The 19th Party Congress, opening on October 18th, 2017, will set the direction and tone of Beijing’s Taiwan policy at a critical time in cross-Strait relations. Since the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen in May 2016, Beijing’s pressures on Taiwan have brought relations to an impasse. With mixed signals from Beijing on its future Taiwan policy in the lead up to the Party Congress, the meeting will hopefully provide clarity on whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership might recalibrate to a more flexible approach or continue its current pressure campaign against Taiwan in the years ahead.
The annual Beidaihe (北戴河) meeting, which reportedly took place during the first two weeks of August, signaled that preparations for the upcoming twice-a-decade Party Congress were well underway. Senior and retired officials have traditionally utilized this secretive conclave to decide on leadership changes and key policy issues, which are later formalized at a plenum the week ahead of the Congress itself. While each Party Congress is an elaborate and orchestrated public affair, with many predetermined outcomes, they are not simply symbolic rituals. The upcoming meeting bears significant implications for the future of cross-Strait relations for three important reasons.
First, Xi is on track to secure a second term as General Secretary of the CCP. The Party Congress “will be viewed in the eyes of both Chinese elites and foreign observers as something of a referendum on Xi’s success in establishing himself as China’s unquestioned political supremo” according to Center for Strategic and International Studies expert Christopher Johnson. Xi’s power and authority will be on full display at the upcoming Congress, which will fuel speculation that he might be aiming for an unprecedented third term.
Second, the replacement of approximately half of the CCP Politburo and its Standing Committee members provides opportunities for Xi’s supporters and associates to ascend to top echelons of Party power. The positioning of Xi’s allies serves as an important measure of his political clout and represents yet another step toward his consolidation of power by reducing the influence of other factions, which has also occurred under his anti-corruption campaign. A Politburo and Standing Committee filled with Xi’s political allies would best ensure his success in realizing his policy agenda.
Third, Xi will report on the Central Committee’s work during the last five-year term. Xi’s predecessors have used past meetings and reports to unveil strategic directions for the party—such as Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” concept that reflect national aspirations—as well as reaffirm core principles on cross-Strait relations, such as “one China, two systems” and “peaceful ‘reunification’.” As noted by Stanford scholar Alice Miller, how Xi’s report conforms with or diverges from past reports will shed light on his priorities in his second term.
If Xi entered Beidaihe with a “very good hand of cards,” as assessed by Claremont McKenna professor Minxin Pei, he will emerge from the 19th Party Congress with an even stronger one. Yet, it remains to be seen whether Xi will wield his control and influence over the CCP leadership to change the tone of cross-Strait relations. The stakes are high in Xi’s second term, as Beijing’s pressures against Taipei in recent months have created growing uncertainties. Driven by deep suspicion of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) pro-independence past and President Tsai’s unwillingness to affirm Beijing’s “One-China” principle at the core of the so-called “1992 Consensus”—which is Xi’s precondition for continuation of dialogue—China has frozen high level official exchanges and stepped up rhetoric and actions to further coerce and isolate Taiwan. China has increased economic pressure by limiting the number of tourists and students who may travel to Taiwan, pressured international organizations to limit Taiwan’s international space, whittled away at Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies, arrested and jailed a Taiwan human rights activist, and undermined Taiwan’s international legitimacy through concerted CCP United Front Work Department influence campaigns. Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army has increased exercises and long range patrols, including off the east coast of Taiwan, that are seen as, at best intimidation, and at worst preparation for a military contingency in the Taiwan Strait.
The pressure campaign is perhaps unsurprising. Last year, Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council Deputy Minister Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正) surmised that Xi could not afford to compromise on territorial sovereignty issues, and argued that high-level power struggles leading up to the Party Congress would result in greater pressures against Taiwan. President Tsai and DPP officials have reportedly accepted that Xi has limited room to offer breakthroughs on cross-Strait policy prior to the Fall meeting.
