The former head of a Ministry of State Security (MSS) affiliated research institute responsible for informing the Chinese government’s Taiwan-policy has called for a “unification timetable” (統一時間表) between China and Taiwan. On July 24, Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), who served as the director of the Taiwan Studies Institute (ITS, 台灣研究所) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS, 中國社會科學院) from 2013 to February 2017 and current executive council member of the National Society of Taiwan Studies (全國台灣研究會), proposed the timetable at an academic conference on cross-Strait relations held in Shanxi. According to various reports, the former government researcher made the statement about a 30-year timetable for unification in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) goal for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中華民族偉大復興) and “to achieve complete unification of the motherland” (實現祖國完全統一).
This is the not the first time that a timetable for unification has been floated around. While the late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping recognized that a unification timetable was premature 40 years ago, during Jiang Zemin’s tenure in 2002, the 16th CCP Party Congress report formally indicated that the “Taiwan issue” cannot be postponed indefinitely. In 2013, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping reinforced this concern during a meeting with then vice president of Taiwan, Vincent Siew (蕭萬長), stating that “taking the long view, the long-standing political differences across the Taiwan Strait must eventually be gradually settled.” The supreme leader added that, “it won’t do for [the differences] to be passed along from one generation to the next.”
Xi’s statement that unification cannot be passed from one generation to the next does not directly indicate that the CCP has a timetable for unification, but the notion that indefinite de facto separation is unacceptable has been a consistent thread in the approaches taken by Jiang, Hu, and Xi towards Taiwan. According to Wang Hsin-hsien (王信賢) at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), Xi’s statement echoes the meaning behind a timetable for unification. The key question—according to Wang—is what the Chinese ‘core’ leader means by “generation”: does it mean the standard concept of 20 to 30 years, or does it refer to the convention of Chinese leadership succession after 10 years—in a way that is inextricably tied with Xi’s “Chinese dream” project (中國夢)?
It is instructive to note that the deadlines set by Xi for accomplishing the “Chinese dream” follow the timetable of “two one hundreds” (兩個一百年). The first one hundred refers to the centenary of the establishment of the CCP in 2021, by which point the Party should have achieved a “moderate level of prosperity” (小康水平). The second one hundred marks the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049, by which point the Party should accomplish the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中華民族偉大復興). In his remarks at the 95th anniversary of the CCP’s establishment in 2016, Xi emphasized the progress of advancing peaceful unification and the completion of the great task of unification are critical for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
As China-expert Willy Lam wrote in the Global Taiwan Brief:
In the realm of cross-Strait psychological warfare, some have speculated that ultra-nationalist President Xi, who is also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and commander-in-chief, has set 2049 as the “deadline for Taiwan’s liberation.” […] While the word “deadline” has never appeared in top CCP leaders’ speeches on Taiwan, Xi has cited national unification as a key objective for the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,’ which the supreme leader hopes to accomplish by 2049.
Considered a dove among hawks within the PRC’s Taiwan policy community, Zhou stepped down as head of ITS in February 2017—reportedly for reaching the Chinese government’s official retirement age of 60. Yet, Zhou may have been dismissed for comments he had made in late November 2016 while still serving as head of a government-run research institute suggesting that the Chinese government was open to alternatives to the CCP’s narrow interpretation of the so-called “1992 consensus.”
Zhou’s statement was made at the “Relations Across the Straits Academic Symposium” (海峽兩岸關係學術研討會), which has been held annually since 1991. The conference is jointly organized by the National Society of Taiwan Studies (全國台灣研究會), the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots (中華全國台灣同胞聯誼會), and CASS-ITS. Billed as one of the key academic conferences on cross-Strait relations, the forum is apparently used as a platform for signaling on cross-Strait issues. At the 26th annual conference this year, the theme was “Promoting Cross-Strait Integration, Maintaining Peaceful Foundation” (推動兩岸融合維護和平基礎). Speakers included, but were not limited to, the minister of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), Zhang Zhijun (張志軍); former state councilor and chairman of the NSTS, Dai Binggou (戴秉國); director of CASS-ITS, Yang Mingjie (楊明杰); chairman of the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots, Wang Yifu (汪毅夫); Shao Zhonghai (邵宗海); Ni Yongjie (倪永杰); Wang Yingjin (王英津); Huang Jiashu (黃嘉樹); and Liu Guoshen (劉國深). There were also reportedly many experts on cross-Strait relations from Taiwan, such as Chao Chun-shan (趙春山) and Yang Kai-huang (楊開煌), among others.
The former state councilor and senior statesman, Dai, made three observations for promoting cross-Strait peaceful developments: 1) insist on the “1992 consensus”, oppose “Taiwan independence” as the political foundation; 2) advance the quality of economic cooperation, thicken cross-Strait common interests; and 3) advance the expansion of cross-Strait exchanges, and deepen the development of cross-Strait social integration.
Against the backdrop of reports earlier this year that the PRC’s rubber stamp National People’s Congress is exploring the possibility of amending the Anti-Secession Law (反分裂法) to ostensibly include more circumstances that would justify the use of military force against Taiwan, it is now said to be considering the promulgation of a National Unification Law（國家統一法). According to Wang, Zhou’s statement on a timetable may serve as a precursor for such a law. Whether an amendment or a National Unification Law are in the works, the forthcoming 19th Party Congress Report will likely include a report on Taiwan.
In his testimony before the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in June, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that the current “status quo” may be unsustainable in the long-term. The secretary of state mentioned that, “i[t] is important as we engage with them [China] that we are able to fulfill our commitments to Taiwan, which we have every intention of doing … [t]he question is, is the One-China’ policy sustainable for the next 50 years? And those are the kind of discussions we’re having. They are extremely complex in many regards.” As the Trump administration thinks through this complex problem, the solution should not be to move towards the PRC’s definition, but toward one that favors US values and interests in the Asia-Pacific.
The main point: Zhou’s proposal for a 30-year timetable for unification is not radically new and tracks with Xi’s timeline for achieving the “Chinese dream,” but also reflects a greater sense of urgency among Party elites in opposing postponement of unification indefinitely.