Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Who is Li Su?

In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post, a prominent American journalist wrote that China’s recent actions in Hong Kong, namely its ruthless imposition of the draconian National Security Law, may serve as its blueprint for forcibly unifying Taiwan. According to John Pomfret, Beijing could even take military action against the island as soon as next year. The source of Pomfret’s provocative assertion seems to be based primarily on comments made by an individual named Li Su (李肅). Pomfret, the author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present—an extraordinarily comprehensive account of nearly two centuries of US-China relations—described Li as “a prominent hard-liner in Beijing” and “part of an influential group of scholars in China who support an armed solution to what they call ‘the Taiwan problem.’” [1] He apparently spoke with Li and was convinced to take him seriously enough to consider his warnings as worthy of being shared with the readers of one of America’s most widely read newspapers, even if such assertions are not new. [2] Yet beyond Li Su’s position as the president of the Beijing-based Modern Think-Tank Forum (當代智庫論壇), not much information about him is available in Western sources. Who is he and why would a prominent American journalist take him seriously—and more importantly, should other observers do the same?

As previously noted, not much is known about Li’s personal history, such as his place of birth, whether he is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or even his age. However, his rather long and interesting list of professional experiences has been presented in various biographies provided for speaking engagements. When pieced together, they provide a compelling portrait of the man who caught Pomfret’s attention. The most frequently cited positions that appear online for Li are that of the founder of the China Federation of Non-governmental Think Tanks (中國民間智庫聯合會[籌]), president of the Modern Think-Tank Forum, and founder of the Hejun Venture Consulting Group (和君創業諮詢集團).

According to information gathered from a variety of open-source materials, the Modern Think-Tank Forum claims to be the successor to the Beijing System Reform Research and Consulting Center (北京體制改革研究諮詢中心), the oldest non-governmental think tank institution founded in China, which Li helped co-found. The Center was established under the guidance of the National Economic Reform Commission, the State Economic and Trade Commission, and the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission. The Modern Think-Tank Forum is the association that Li seems to use most frequently use when engaging with international interlocutors.

Additionally, Li founded Hejun Venture Consulting Group, a highly-rated business consulting firm operating in China, with both domestic and international clients. Li is seemingly a very well-known management consulting expert in the PRC, and his long and storied track record in this field includes providing consulting services to over 100 companies, including Sinochem Group, COSCO Group, Sinotrans Corporation, Hitachi, Delong Group, Weiguan Group, and Sanjiu Group. Prior to his business consulting days, he served as deputy director of the Economic Research Institute of the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, and at some point was a senior researcher at the University of Houston Asian American Research Center, as well as a visiting researcher at the Social Development Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In the hyper-political Chinese system, one has to have political benefactors in order to survive, much less thrive—and Li claims to be thriving and have many high-flying friends. In a lengthy online post describing his professional career in the Chinese think tank world, Li professes to have close working relations with Weng Yongxi (翁永曦), one of the “four reformer gentlemen” (改革四君子) in the 1980s (which also included Wang Qishan [王岐山], Zhu Jiaming [朱嘉明], and Huang Jiangnang [黄江南]), helping to provide policy guidance to North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. After six rounds of exchanges, the group allegedly helped create the Xinyizhou Special Administrative Region (新義洲特別行政區). According to Li, he even helped plan the North-to-South Water Diversion for the Mongolian prime minister, in addition to consulting on Pakistan’s Gwadar Free Port Zone.

At its inception and early years, the Modern Think-Tank Forum was primarily focused on providing consulting services to the Chinese government on internal reform issues. Yet, according to Li, his think tank began to shift gear and focus on “changing the national policy of foreign governments” beginning in the early 2000s. The institute began taking on international projects from North Korea to Mongolia, and Nigeria to Pakistan. According to Li, the think tank served foreign presidents around the world.

Interestingly, in 2002, Chinese-Dutch Billionaire Yang Bin (楊斌)—who was later convicted for countless crimes and instances of corruption—asked Li to serve as a consultant for a project in North Korea. As noted earlier, Li claims to have provided advice to Kim Jong-il in North Korea and contributed to negotiations over the Xinyizhou Special Administrative Region, which helped to open the door to reform and opening up in North Korea. Then, in 2006, Hu Deping (胡德平)—the eldest of son of former CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) who served as deputy chief of the United Front Work Department from 1998-2008, as well as secretary of the National Association of Industry and Commerce (which is under the United Front Work Department)—took Li on a business trip to Pakistan. Li claims to have advised then-President Pervez Musharraf to establish the free port zone in Gwadar, integrating China’s westward strategy with Iran’s India-Pakistan energy economy, with the goal of creating a new Dubai-like city in Asia.

