On June 13, academics and researchers gathered in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, for the annual conference of the National Society of Taiwan Studies (NSTS, 全國台灣研究會). With over 60 scholars in attendance—including NSTS Chairman Dai Bingguo (戴秉國), Taiwan Affairs Office Deputy Director and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Vice President Li Yafei (李亞飛), Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Vice Chairman Cai Fang (蔡昉), ARATS Vice Chairman Sun Yafu (孫亞夫), and Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) former Director Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷)—it was the first meeting since a new NSTS leadership cadre was chosen in February. The conference, which was lost in the fallout of Panama severing ties with Taiwan, serves as a barometer for understanding views from the community of Chinese scholars on the trajectory of cross-Strait relations and future policies toward Taiwan.
This year, scholars gathered to discuss the theme of “Taiwan’s Political Situation and Cross-Strait Relations in Transition” (轉型中的台灣政局與兩岸關係). The meetings, chaired by NSTS Deputy Secretary General Yang Youyan (楊幽燕), also included sub-sessions on topics such as Xi Jinping’s guidance on Taiwan work, ideas for containing and opposing Taiwanese independence (台獨), international factors and cross-Strait relations, Tsai’s domestic and international politics, and changes within the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party. While media coverage of the meetings remains limited, NSTS published the words and ideas of a handful of members in attendance, offering insight into how the Chinese ivory tower seeks to shape policymaking.
Amongst the NSTS members, ample commendation was given to Xi Jinping for his guidance of cross-Strait relations. Some scholars, such as Ni Yongjie (倪永傑) of the Shanghai Institute for Taiwan Studies (上海台灣研究所), praised Xi’s framework for Taiwan work as a reflection of several key characteristics: it is comprehensive and innovative, sets a clear bottom-line, guides the development of cross-Strait relations, seeks to ensure the prosperity of compatriots on both sides, and operates according to the rule of law (總體思想、底線思維、主導思維、創新思維、民本思維、法治思維). Under Xi, the Taiwan issue has become embedded in the larger goals of the “two centenaries” and the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation, pursuing policies which seek to benefit both peoples while resolutely protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Ni and Li Yizhou (李逸舟), former director of the Cross-Strait Relations Research Center (海峽兩岸關係研究中心), also discussed the role of integration and development of cross-Strait relations. Their comments reveal a perception of cross-Strait integration as a multi-faceted process and key to achieving the psychological connection and affinity (心靈契合) necessary for unification. While economic integration may serve as the current substantive foundation of the cross-Strait relationship, the two sides cannot overlook societal, cultural, and ideological integration. It is these gradual, but comprehensive, steps which are thought to best guarantee peaceful reunification as “one country, two systems” （一國兩制）.
Other scholars in attendance discussed developments on Taiwan, be it Tsai’s cross-Strait policies or hopes for a future renaissance of the KMT. NSTS Executive Director Wang Sheng (王升) argued that Tsai’s efforts to “preserve the status quo” (維持現狀) are equivalent to pursuing soft, resilient independence (柔性台獨、韌性台獨). This form of independence is, Wang and others argue, manifested in Tsai’s emphasis on a Taiwanese national identity and in “cultural independence” (文化台獨) activities such as the rectification of names, de- sinification, and removing the legacies of Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen from mainstream society (去中國化、去蔣介石化、去孫中山化). There is particular concern that Tsai’s strategy of independence will remain cloaked under the guise of creating goodwill towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC), allowing her to pursue incremental steps toward independence and subtly change the status quo in a manner that undermines Beijing’s own objectives.
While difficult for NSTS scholars to see the potential for change during Tsai’s term, several retain hope that the KMT under new chairman Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) is harbinger for a more stable future in relations. Peng Weixue (彭維學), a researcher at the Institute of Taiwan Studies at CASS, expressed confidence in the KMT to get back on track under Wu, paving the way to a comeback in the 2020 presidential elections. Even though the KMT has embraced a greater Taiwanese identity through indigenization (本土化), it has done so in a manner which is far more moderate and tolerable in the eyes of Beijing. Moreover, given the common political foundation shared by the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT—an acceptance of “one China,” albeit with different interpretations (一中各表)—it is unsurprising that NSTS scholars continue to advocate on behalf of expanding inter-party cooperation and joint opposition to Taiwanese independence.
At the close of the conference, Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷) offered a summary of the consensus to emerge amongst NSTS members regarding the trajectory of cross-Strait relations. Zhou reiterated that Beijing’s bottom-line of pursuing unification and preventing independence has not changed. The PRC must thus increase pressure to ensure that Tsai cannot succeed in any efforts to usurp Beijing’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Challenged by the DPP’s inflexibility and Tsai’s monopoly over cross-Strait relations, Zhou proposed “three musts and must nots” (三要三不要) for Chinese policy going forward. First, Beijing must show strength, not kindness; second, that Beijing must clearly understand the fundamental nature of Taiwanese independence and must not hold onto illusions; and lastly, Beijing must resolutely crack down on Taiwan independence, and must not become naïve in its dealings with Taipei (要有定力，不要見獵心喜；要看清台獨本質，不要抱幻想；要堅決打擊頑固台獨，不要做東郭先生).
In the final analysis, the annual NSTS conference is more than just a meeting of academics to talk about the policy implications of their research. As the NSTS is stacked with government officials, these discussions support the revolving door relationship between research and policymaking. The NSTS scholars share a view that Taiwan under Tsai Ing-wen is continuing to inch towards independence. To deal with this latent threat, the NSTS conference participants appear to favor maintaining a strong, steady pressure on Taiwan—bullying Tsai and the DPP out of power, deepening socioeconomic integration, and retaining an optimism that the KMT will return to power in the not-so-distant future.
The main point: The annual conference of the National Society of Taiwan Studies (NSTS) offered, from the Chinese perspective, a bleak assessment of cross-Strait relations. Taiwan is seen to be inching toward “soft independence” under Tsai Ing-wen, requiring a continued application of policy pressure. At the same time, the NSTS scholars advocate for closer socioeconomic integration as the best path to achieving Beijing’s objective of peaceful unification.