In the first and second weeks of March, People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials convened the “Two Sessions” (兩會), the largest official event on the PRC’s annual political calendar. The “Two Sessions” consist of concurrent plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC, 全國人民代表大會) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 中國人民政治協商會議). The former body, China’s official national legislature, acts as a rubber stamp to codify Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) policy decisions; while the latter, a key component of the CCP United Front bureaucracy, is a nominal advisory body intended to provide a veneer of political pluralism to CCP one-party rule.
Both institutions also serve as carefully stage-managed propaganda fora, presenting narratives advocated by the CCP leadership—and often, signaling policy priorities for the year ahead. These annual meetings normally contain leadership speeches and press events that signal shifts in CCP policies towards peripheral regions either controlled by or claimed by the PRC, including Taiwan. The 2021 Two Sessions were no exception: in both the NPC session convened from March 5-11 and the parallel session of the CPPCC that met from March 4-10, speeches and official commentaries gave prominence to the need for continued “Hong Kong-Macao-Taiwan Work” (港澳臺工作), to be conducted under the PRC’s official framework of “one country, two systems” (一國兩制). There were also hints at a potential future national unification law, this time directed at Taiwan. However, no such legislation was on the official agenda for this year’s session of the NPC.
Leadership Statements on Taiwan Policy Presented at the NPC and CPPCC
One of the centerpiece events of each year’s NPC meeting is the presentation by the PRC premier of the “government work report” (政府工作報告), a speech that both extols the government’s successes over the preceding year and signals priorities for the year ahead. In regards to Taiwan policy, PRC Premier Li Keqiang (李克強)’s work report at the 2020 NPC garnered attention for its omission of the word “peaceful” (和平) from the standard phraseology of “peaceful reunification” (和平統一) with Taiwan. The significance of this omission was not clear, but may have reflected Beijing’s frustration with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen’s (蔡英文) decisive re-election victory in January 2020, as well as the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.
Of note, this year PRC state outlets appeared to provide coverage of Li’s work report—which was presented on the NPC’s opening day on March 5—in summary form rather than verbatim text. Most of the direct references to Taiwan in Li’s report came in reference to the need for continued and enhanced “Hong Kong-Macao-Taiwan Work.” In this section, Li reiterated the need to maintain the PRC’s “one country, two systems” model, as well as the “1992 Consensus” (九二共識)—the tacit agreement made in 1992 between CCP and Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) officials that there was only one China, with each side interpreting that in its own way. Li also offered promises of a high degree of autonomy and local rule for all three regions, stating that “We must continue to comprehensively and precisely implement ‘one country two systems’ [while maintaining the] ‘Hong People Governing Hong Kong’ [and] ‘Macao People Governing Macao’ policy of a high degree of autonomy.” Such promises stood in stark contrast to one of the signature pieces of legislation in this year’s NPC, an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system intended to ensure that only Beijing-approved “patriots” can hold office.
In regards to Taiwan more specifically, Li’s comments were relatively restrained, focused on promises of cooperation rather than overt threats—while still issuing warnings against “‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist activities” (臺獨”分裂活動”). The official summary of Li’s report stated that:
[We must] persist in the fundamental policy of Taiwan work, maintaining the “One-China Policy” and the 1992 Consensus, promoting the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations and unification of the motherland. [We must maintain] a high level of vigilance and resolutely contain “Taiwan independence” separatist activities. [We must] perfect and safeguard the welfare of Taiwan compatriots, and the system and policies of [their] enjoying equal treatment on the mainland; promoting cooperative exchanges across both sides of the Taiwan Straits, fusing development, [and] working together to create a glorious future for national rejuvenation.
Mention of Taiwan—again, in the broader context of “Hong Kong-Macao-Taiwan Work”—was also made in the standing committee work report presented by CPPCC Chairman Wang Yang (汪洋) before that body on March 4. Wang commented that “[We must] steadfastly uphold the principle of ‘patriots governing Hong Kong,’ [and] strengthen friendship ties with Hong Kong and Macao compatriots, Taiwan compatriots, and overseas Chinese.” To this end, Wang offered the vague statement that “[We must] promote cross-Strait economic and cultural exchange cooperation [and other such means] to explore dialogue.” Wang also extolled the value of the Twelfth Taiwan Strait Forum (第十二屆海峽論壇) and the Third Cross-Strait Grassroots Governance Forum (第三屆兩岸基層治理論壇)—both united front events hosted by the PRC in September 2020—as positive models for building cross-Strait ties.
Commentaries by Lower-Level PRC Officials and the State Media
While senior leadership statements at the NPC and CPPCC were relatively restrained, harder-edged comments were made by more junior officials. At an NPC press conference on March 7, PRC foreign minister Wang Yi (王毅) warned the Biden Administration against “crossing the line” and “playing with fire” in regards to Taiwan. Wang asserted that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory [and] the two sides of the Taiwan Strait must be and will surely be reunified. […] [Our] resolve to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity is rock-firm. We have the capability to thwart separatist attempts for ‘Taiwan independence’ in whatever form. […] On the Taiwan question, there is no room for compromise or concession from the Chinese government.”
Some of the most assertive statements about Taiwan at the Two Sessions were offered by spokespersons for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Per comments made by Wu Qian (吳謙), a spokesperson for the PLA delegation to the NPC, “We will show maximum sincerity and do our very utmost to promote peaceful reunification [sic] of China […] but we will never tolerate any ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces attempting to split China.” Wu further asserted that “We do not renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures […] [to] guard against external interference and a tiny number of separatists […] [which] in no way target[s] our compatriots in Taiwan.”
