Signals on PRC’s Taiwan Policy from NPC 2020
The 18th session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) recently convened in Beijing from May 22 to 28. While international media attention was primarily focused on the NPC’s passage of a draconian draft national security law for Hong Kong, the national legislative body—largely seen as a rubber-stamp legislature directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—may also be considering potential modifications to the legal framework of the PRC’s Taiwan policy.
In the lead up to the meeting—which had been delayed due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak—experts believed that Beijing would harden its approach to Taiwan in response to Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) re-election as president for a second term, although it was not clear just by how much and through what means. This pessimistic assessment was seemingly reinforced when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s (李克强) carefully crafted work report, delivered at the beginning of the session, omitted the word “peaceful” in Beijing’s approach to Taiwan. The use of the term “peaceful reunification” [sic] had been a mainstay of Chinese rhetoric on Taiwan policy since 1979, and its omission was initially interpreted as a potential sign of change in PRC policy towards Taiwan.
In what may have been a response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s inaugural address only the week before on May 20, the work report’s deliberate omission of “peaceful” was coupled with the simultaneous omission of references to the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識), the tacit agreement between the KMT and the CCP in which the two sides agreed that Taiwan is a part of China, with each side free to interpret what that “China” was. This is telling, as President Tsai Ing-wen also omitted reference to the 1992 meetings in her second inaugural address as one of the bases for her cross-Strait policy, even though she had referenced them in her first inaugural speech. During her second inaugural address, President Tsai succinctly stated:
We will continue to handle cross-Strait affairs according to the Constitution of the Republic of China and the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. This has been our consistent position for maintaining the peaceful and stable status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
Notwithstanding President Tsai’s refusal to endorse the “1992 Consensus,” Beijing’s rhetoric and actions in recent years have made that basis for cross-Strait negotiations more untenable than ever before. Indeed, it is more unlikely than ever that the two sides could ever resume dialogue on the old terms of the “1992 Consensus”—especially after CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) had essentially redefined it on the basis of the “One-China” principle and “one country, two systems” in his hardline speech delivered in January 2019.
An item reportedly on the NPC’s agenda that was less reported on but appeared in a report by Wen Wei Po (文匯報)—a pro-Beijing Hong Kong-based media outlet—is CCP Politburo Standing Committee Member and NPC Chairman Li Zhanshu’s (栗戰書) work report of the NPC-Standing Committee. Despite Premier Li Keqiang’s omission of the key terms, Li Zhanshu reportedly did emphasize the standard mantra of striving for the “peaceful” development of cross-Strait relations on the basis of the “1992 Consensus” in his work report.
Additionally, and particularly worth noting, the NPC chairman’s discussion of Taiwan was embedded within the section on “Ensuring the Full Implementation of the [PRC] Constitution,” in which he emphasized that Beijing would adhere to the fundamental policy of the “One-China” principle, firmly opposing and containing the “Taiwan independence” separatist forces, and promoting the “peaceful” development of cross-Strait relations on the basis of the “1992 Consensus.” It is noteworthy that the promotion of constitutional review work and activities involving Hong Kong and Macao are also included within this overall task.
This particular session of the 13th NPC coincided with the 15th anniversary of the Anti-Secession Law (反分裂國家法), which the NPC had passed back in 2005 at the beginning of the second term of the previous DPP administration that lasted from 2000-2008. To commemorate the law, a forum was held at the Great Hall of the People. Held only the day after the NPC passed the decision to formulate the Hong Kong national security law, the meeting was jointly organized by the CCP Central Committee Taiwan Work Office and the Legal Work Committee of the NPC Standing Committee. Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪), director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the CCP Central Committee, and other senior Chinese officials attended the meeting.
In responding to questions about the NPC, Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光), the spokesperson for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), pointed out that:
We [China] will continue to deepen the implementation of the important exposition of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s work on Taiwan and the CCP Central Committee’s decision on Taiwan’s work by adhering to the fundamental policy of ‘peaceful reunification, one country, two systems,’ and adhering to the ‘1992 Consensus’ that reflects the “One-China” principle with the utmost sincerity.
