國) was selected as the new chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies (全國台灣研究會). Although it claims to be a non-governmental organization, the leadership of NSTS (https://tyh.taiwan.cn/) is stacked with government officials—which belies its supposedly civilian (民間) status. The NSTS has four deputy chairmen: Li Yafei (李亞飛), Cai Fang (蔡昉), Zheng Jianbang (鄭建邦), and Sun Yafu (孫亞夫), all of whom concurrently serve in senior positions related to Taiwan policy, either in the government or political party. For instance, Li is the deputy director of the CCP Central Committee’s Taiwan Office, the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, and vice president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), and Sun also serves as the one of ARATS’ four vice presidents. The president of ARATS sits on the policy-setting 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 late-December 2016, speculation about personnel changes reached a fever pitch when it was rumored that the current director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, who also sits on the TALSG, could be replaced as soon as the Lunar New Year, which fell in February 2017. While the current TAO director remains in place, another senior official in the PRC’s Taiwan policy apparatus resigned.
In late-February, Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中), who had since 2008 served as the vice president of ARATS—which conducts relations between China and Taiwan in the absence of government-to-government relations—abruptly resigned. Zheng was also a standing committee member of the advisory-Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CCPPC). Zheng reportedly had to “step down” for personal reasons, although some suspect it was due to “economic problems.” Given that Zheng had apparently stepped away from all of his official and unofficial duties (including within the CPPCC), the circumstances leading to his resignation may have been quite serious. Zheng’s replacement has not been announced.
Zheng Shanjie (b. 1961), the potential next deputy director at TAO, is a native of Fujian province. He launched his political career serving in Xiamen city as the party chief in one of the city’s districts. Xiamen is only 29.2 km from Taiwan-controlled Kinmen. Zheng also served as deputy secretary general of the Xiamen city government and as director of the city government’s main office. He was later promoted to director of the city’s development plan commission, followed by provincial-level appointments as the director of Fujian province’s development and reform commission, and more recently as the deputy governor of the Fujian provincial government before he was elevated to serve as the deputy director of NEA in August 2015. Given the circumstances surrounding the departure of his predecessor, his appointment was likely closely vetted.
According to Hong Chi-chang (洪奇昌), who previously served as Chairman of Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation, given Zheng’s extensive experience at both the local and provincial, as well as the party and government levels in Fujian province, he has accumulated over 20 years of experience related to Taiwan. Moreover, because Zheng’s experience has been largely related to economic development, he not only understands Taiwan, but also appears to understand Taiwanese businessmen and enterprises. SEF is the counterpart for ARATS in cross-Strait interactions.
Whether or not reports of these personnel change pan out is less important than the policy set at the very top level, which the Party leadership is loathe to publicly admit has failed. The appointment of a new deputy director at TAO should be expected, and does not by itself represent a significant change in the PRC’s approach to Taiwan. However, it follows a stream of recent departures and expected appointments that may serve as a prelude to more salient changes to the PRC’s Taiwan policy apparatus in the aftermath of the 19th Party Congress. One thing appears clear, the CCP is re-evaluating its approach towards Taiwan—whether that results in a meaningful policy change that will be conductive to cross-Strait peace remains to be seen.
As a possible signal of these shifts, the NSTS recently posted the announcement for its annual symposium, which will be held from June 12 to 15 in Jiangsu province. The focus of this year’s conclave will be on five issues: 1) analyzing Xi Jinping’s Important Thoughts on Taiwan Affairs (習近平對台工作重要思想探析) ; 2) new ideas, new ways, and new approaches for opposing and containing “Taiwan Independence”, (反對和遏制“台獨”的新思路、新途徑與新辦法); 3) new global changes related to Taiwan and how we should respond (涉台國際因素新變化及我應對); 4) evaluating Tsai Ing-wen’s internal and external policies (蔡英文內外政策評估); and 5) new changes and trends in the Kuomintang’s political environment, how to consolidate the relationship between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party under the new situation (國民黨政治生態新變化與新趨勢，如何鞏固推進新形勢下的國共交流).
The main point: The appointment of a new deputy director at TAO is expected and does not by itself represent a significant change in the PRC’s approach to Taiwan. However, it follows a stream of recent departures and appointments that may serve as prelude to more salient changes to the PRC’s Taiwan policy apparatus in the aftermath of the 19th Party Congress.
Update: After publication, Zheng was confirmed on the Chinese government agency’s website as the deputy director of the State Council’s TAO replacing Li Yafei (李亞飛).