The CPPCC also saw standard appearances by figures from the CCP United Front Work Department (UFWD, 中共中央統一戰線工作部)’s Taiwan-oriented front organizations. Of these, the most prominent is the Taiwan Democratic Self-Governance League (TDSGL, 臺灣民主自治同盟), which operates as one of the eight “democratic parties” allowed to officially operate in the PRC political system as stage-managed adjuncts of the CCP. At this year’s CPPCC session, TDSGL representative Wu Guohua (吳國華) spoke on the need to engage in further “propaganda and education” to instill “national feeling” (國情) among Taiwan’s youth. Additionally, TDSGL Secretary General Pan Xinyang (潘新洋) delivered a speech praising both the role of Taiwan natives residing in the PRC and of dialogues promoted by his organization in bringing closer eventual unification between the PRC and Taiwan.
The nationalist Global Times newspaper commented that “The latest official remarks during the two sessions have shown that the mainland is fully aware of the rising risks and seriousness of Taiwan secessionism […] the mainland has the confidence and determination to realize the reunification eventually whether by force or peaceful means, with or without the efforts within the island.”
Hints of a Future National Unification Law?
In relation to Taiwan, one of the most intriguing developments to emerge from this year’s Two Sessions were the hints at a potential future PRC law on national unification, which might update or amend aspects of the PRC’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law. For example, PRC state media approvingly cited Ling Yu-Shih (凌友詩), an appointed “Taiwan delegate” to the CPPCC, as calling for national reunification legislation that would strengthen or supersede existing PRC law. Further media commentary opined that, in regard to Taiwan, “The year 2020 is regarded as a key year for the transition from anti-secessionism to pro-reunification.”
The clearest hint that such a measure may be under consideration came on March 8, when Li Zhanshu (栗戰書), chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC, delivered his committee’s official work report to that body. In a section of Li’s report addressing “constitution implementation work” (憲法實施工作) and legal reform measures, these two sentences were added at the end:
[We must] maintain and perfect the system of “one country, two systems,” uphold the constitution and the Basic Law to settle the constitutional order for Special Administrative Regions, [and] ensure the stability in practice of “one country, two systems.” [We must] employ legal measures to defend the “One-China Principle,” oppose “Taiwan independence,” [and] enhance common knowledge of the One China framework; and on the basis of law and norms uphold relations among people on both sides of the Strait, advancing cross-Strait exchange and cooperation, [and] advancing the peaceful reunification of the motherland.
This language is vague, but seems to dovetail with other hints regarding a potential national unification law that might further codify Beijing’s interpretation of “one China” into PRC law—and provide a legal rationale for stronger coercive measures against Taiwan. It has often been CCP practice to signal such legislation ahead of time, just as the Hong Kong National Security Law was unveiled prior to its enactment in June 2020. It is also possible that these hints were offered as a trial balloon, to gauge international reaction. Alternatively, they may have been presented as a sort of legalistic saber-rattling, intended to intimidate audiences in Taiwan. However, this remains speculative, and no such legislation appeared to be on the official agenda for the 2021 NPC meeting.
In this year’s meetings of the NPC and CPPCC, the CCP’s campaign to subvert electoral processes and suppress the democratic opposition in Hong Kong took center stage—with concerns over Taiwan taking a secondary position amid the broader paradigm of “Hong Kong-Macao-Taiwan Work.” The CCP leadership clearly views Hong Kong as the more immediate and pressing problem. However, Taiwan policy continues to hold a significant place in Beijing’s propaganda narratives, and messaging from the Two Sessions maintained an insistence on “reunification” with Taiwan under Beijing’s official “one country, two systems” framework. However, such narratives are likely to ring increasingly hollow, as “one country, two systems” has long been rejected in Taiwan by both political leaders and the general public. Furthermore, Beijing’s slogans on Hong Kong autonomy clash with its increasingly heavy-handed dominance over the territory, including reports that PRC officials are excluding Hong Kong loyalists from deliberations and policy decisions regarding the city’s future.
The speeches from the CCP’s most senior officials—particularly, Politburo Standing Committee members Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, and Li Zhanshu—were relatively restrained in relation to Taiwan, focused primarily on vague promises of mutually beneficial cooperation rather than overt threats. Somewhat more provocative language was offered by lower-level officials and state media, but even this was well within the traditional norms of CCP nationalist discourse. It is significant that official messaging consistently referenced a desire for engagement with “Taiwan compatriots” (臺灣同胞), while ignoring any mention of potential dialogue with Taiwan’s duly-elected government. Clearly, Beijing intends to continue its policy of ignoring the administration of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen, while seeking to further build up business and United Front ties with private Taiwan citizens, as well as its own network of stage-managed Taiwan front organizations.
Messaging from the Two Sessions suggests that the CCP leadership has likely made a decision to place Taiwan policy on the back burner for the time being while it focuses attention on bringing Hong Kong to heel. However, the PRC’s insistence on achieving unification with Taiwan—on Beijing’s own terms—remains unchanged, even if competing priorities have temporarily taken center stage. As Hong Kong is brought under tighter central control, the coming years could well see renewed CCP attention to Taiwan policy, including potential legislation to be unveiled at a future meeting of the NPC.
The main point: The annual spring meetings of the PRC’s “Two Sessions” maintained CCP policies and narratives in relation to Taiwan, although these discussions took a back seat to the focus on entrenching Beijing’s dominance over Hong Kong. Hints were offered about a potential future “national unification law” directed at Taiwan, although no such legislation was on this year’s official agenda.