Beijing is failing to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. Threatening to use force does not benefit the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Taiwan policies and its current approach for unification has created more antipathy towards China in Taiwanese society. The reason why China has failed in winning the Taiwanese hearts and minds is simple: China does not take Taiwanese people’s nationalistic sentiment into consideration. Moreover, China’s current strategy alienates the Taiwanese people by making China appear hostile, untrustworthy, and manipulative. An independent poll conducted by Global Views Monthly in February 2018 shows that only 30.3 percent of people in Taiwan perceive China as friendly, which is a 9 percentage point decrease of the same poll released in 2008. Another poll conducted in March 2018 also shows that 57 percent of Taiwanese people hold negative impressions toward the Chinese government compared to only 22 percent who have a positive impression.
China’s extreme political tactics
China is increasing its pressure on Taiwan through measures short of war in the hopes of achieving their objective of eliminating Taiwanese independence sentiments. Its manipulative tactics include a combination of military threats, cultural and historical pandering, diplomatic and economic coercion. Some of these strategies are more useful than others. Some are positive, and some are negative.
The Anti-Secession Law (反分裂國家法) passed in 2005 by Beijing is viewed by Taiwanese people as a military threat and a negative approach since it states that if Taiwan’s secession from China becomes a fact, “or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means.” To many Chinese people and officials, the Anti-Secession Law reduces the possibility of war and promotes exchanges and stability, whereas Taiwanese view it as a brazen threat of war and “in fact a law that authorizes war.”
In terms of cultural and historical pandering, a more neutral approach is how China tries to emphasize shared history, cultures, and ties of blood in an attempt to attract possible sympathizers. However, China seems to prefer negative approaches such as marginalizing Taiwan’s international participation, forcing foreign countries and private companies to toe its “One-China Principle” by listing Taiwan as a region or a province of China. At the same time, China utilizes Taiwan’s economic dependency to hurt Taiwan by limiting Chinese tourists when it deems necessary. Beijing also implements preferential policies to lure talented Taiwanese to work in the region, both for its domestic industrial development and to cause a brain drain in Taiwan. The mixture of positive and negative approaches are counterproductive to the goal of bringing Taiwan closer to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) either politically or emotionally.
China takes an inconsistent approach
China’s current approach is inconsistent with its previously affirmative approach towards Taiwan adopted during the Ma Ying-jeou administration, which preceded the current one. For example, the governments from both sides of the Strait resumed direct flights between China and Taiwan in 2008, for the first time in 60 years. Another agreement on tourism boosted the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan 45 times in the first year, giving the economy a much-needed boost. However, even during this period of cooperation, Taiwanese people felt threatened by China as the PRC’s military threat continued to grow unabated. When Taiwan’s government failed to consider Taiwanese public opinion in passing the cross-Strait Trade and Services Agreement, the student-led Sunflower Movement emerged in the spring of 2014.
After the Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the presidential election and the majority of the parliament in 2016, the Chinese government exacerbated its mixed approach towards Taiwan. On one hand, China offered Taiwanese incentives and promised equal, if not preferential treatment; on the other hand, they showed hostility by sending fighter jets to fly closely to Taiwan and reaffirm the possibility to resort to force. The stark difference between the current and previous administrations highlights China’s lack of respect to the Taiwanese people’s decision to elect Tsai Ing-wen as their President. This “good cop, bad cop” tactic does not fulfill the Chinese goals, but only inflames the suspicions and hostilities of people in Taiwan toward China.
China is trying to influence the Taiwan government’s behavior, but this manipulative approach does not improve the Taiwanese people’s perception of China. Traditional diplomacy tends to see the ongoing disputes across the Taiwan Strait as driven by material interests, but this approach ignores the psychological factors that create deep animosities rooted in a perceived threat to identity and survival. Thus, while coercion and threat may alter behavior sometimes, they would never change perception. Taiwan has done a lot to maintain the status quo and extend an olive branch to China, calling for developing “benign interactions through constructive communication without preconditions.” China, on the other hand, chooses to alter the status quo of the Taiwan Strait negatively and unilaterally.
Taiwan’s responds by further committing to the status quo
Beijing’s erratic and inconsistent approach undermines the government’s credibility and makes the people of Taiwan more suspicious of China’s intentions towards Taiwan even if they were to return to an affirmative approach eventually. As distrust deepens, Taiwanese people will only resist unification with China more. According to a recent survey, 70 percent of Taiwanese believe democracy is the only sustainable option, especially for the younger generation who has the lowest preference for authoritarian regimes as a model in contrast to their peers in Europe and the United States. With China becoming more authoritarian under Xi Jinping, Taiwanese people will only feel more distant and distasteful to the regime.
Taiwanese people are for the most part committed to the status quo, yet as the above mentioned survey shows, over 70 percent of Taiwanese are willing to defend Taiwan in the face of Chinese invasion. However, as China becomes more powerful and more confident, it is gradually leaving Taiwan no space to be vague about unification internationally. Between May 2016 and 2018, China poached four of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, even as it continues to hold out the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) as the model for unification.
Hong Kong as a negative lesson
Hong Kong is case in point of the dangers of accepting Beijing’s “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy, universal suffrage, human rights, and the rule of law in the Joint Declaration and the 1990 Hong Kong Basic Law. Yet, the Chinese government’s betrayal of its promises to Hong Kong under “one country, two system” and the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ claim in 2017 that “the joint declaration with Britain over Hong Kong, which laid the blueprint over how the city would be ruled after its return to China in 1997, was a historical document that no longer had any practical significance” sent a chilling message to Taiwanese people that whatever promises China makes, they can be taken away arbitrarily.
China must sincerely consider the psychological effects of its actions within Taiwan and in the international space. Furthermore, it must accept and respect the fact that Taiwan has a different culture and identity from China. These approaches toward Taiwan have to be consistent and positive in order to gain the trust of the Taiwanese people. By doing so, the conflict can be shifted gradually away from a mentality of identity survival, expanding the zone of possible agreement. If a “great power” (大國) like China cannot be magnanimous and broad-minded enough to search for common ground with Taiwan, the disputes will never end and a war in the Taiwan Strait may erupt. This unintended conflict will shatter the prosperity and stability of the region and the world.
The main point: The PRC’s current approach toward Taiwan, sending mixed messages with positive and negative measures, does not work. Taiwan has developed its own identity and culture that are very different from the ones in Mainland China. Should the PRC hope for a peaceful unification short of a war, the Chinese government needs to recognize the people in Taiwan’s different identity and apply consistent and positive approaches to gain the people’s trust.