From these associations, it appears that Li’s strongest political ties are with the United Front system. Li also has links with Tao Siliang (陶斯亮) and Ma Xiaoli (馬曉力), daughter of Ma Wenrui (馬文瑞), who served as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from 1984-1993. From 2012 to 2015, with the help of the two aforementioned princelings of the United Front system, Li began to shift the operations of the think tank to external work, with a focus on five major trends of Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “New Deal.”

Clearly, Li Su appears to have extensive professional experience in business management consulting. All this begs the question: why is a business management consultant with seemingly no background on cross-Strait issues either in government or academia like Li suddenly working on Taiwan policy?

According to various online media reports, Li had actually visited Taiwan several times in 2016 in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, where he reportedly met with the leaders of the blue (KMT) and green (DPP) camps. In publicly available comments made since 2017, Li, along with Huang Jiangnan and Zhao Gang (趙剛), who is dual-hatted as an office director in the Ministry of Science and Technology, have opined on Taiwan policy, provocatively supporting a policy of forceful unification of Taiwan. Li and his associates were later denied entry into Taiwan in 2019 by Taiwanese authorities for their advocacy for using military force to unify Taiwan.

Li and the Modern Think-Tank Forum have also been engaged in an annual China-US dialogue with institutions in the United States. The primary counterpart for Li and his cohorts is the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University. There have been at least 10 such dialogues organized up till 2019. It is not clear if all of them have been organized with Stanford.

It is also through this dialogue that Pomfret had apparently met Li. A detailed account of their discussion is provided here. Li began vocally commenting on Taiwan policy issues as early as 2017, asserting that Xi will complete the historical task of unifying Taiwan in his second term—that is, by 2021—a hundred years after the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To Li, the realization of cross-Strait unification during this period will not only put an end to the century-long struggle between the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party, but will also signal a great revival of the Chinese nation.

Li has a legitimately impressive and extensive record as a management consultant in the field of economic development, but his limited exposure to Taiwan policy raises questions about his relatively recent foray into these issues and diminishes his credibility as an authority on the topic. As someone who professes to be a policy entrepreneur with a track record of business development, it is worth questioning whether Li sees this bluster as simply an opportunity to obtain more government clients. It is also worth noting that Li’s rhetoric echoes the increasingly hawkish tone of official Chinese positions toward Taiwan, while his connections with the United Front system may be the driver behind his positions on Taiwan. One should not take Li too seriously for his 2021 forecast, at least not any more than any of the other Chinese hawks rattling the same saber.

The main point: John Pomfret’s source for the 2021 forecast Li Su is an experienced management consultant, but Li’s relatively limited experience in Taiwan policy and connections to the United Front system raises questions about his credibility with regards to the seriousness of his claims.

[1] Pomfret, John (2017). The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present. New York, NY: Picador.

[2] For instance, Ambassador (ret.) Chas W. Freeman, Jr. has written: “There is an obvious deadline for bringing Taiwan to heel: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP in 2021.”

Taiwan and Somaliland Establish Ties as PRC’s Diplomatic Pressure Increases

On July 1, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry issued a press statement announcing that the governments of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the Republic of Somaliland had agreed to establish ties. The foreign minister of Taiwan, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), noted that eight countries and global organizations have set up representative offices in Somaliland, while the self-declared East African state has established its own representative offices in 22 countries. The full statement read:

On behalf of the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Minister of Foreign Affairs Jaushieh Joseph Wu announced in a press conference on July 1 that agreement has been reached with the Republic of Somaliland on the mutual establishment of Representative Offices based on bilateral friendship and a shared commitment to common values of freedom, democracy, justice, and the rule of law. The offices will be named the Taiwan Representative Office and Somaliland Representative Office, respectively. In the spirit of mutual assistance for mutual benefit, Taiwan and Somaliland will engage in cooperation in areas such as fisheries, agriculture, energy, mining, public health, education, and ICT.