Also present at the anniversary was the former propaganda chief and current NPC vice-chairman, Wang Chen (王晨), who stated: “The complete reunification [sic] of the motherland is the common aspiration of all Chinese children and the fundamental interest of the Chinese nation.” Wang pointed out that the “Anti-Secession Law” has a unique and important role in combating the separatist forces of Taiwan independence, promoting peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, promoting the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, and promoting the process of peaceful unification between China and Taiwan.
In his speech at the forum, TAO Director Liu Jieyi (劉結一) stated that:
We do not promise to abandon the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is aimed at the interference by external forces and the active separatist activities of a handful of Taiwan independence separatists. It is definitely not aimed at Taiwan compatriots. I believe that the majority of Taiwan compatriots can recognize the direction of the future, where their interests and welfare lie.
According to Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS:
The anti-secession law was discussed in an interesting way. It is not being portrayed as a justification to use force against Taiwan, but rather, as an example of the kind of law that is needed to protect China’s sovereignty against foreign interference in China’s internal affairs. This, of course, is a concern we are also seeing in Hong Kong.
Finally, I would say, my conclusion is that, despite growing concerns in Beijing about Tsai Ying-wen’s policies in her second term about a weak KMT, about unfavorable public opinion in Taiwan toward China, unification, a growing sense of Taiwan identity, certainly concern about US policy toward Taiwan. Despite all these factors, Beijing has not concluded that its policy has failed and should be abandoned. Though I don’t rule out there will be a rethinking perhaps ongoing adjustments and maybe sometime in the future, we will see a shift in policy, but this year’s two meetings did not signal that.
Commenting on the inclusion of Taiwan and Hong Kong in Li Zhanshu’s work report, an expert cited by Wen Wei Po stated: “When the central government considers the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao in the future, it will gradually be included in the country’s constitutional legal system.” Interestingly, the expert suggested that the PRC may make changes to Taiwan-related laws, since the PRC Constitution, as the expert maintains, can no longer adapt to the needs of cross-Strait relations. According to the expert, “The state must make more elaborate and authoritative legal arrangements for Taiwan at the constitutional level, which is in line with the current situation.”
In reading the tea leaves, official statements may be a signal to Taipei from Beijing that without the so-called “1992 Consensus,” it will not commit to a so-called “peaceful” approach in its Taiwan policy. Of course, actions speak louder than words and Beijing has been systematically ramping up military and political pressures that include provocative military maneuvers around Taiwan in spite of repeatedly stating its “peaceful” intent—so the omission does not probably mean anything substantively different in a practical sense.
It is also likely a signal to the United States. As US-PRC negotiations leading up to and following the establishment of diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing have made clear and the Taiwan Relations Act clearly states, the “United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” and other commitments premised on “the continuity of China’s declared ‘fundamental policy’ of seeking a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.” Beijing’s deliberate omission of “peaceful”—albeit in one speech—could be a response to what it sees as the gradual improvements in ties between the United States and Taiwan over recent years.
The main point: While there does not appear to have been any fundamental changes in the PRC’s policy towards Taiwan at this year’s session of the NPC, some experts believe that the legislature may be considering potential modifications to the legal framework of the PRC’s Taiwan policy.
White House Refers to the People of Taiwan as “Taiwanese”
On May 29, the United States President Donald Trump announced that he was “terminating” the US’ relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO), marking the finale—or at the very least a long intermission—in the feud between the organization’s largest donor and an international health body that has increasingly come under the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In an official letter sent by the White House signed by the President on May 18 that detailed the failure of the WHO to respond effectively to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, there were two references to Taiwan. One of these references may signal a change in how the US government perceives the people of Taiwan, and could represent a meaningful adjustment in a long-standing but arguably outdated and self-imposed restriction on how it describes the people of the island-democracy. The letter stated:
By the next day, Taiwanese authorities had communicated information to the World Health Organization indicating human-to-human transmission of a new virus. Yet the World Health Organization chose not to share any of this critical information with the rest of the world, probably for political reasons.
