Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Senior White House Official Holds Up Taiwan’s Democracy as Model for China’s Political Evolution

In a widely cited speech that was as much about substance as it was about form, US Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger commemorated China’s historic May Fourth Movement (also known as the New Culture Movement, 新文化運動) with a speech delivered entirely in Mandarin Chinese at an online academic conference on US-China relations. On the 101st anniversary of the 1919 movement—in which Chinese students called for the embrace of Western ideals such as “Mr. Science” (賽先生) and “Mr. Democracy” (德先生) and ignited a nationalistic revolution in China’s long political evolution—the White House official extolled the original virtues of the movement while specifically referencing the island-democracy 180 kilometers across the Strait: “The cliché that Chinese people can’t be trusted with democracy was […] the most unpatriotic idea of all. Taiwan today is a living repudiation of that threadbare mistruth.”

Pottinger’s explicit reference to Taiwan’s democracy is not the first time that a senior US administration official has held it up as a model for China and other countries. Indeed, as Vice President Mike Pence unequivocally stated in his flag-planting China policy speech as early as October 2018: “America will always believe Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.” Furthermore, as Myanmar was opening up in 2015, then-Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel also mentioned that the United States thought Taiwan could serve as a model for the southeast Asian country’s democratization. While US officials have praised Taiwan’s democracy in the past, this theme has clearly been elevated under the Trump administration during the current era of great power competition.

Last year, at a high-powered celebration of the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement—which historians argue helped contribute to the formation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) praised the virtues of the student protests that called for the nation’s embrace of Western ideals. This praise was somewhat ironic given China’s current political conditions. Additionally, Xi provided guidance on the role of Chinese youth movements in China’s “new era.” While the students in the May Fourth Movement were calling for democracy, the CCP General Secretary emphasized that Chinese youth should essentially uphold the CCP’s one-party rule in order to achieve Xi’s goal of “two hundred years” (兩個一百年) and realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and the “Chinese Dream” (中國夢)—core mantras of Xi’s ruling philosophy. Building on this, the CCP’s propaganda czar, Wang Huning (王滬寧), praised the May Fourth Movement as a historically significant demonstration of Chinese patriotism and nationalism.

In equating the significance of the historic event to the present day, Pottinger explained how “[t]he movement galvanized a long-running struggle for the soul of modern China.” Also referring to the May Fourth Movement as the “Chinese Enlightenment,” he described the Chinese doctor who was censored by authorities after warning about the virus outbreak in China in late 2019 as a flag-bearer of the May Fourth spirit:

So who embodies the May Fourth spirit in China today? To my mind, the heirs of May Fourth are civic-minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery. And sometimes big acts of bravery. Dr. Li Wenliang was such a person.

The audience for Pottinger’s speech was clearly the Chinese-speaking world. Beijing’s reaction, while not surprising, was telling. The deputy national security adviser’s speech was taken down from Weibo, the Chinese social media site, five minutes after it had been posted.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the CCP has been undertaking a systematic reinterpretation or censoring of the Party’s murky past and continuously reinventing the CCP’s place in contemporary Chinese history. As a result, it is not surprising that the May Fourth Movement has been similarly targeted by Xi’s campaign against “historical nihilism,” a term that refers to growing public skepticism about the CCP’s version of history. Indeed, as a Project 2049 Institute study pointed out:

Over the decades, leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have used the control of history to bolster their own political standing, as well as the continued primacy of the CCP in ruling the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Just as the Party has worked to whitewash its own role in historical events or attempting to erase it altogether—most conspicuously in the Sino-Japanese war, Tiananmen Massacre, and currently in real time with the massive cover up over the origins of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)—the CCP is reframing history as well as current events with a pro-CCP narrative by employing a propaganda and disinformation campaign that also targets educational institutions and cultural industries.

As Taiwan’s democratically elected president begins her second term, the contrast spotlighted in Pottinger’s speech could not be clearer. Taiwan and China represent two starkly different paths taken by Chinese-speaking societies. On the one hand, Taiwan’s thriving democracy emerged from decades of struggle against one-party rule and in which a recent Pew Survey showed 68 percent favored closer relations with the United States. On the other hand, China developed into an increasingly authoritarian, revisionist power that is an adversarial competitor of the United States, which in some ways still bears the trappings of the government that the student protestors sought to change over a century ago. What paths China takes at the outset of the 21st century could very well shape not only its own fate, but also the future of the free world.

The main point: A recent speech commemorating China’s May Fourth Movement by a senior White House official highlighted Taiwan’s democracy as compared to China’s political evolution. In turn, China’s response has shed light on Xi Jinping’s ongoing campaign to reshape historical narratives in the CCP’s favor.

China has South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone: Taiwan

On May 4, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) may have finally put to rest long-held suspicions by many security experts that the People’s Republic has established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the hotly-contested South China Sea. An ADIZ refers to airspace over land or water, in which the country operating the zone could require incoming aircraft to identify themselves and have control over their flight paths in the interest of national security. The purported intelligence disclosed by the Taiwanese government is the first acknowledgement by an official source that China has an ADIZ over the disputed region. The ADIZ has neither been confirmed by the Chinese government nor has it been corroborated by other official or authoritative sources as of this writing.