At a press conference revealing the agreement, Taiwan’s foreign minister noted that because formal diplomatic ties have not been established, the office in Somaliland will be called the “Taiwan Representative Office.” Additionally, Somaliland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted: “The Government of Somaliland identified issues of mutual concern, including building-bridges of diplomacy; opening missions to boost political and socioeconomic links between the Republic of Somaliland and the Republic of China (Taiwan).”

Taiwan and Somaliland apparently signed the bilateral agreement on February 26, but waited nearly five months to make the announcement public. In the meantime, Somaliland has reportedly been resisting pressure from Beijing to abort its decision. According to one media report: “The Chinese ambassador to Somalia met twice with Somaliland officials to discourage ties between Somaliland and Taiwan, numerous reports indicated earlier this week, saying China would open a representative office in the Somaliland capital of Hargiesa should they break the agreement with Taiwan.”

Since the diplomatic switch to Beijing by Burkina Faso in May 2018, Taiwan has had only one diplomatic partner in the entire African continent. That last remaining diplomatic ally, eSwatini—formerly known as Swaziland—has come under intense pressure and economic coercion by China to switch ties. Earlier this year, the PRC’s then-ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian (林松添), threatened that China would economically “cripple” the small African kingdom and claimed “no diplomatic relations, no more business benefits.” Lin has since left his post as ambassador and has assumed the post of president of the influential United Front outfit, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (中國人民對外友好協會), underscoring the shift in the focus of that organization to the African continent.

In addition to being a rare countervailing diplomatic switch, the move on Somaliland could be seen as part of Taipei’s efforts to expand its strategic footprint globally by developing its relations with the African continent. Somaliland is strategically located in the Horn of Africa in northwestern Somalia. Crucially, it lies on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden—a vital waterway for shipping, especially for Persian Gulf oil. It is bordered by the remainder of (internationally recognized) Somalia to the east, Djibouti to the northwest, and Ethiopia to the south and west.

Breaking away from Somalia in 1991 during the Somali Civil War, the autonomous region of Somaliland has held democratic elections but does not maintain diplomatic relations with any recognized state in the international community. It is a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), an advocacy group whose members consist of indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognized or occupied territories. Taiwan is also a member of this grouping.

Reactions to the announcement among analysts have been mixed. According to RAND analyst Derek Grossman: “Bad idea. If Taiwan wants to be treated as an internationally-recognized sovereign state, then it needs internationally-recognized sovereign states to recognize it. Lowering the bar to autonomous territories cheapens that brand.” On the other hand, Thomas Shattuck, a research associate with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, wrote: “This announcement—while falling short of formal relations—reverses course for Taiwan. The last time that Taiwan was able to add a friend or ally was in 2007 with St. Lucia. Somaliland and Taiwan share similar geopolitical circumstances, which almost make the new pairing seem natural.”

Beijing’s response was expected: “Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) on Monday accused Taiwanese authorities of “plotting separatist activities” and violating the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Somalia by setting up mutual representative offices with Somaliland.” Striking a very different tone, in a tweet on July 9, the White House National Security Council applauded the decision: “Great to see #Taiwan stepping up its engagement in East #Africa in a time of such tremendous need. #Taiwan is a great partner in health, education, technical assistance, and more!”

While the United States never formally severed diplomatic relations with Somalia, the US Embassy in Somalia was closed in 1991, when the central government collapsed due to the civil war, and it was not until December 2018 that the United States reestablished a permanent diplomatic presence in Somalia.

Given Somaliland’s lack of international diplomatic recognition, the establishment of ties will likely only have marginal diplomatic value for Taiwan. Yet, through this action Taipei is demonstrating that Taiwan can still have some agency in its limited diplomatic space. At the very least, it offers a reprieve—albeit a minor one—from the diplomatic onslaught that Beijing has been waging since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was elected president of Taiwan in 2016. In response to this intensifying pressure campaign, the US Congress passed and the president signed into law the TAIPEI Act in late March 2020. Among various provisions, the act states as policy to “consider, in certain cases as appropriate and in alignment with United States interests, increasing its economic, security, and diplomatic engagement with nations that have demonstrably strengthened, enhanced, or upgraded relations with Taiwan.” At most, the move by Taipei in Somaliland could open the door for improved relations between Washington and Somaliland, and may encourage some strategic cooperation between Taiwan and the United States in the strategically located Horn of Africa.

The main point: Taiwan’s announcement that it had established ties with Somaliland will likely only have marginal diplomatic value, but could open the door wider for cooperation with the United States in the Horn of Africa.