In almost any other case, the use of “ese” after the name to describe the people of a country would not elicit a whisper, but in a complex relationship laden with semantic land mines—due in large part to Beijing’s political sensitivities—the case of Taiwan is, of course, different.
The word in question is “Taiwanese.” The use of the suffix “ese” forms the adjectival derivative of a place name and is frequently used nominally (a demonym) to denote the inhabitants of the place or their language. However, it is common to hear American diplomats refer to the people of Taiwan not as the “Taiwanese people,” but rather “people on Taiwan” or “Taiwan people.” This semantic dance stems from a diplomatic practice that began at least 15 years ago, based on an internal State Department legal interpretation that has restricted the description of the people of Taiwan as “Taiwanese.” As this letter protesting the restrictions issued by a bipartisan group of US congressmen in 2006 makes clear:
Executive branch officials are not permitted to refer to Taiwan by its official name “Republic of China,” nor can they refer to Taiwan’s government as a “government.” Instead, the term “Taiwan Authorities” must be used. It also prevents Executive branch personnel from referring to the people who live in Taiwan as “Taiwanese”—instead, it requires them to refer to these people as “people on Taiwan.”
These self-imposed restrictions have served as long-standing “guidelines” for informal US-Taiwan relations. Nearly 15 years after the 2006 letter, the issue of these “guidelines” have been the focus of legislative attention again in recent years as well. The Taiwan Assurance Act, introduced by Senator Tom Cotton in March 2019, also references the “Department of State’s guidance on diplomatic practice with Taiwan, including the periodic memorandum entitled ‘Guidelines on Relations with Taiwan’ and related documents, and reissue the guidance to executive branch agencies and offices.” The legislation, if passed, would require the State Department to “conduct a review of the Department of State’s guidance on diplomatic practice with Taiwan.”
The “diplomatic practice” ostensibly began with a legal determination by State Department’s Office of Legal Advisers that the use of the suffix “ese” could be interpreted to denote a recognition of sovereignty for Taiwan and its people as distinct entities separate from China. This interpretation has then served as internal guidance for prescribing how the Executive Branch—such restrictions do not apply to the Legislative or Judicial Branch—conducts its unofficial relationship with Taiwan in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act. These restrictions include preventing Executive Branch officials from attending functions at Twin Oaks (雙橡園)—an estate once used as the official residence of ROC ambassadors, which is now used to perform ceremonial events such as the annual Double Ten celebrations.
Over the recent decades since Taiwan’s democratization, the identity of people on the island has moved considerably away from being Chinese and toward Taiwanese, with a clear majority of people in Taiwan now identifying as Taiwanese. Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center survey—its first ever poll in Taiwan—released in early May, 66 percent of people in the country identified as “Taiwanese,” whereas only 28 percent identified as “Taiwanese and Chinese.” This difference in self-identification was even clearer among the younger population between the ages of 18 and 29, of which 83 percent identified as Taiwanese and only 13 percent identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese. The Pew survey tracks with academic polling done in Taiwan. In the most recent poll on identity conducted by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University released in February 2020, 58.5 percent of Taiwan’s population identified as Taiwanese, 34.7 percent identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and only 3.5 percent identified as Chinese. This represents a significant change from 1992, when only 17.6 percent identified as Taiwanese, 46.4 percent as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and 25.5 percent saw themselves as Chinese.
While American officials have verbally referred to the people of Taiwan as “Taiwanese” before—perhaps inadvertently or in recognition of Taiwan’s evolving identity—and elicited demarches from the PRC Embassy as a result, this appears to be the first time that the White House has issued an official document that used the term. Given past practices, a question that remains is whether this was intentional or accidental. In either case, even legal interpretation should comport with the facts on the ground—and even those once considered steadfast truths can change. Whether intentional or not, the White House may be casting-off a long-standing taboo in how the US conducts its informal relationship with Taiwan. Perhaps it is time that American diplomats are permitted to do the same as well.
The main point: The White House used the term “Taiwanese” in a public and official letter that may signal a change in how the US government traditionally describes the people of Taiwan.