The confirmation by Taiwan’s MND followed media speculation sparked by Defense Minister Yen Teh-Fa’s (嚴德發) statement at a legislative hearing earlier that day. According to local media reports, Yen’s statement was made in response to a question about ADIZs around Taiwan by an opposition lawmaker. In that exchange, the Defense Minister reportedly stated: “To the south of our country is the Philippines’ [ADIZ], to the north is China’s East China Sea [ADIZ]; and China has two identification zones: one is the East China Sea, the other is in the South China Sea.” Some observers accused the defense minister of making a gaffe and the Defense Ministry later clarified that China had already stated its intention to establish one in the South China Sea although it has not formally declared one.

Revelation by the Tsai administration of the South China Sea ADIZ follows other public reporting that points to an uptick in Chinese activities in the region that began in mid-April, suggesting that Beijing may be using the global distraction caused by the COVID-19 crisis to consolidate control over the region. Most notably, Beijing announced on April 18 that the PRC State Council has approved the establishment of two districts, Xisha (西沙) and Nansha (南沙), below Sansha City (三沙市) in Hainan Province. According to CGTN, “Xisha District will administer the Xisha and Zhongsha islands (中沙群島) and their surrounding waters, with the district government located on Yongxing Island (永興島, Woody Island),” while Nansha District will govern “Nansha Island (南沙群島, Spratly Islands) and its surrounding waters,” with the administration “located on Yongshu Jiao (永暑礁).” Subsequently, Vietnam and the Philippines accused China of a “serious violation of sovereignty.” China previously announced the creation of Sansha as a district level unit with jurisdiction over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in 2007, only to upgrade it into a prefecture-level city administrative unit in 2012.  

China’s purported decision to establish a South China Sea ADIZ—since Beijing has not officially announced one yet—follows a similar move in 2013, when China established an ADIZ in the East China Sea. Then president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), in reference to the Chinese decision, stated: “The move does not bring positive development to cross-Strait relations. In the future, we will talk to mainland China and ask them not to set up a similar ADIZ over the South China Sea.” When the East China Sea ADIZ was announced, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman clearly stated that “China will establish other air defense identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations.” Publicly available resources did not indicate whether Beijing had provided prior notification to Taiwan if and when it was planning to establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea.

As early as 2015, American policymakers worried openly about the establishment of an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The late Senator John McCain noted: “They build runways; they are going to put weapons there, and the next thing you will see the Chinese do is when an American aircraft [flies by], whether being a commercial craft or what, they will say ‘identify yourself’—establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone, which then means territorial sovereignty.”

For countries in the region, this is already old news. According to the former acting chief justice of the Philippines’ Supreme Court, Antonio Carpio, China has already been enforcing a quasi-ADIZ in the South China Sea, reportedly warning Philippine planes flying over the Spratlys via radio to “stay away from the area.” Similar warnings have been sent to military and civilian flights from other countries, including the United States and Australia.

According to one expert, China may have been holding off on announcing a South China Sea air defense zone only until it is able to implement it. Indeed, the People’s Liberation Army has been expanding radar surveillance infrastructure over the region. As former Pentagon official Lt. Col. (ret.) Mark Stokes mapped out in a 2018 study published by the Project 2049 Institute, China has already established a robust radar surveillance infrastructure ostensibly for a South China Sea ADIZ, with at least two regiments and four brigades. According to Stokes: “For the PRC, diminishing Taiwan’s air space would play into its strategic objectives and claims over disputed territories in the region.”

At the same time, the Chinese military has been ramping up military exercises in the South China Sea. Recently, Japan’s Kyodo News reported that the PLA is planning to hold a large-scale beach landing exercise near China’s Hainan Province in August, with a scenario of capturing the Dongsha Islands (東沙群島, Pratas Islands), currently controlled by Taiwan.

According to a professor at the Honolulu-based Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies:

The utility of an ADIZ goes beyond the military realm and an ADIZ does not need to be effectively enforced in order to bring benefits to the country that declares it. As with other policy tools, it can perform political, diplomatic and legal functions. An ADIZ can perform one or more of at least six functions. Two of these functions (early warning mechanism and exclusion zone) require effective enforcement, while three other (sovereignty marker, bargaining chip and signaling device) rely more on a formal declaration. One of the functions (deterrent) can only work without a declaration of the related ADIZ.

Whether Beijing in fact has a South China Sea ADIZ will only be clear when it formally declares one. While Beijing’s recent move to establish administrative districts for both the Paracel and Spratly islands appears intended to reinforce existing sovereignty claims without a formal declaration, the revelation from Taiwan about China’s ADIZ in the South China Sea, if true, have broader implications. Beijing’s moves to exert additional administrative controls and expanding its military infrastructure over the region seem to be, at the very least, precursors to a formal declaration of a South China Sea ADIZ in only a matter of time.  

The main point: Beijing’s steps to expand control through administrative means and surveillance infrastructure over the South China Sea appears consistent with Taipei’s disclosure that China has established an ADIZ over the region.