Some signals suggest that, after settling pressing leadership and policy issues, Xi could exercise greater flexibility towards Taiwan. As an indication of a friendlier approach, Wang Yifu (汪毅夫), the president of the government-affiliated All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots, mentioned that “new language” regarding the Taiwan Strait will be included in Xi’s work report in October and expressed hopes that this will improve cross-Strait relations. While no specifics were put forward as to the “new language,” a genuine step towards warmer ties would certainly be welcomed in Taiwan. It is increasingly difficult for President Tsai to uphold her pledge to maintain the cross-Strait “status quo” while Beijing’s pressure shrinks her room to maneuver. In an implicit reference to the political changes in Beijing, President Tsai had earlier suggested that the latter half of 2017 would be a “better time” for Taiwan to launch a new China policy. A small but meaningful shift in Beijing’s position would likely open up more possibilities for flexibility on Taipei’s part as well.
However, even if Xi enjoys greater latitude following October, his public views suggest that Beijing’s approach towards Taipei will remain conditional. Despite his benevolent characterization of China and Taiwan as ‘two sides of the same family’ (兩岸一家親), since the 18th Party Congress, Xi has insisted on the “1992 Consensus” as the basis for improving cross-Strait ties. He has even warned that “if the foundations are unstable, then earthquakes will shake the mountains” (基礎不牢、地動山搖), in reference to the importance of the “consensus” in girding stability. At the core of Xi’s insistence is Beijing’s long-held view that Taiwan and the PRC belong to “One China.” On the eve of Beidaihe, at the 90th anniversary People’s Liberation Army parade, Xi reiterated that China’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct—which observers saw as a warning to the DPP.
Moreover, Xi could view the Taiwan issue with greater urgency after the 19th Party Congress. In his second term, Xi faces a less favorable external environment. Uncertainties in the US-China relationship and the potential for strengthened US-Taiwan relations under the Trump administration could shape Beijing’s calculus regarding US support for Taiwan. Furthermore, the outcomes of Taiwan’s 2020 elections will determine whether the DPP will hold onto power beyond Xi’s second term, or if the more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) will make a political comeback, which would possibly offer a narrow window toward the end of Xi’s second term for reviving the “1992 Consensus.” Adding to the political uncertainties on the horizon are undeniable trends in Taiwan. Recent polls in Taiwan that show national identity shifting away from the PRC and low support for the “one country, two systems” model, which is likely even less palatable given the overt displays of PRC authoritarianism in Hong Kong in recent years. These factors could lead Xi to conclude that patience is not conducive to Beijing’s long term goals.
Previously, Xi has stressed that the political disagreement between the two sides of the Strait cannot be passed on from generation to generation. Dennis Wilder, a former senior US official, cautioned that the period of greatest danger may, in fact, follow the Party Congress, as Xi may lose his patience on unresolved territorial issues. Although it would prove unwise for Beijing to publicly announce a deadline for unification, Taiwan is arguably intertwined with the PRC’s future in Xi’s vision. Xi’s frequent articulation of national rejuvenation in his first term clearly envisages the China Dream (中國夢), which sets socioeconomic targets for 2020, as a common dream of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait—irrespective of the fact that Taiwan is, by most measures, already a “moderately prosperous society.” A more plausible linkage is the political importance of Taiwan as a benchmark for the PRC’s national rejuvenation. In an article lauding the importance of Xi Jinping’s thoughts on Taiwan, Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), director of PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, linked the peaceful development of cross-Strait ties to the achievement of the two centenary goals (兩個一百年) and to the China Dream. In a more blunt reference, China’s defense white paper stated that “the Taiwan issue bears on China’s reunification and long-term development, and reunification is an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation.” With 2021 looming as the first of the two centenary goals, it remains to be seen what Xi and the CCP would consider satisfactory progress towards unification and rejuvenation by this goalpost.
The main point: The upcoming Party Congress will shed light on Xi’s approach to Taiwan and his legacy on cross-Strait relations. Considering his desire to be seen as a “core leader” in PRC history, it would be in line with Xi’s ambitions to seek to surpass his predecessors’ efforts to induce or coerce Taiwan towards eventual unification. For Taiwan, the post-October period could bring greater unpredictability after Xi implements his strategic direction for the country and his priorities on cross-Strait relations.