On January 2, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered his first official address of 2019 with a 4,254-character speech marking the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.” Besides its refusal to abandon the threat to use force against Taiwan to accomplish unification, Xi’s speech was important for two reasons—it clarified Beijing’s position on “one China” and the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識), and its tone-deafness inadvertently underscored the baseline for almost all the people in Taiwan, blue or green.
Since at least 2013, China analysts had observed that a hitherto in-built, if not explicitly stated, flexibility in the “1992 Consensus,” whereby both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed that there is only “one China,” with each side having its own interpretation of what “one China” means, had been obviated. Whereas Xi’s predecessors had shown leniency whenever Taipei, then governed by the Kuomintang (KMT), insisted on the different interpretations appendix to the “1992 Consensus,” the new Chinese leader was making it clear that there is only one China—the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—and that the ‘other China,’ the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, had ceased to exist after 1949. Thus, while the KMT in Taiwan was previously able to argue that adherence to the “1992 Consensus” did not imply the end of the ROC or place it within a subservient relationship with the PRC, Xi’s emphasis on a single China undercut the KMT’s argument and undermined its appeal with the Taiwanese public.
The complete negation of “different interpretations,” which is now integral to Xi’s take on cross-Strait policy, now means that whatever consensus may have existed between the KMT and the CCP no longer exists. In other words, the Beijing side no longer agrees to disagree, which places the KMT in an awkward position and forces party members who continue to insist on the “1992 Consensus” to imply that they agree with Beijing’s strict formulation.
Even more controversial was Xi’s equating in his speech of the “1992 Consensus” with the “one country, two systems” (一國兩制) formula, an act of revisionism which once again put the KMT in a difficult position. In the days that followed Xi’s address, various KMT politicians were forced to echo President Tsai Ing-wen’s condemnation of that statement by emphasizing that with the exception of ultra-marginal pro-unification groups, “one country, two systems” has very little appeal among the Taiwanese. The erosion of liberties and autonomy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since 1997, which has intensified markedly under Xi, has exacerbated the view among the Taiwanese that such terms are unacceptable to them, and at variance with the liberal democratic principles that have become the name of the game in Taiwan.
Although KMT politicians criticized President Tsai’s firm response to Xi, what was striking was the commonality of interest and the red lines that the two main political parties in democratic Taiwan, along with the public, will not allow Beijing to cross. Thus, Xi’s address, rather than deepening divisions within Taiwan or cow the Taiwanese into subservience, succeeded in showcasing the unity that is possible and yet so often elusive, in Taiwan. Among other things, it showed that “Taiwan separatists”—the main targets of Xi’s threat—along with ardent “blue” supporters of the ROC and the majority of those who support the maintenance of the “status quo” (i.e., de facto independence) are all on the same page when it comes to what they do not want—“one country, two systems”—and what they do want—the preservation of their way of life, which the increasingly repressive CCP cannot be counted on to deliver. That, according to President Tsai, is the “Taiwan consensus.” KMT presidential hopeful Eric Chu may have lambasted President Tsai for refusing to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” altogether, and criticized her for calling on other parties to drop the “1992 Consensus,” but in the end, what mattered was that he, too, had to state the fact that the ROC is free, democratic, and independent. KMT Legislator Chiang Wan-an, a grandson of former president Chiang Ching-kuo, also supported President Tsai’s response to Xi and said that “one country, two systems” was unacceptable. Soon enough, his Weibo account was the target of angry attacks by Chinese netizens.
Hopefully the many discussions in Taiwan that followed Xi’s address will have helped drive home the fact that, notwithstanding the many differences that exist on the official name of the country or the extent to which Taiwan should open its doors to China, members of both camps have overlapping interests that transcend everything else.
This development, along with President Tsai’s eloquent response emphasizing democracy, provided a welcomed rallying point for the embattled president, who had come under attack by members of her own camp following the Democratic Progressive Party’s disastrous showing in the November 24, 2018, nine-in-one elections. Three opposition parties, the People First Party (PFP), the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), and the New Power Party (NPP) have stated their support for President Tsai’s opposition to “one country, two systems.” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, an independent who also has been accused by the green camp of espousing some of Beijing’s views, also stated that Xi’s version of the “1992 Consensus” would likely fail to resonate among the Taiwanese. Several countries, among them the United States and France, shocked by the overt reference to the possible use of force by China to resolve the Taiwan “question,” also expressed support for Taiwan following Xi’s speech. If the aim was to further marginalize President Tsai, Xi’s speech backfired.
Overtly pro-unification groups, such as the Grand Alliance for China’s Reunification Under the Three Principles of the People, then followed with their own proposals for unification. Ironically, while criticizing both the KMT and DPP for their “passive responses” to Xi’s address, the Alliance nevertheless—and again inadvertently—highlighted the contradictions inherent to any attempt to integrate Taiwan and China. The Alliance, which said it would collaborate with two other pro-unification organizations in Taiwan and hold a series of events before August 2019, suggested that “one country, two systems” could be interpreted creatively, as an association (perhaps federalist) of equals rather than one of subservience. Lost on the Alliance is the fact that by moving beyond Xi’s rigid offer, their proposal shows that a consensus does not even exist among those who support unification, let alone among political parties that, due to the fact that they operate in a democracy, must answer to the wishes of Taiwanese voters. The Alliance’s proposal that the PRC and the ROC would be given “appellations of equal status” directly contradicts Xi’s insistence on the impermissibility of “two Chinas” (兩個中國).
Despite all this, the KMT is unlikely to abandon its adherence to the “1992 Consensus” and its use as an instrument to gainsay its opponents in elections. Already, the party and its likely candidate in the January 2020 elections, Eric Chu, have emphasized the utility of the “1992 Consensus” as a foundation for dialogue with Beijing, which insists that recognition thereof is a prerequisite for talks. However, by clarifying how Beijing views the “1992 Consensus” and directly tying it with the unpalatable “one country, two systems” formula, Beijing has done a disservice to the KMT, which will now have to try harder to convince its supporters, along with the Taiwanese public, that it can safely and responsibly adopt the “1992 Consensus” and ensure that Taiwan’s freedoms, democracy, and way of life are not compromised. (The principal reason why the KMT threw out its initial candidate for the 2016 elections, Hung Hsiu-chu, at the 11th hour was that she was seen to be moving beyond the party’s longstanding interpretation of the “1992 Consensus” and was mooting the possibility of signing a “peace accord” with Beijing.) It could also result in a split within the KMT among the party’s more pro-Beijing elements (a minority) and those who are better attuned to public opinion and democratic principles.
For many years, in-built flexibility and ambiguity of language allowed the KMT to get away with proposing the “1992 Consensus” as a viable conduit for cross-Strait talks, and even then the two sides were unable to agree on most, if not all, of the fundamentals. A more rigid interpretation of the “1992 Consensus” will likely undermine the KMT’s ability to portray the so-called consensus as a safe mechanism, one over which the two sides have equal say.
The main point: By tapping into Chinese nationalist sentiment and moving the goal posts on the “1992 consensus,” CCP secretary-general Xi Jinping has given President Tsai Ing-wen a much-needed boost as Taiwan enters the one-year period before the 2020 general elections.