Democracy vs. “Democracy”: A Turbulent 2022 in the Taiwan Strait

Democracy vs. “Democracy”: A Turbulent 2022 in the Taiwan Strait

Democracy vs. “Democracy”: A Turbulent 2022 in the Taiwan Strait

The year 2022 could be the 21st century’s most turbulent year yet for cross-Strait relations. Although China’s employment of coercive tactics has become the rule rather than the exception in recent years, the political calendars in Taiwan and China intersect in ways that may be conducive to even greater tensions in the months ahead. 

A Quiet Start

Before cross-Strait waters turn choppy, however, they may experience a relatively quiet start to the year. The 2022 Winter Olympics kick off during the first week of February and with those games already drawing extra unwanted attention to Chinese human rights abuses, Beijing may be intent on not providing critics additional ammunition with which to assail China’s hosting duties. The Olympic Truce kicks in on January 28 and, especially with Taiwanese athletes competing in a number of events, Beijing may want to at least give the appearance of respecting it. That likely will not entail a complete cessation of flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), but large exercises may be put off until after the Paralympics, which close on March 13 (technically, the Olympic Truce ends a week later, on March 20). 

The 20th Party Congress

With the Olympics in the rearview mirror, Xi Jinping (習近平) will set his sights squarely on the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (NCCCP, 中國共產黨全國代表大會), which is traditionally held in the fall. The 20th Party Congress should have kicked off a leadership transition following Xi’s decade in power. But March 11 will instead mark the three-year anniversary of an amendment to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Constitution that abolished presidential term limits. There is now no legal bar to Xi remaining as president, there is no apparent successor for general secretary, and Xi has given no indication he plans to step aside.

Although odds are that Xi will remain general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), chairman of the Central Military Commission (中央軍事委員會), and president of the PRC, the path to that outcome may not be entirely smooth sailing. Indeed, it has been decades since a Chinese leader attempted the feat. Xi has certainly broken recent norms in centralizing power and building for himself a cult of personality, but he may not have abolished those norms. Xi is a product of the CCP, but so are those cadres that still favor relatively more openness, rule by consensus, and institutionalized leadership transitions. There is not significant open resistance to Xi’s continuing rule, but the upcoming Party Congress presents a rare opportunity for an opposition to organize and operate within Party confines and employ Party procedures to foil his plans.

Does that remain unlikely? Yes. But Xi will not take any chances. 2022 will be yet another tragic year for human rights in China, with even less space for civil society, greater controls on speech, and the Party’s ever greater dominance of the information space within Chinese borders. The Party will use that dominance not only to shut down and drown out speech it does not like, but also to make a positive case for Xi’s continuing grip on the helm. As propaganda outlets lecture audiences on the Chinese leader’s success in delivering his promised great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, Xi will stay the course on Taiwan; to do otherwise would be to admit his approach to pursuing unification was failing. The years-long pressure campaign, then, will continue apace and could get worse. After all, going soft on Taiwan is not a political winner in Beijing.

Taiwan’s Nine-In-One Elections

Unfortunately, Xi Jinping may also see an opportunity to make progress in 2022 in China’s quest for unification. In November, Taiwan will hold its quadrennial “nine-in-one” elections—local contests for roles ranging from village chiefs to county magistrates. Akin to American midterms in their political significance, they serve as a gauge of popular support (or lack thereof) for the current national government and help set the terms on which the next presidential election will be fought two years later. It is little wonder, then, that China has acted aggressively to interfere in such elections in the past—particularly in 2018—and that it is likely to do so again.

For all the talk of a growing Chinese invasion threat—a threat that has grown more urgent, though not yet imminent—Beijing would still prefer to annex Taiwan without firing a shot. Doing so requires political leadership in Taiwan that might be amenable to settling the cross-Strait dispute on terms acceptable to Beijing; or that would be more likely to respond to nonviolent coercion in ways that China would find favorable. Taiwan’s national leadership will not change in 2022, but “friendly” local leaders could make for local conditions more conducive to CCP united front work. Moreover, the defeat of candidates broadly aligned with current president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨), whom Beijing considers to be pro-independence, would mark a setback for her domestic agenda and help ensure that the DPP’s candidate for president in 2024 will face an uphill battle. From Beijing’s point of view, then, the upcoming nine-in-one elections may provide the CCP with an opportunity to shape Taiwan’s domestic political landscape in such a way as to make non-violent unification more likely.

But that will be only one reason to interfere in Taiwan’s 2022 elections. Even if the CCP has only limited (if any) success in supporting its preferred candidates, election interference can still undermine faith in Taiwan’s democratic institutions. Disinformation campaigns, rumored instances of interference, and even successfully identified and frustrated cases of CCP meddling can all contribute to perceptions that the integrity of Taiwan’s electoral processes has been weakened. Over time, those perceptions can contribute to internal divisions in Taiwan, decreased political engagement among the populace, and crises of legitimacy for the elected, ruling authorities. Such an outcome could likewise ease Beijing’s quest for unification, as Taiwan’s government will find policymaking far more difficult, especially regarding contentious issues—such as how to engage with, deter, and defend against China—and as Taiwanese society may find it difficult to unite in the face of Chinese coercion.

Finally, and related, the CCP may see added incentive to interfere in Taiwan’s 2022 elections because of their temporal proximity to the 20th Party Congress. It has become clear in recent months that China is remarkably sensitive to the suggestion that it is not a democracy. Ahead of the Biden Administration’s early December Summit for Democracy, to which China was not invited, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the United States published a joint op-ed declaring that their countries are, in fact, democracies. Building on this, China’s State Council published an entire white paper on the topic: “China: Democracy That Works.” Come the fourth quarter of 2022, Taiwan’s actual democratic process and China’s so-called democratic process will be on display for all to see—and for all to compare. The CCP will seek to shape that comparison. A likely message for CCP propaganda this coming autumn will be that the Party Congress is proof of China’s orderly system, whereas the nine-in-one elections demonstrate the messiness and chaos inherent in liberal forms of governance. If the CCP can take steps to create that chaos, it will do so.

A Turbulent Year

What will hopefully be a relatively quiet start to 2022 in the Taiwan Strait will likely give way to rough seas as Xi Jinping looks ahead to major political events that will close out the year in both China and Taiwan. Optimistically, it is possible that Beijing will reduce military activities near Taiwan in the lead-up to Taiwan’s elections, as it has done in the past, in an effort to undercut China-skeptical candidates. But it is not clear that Beijing adheres to such logic any longer, especially given Taiwan’s centrality in Xi’s animating vision (the “great rejuvenation”), or that such efforts are likely to be effective anyway given the effect that the lengthy period of sustained pressure on Taiwan has had on that country’s populace and politics.

Perhaps more likely is sustained and even intensified People’s Liberation Army intimidation operations. China, meanwhile, will continue to seek Taiwan’s isolation in the international arena. With the impending Party Congress, Beijing will mount particularly robust responses to calls for Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations and may aim to pull more of Taiwan’s formal diplomatic partners into China’s orbit (Central American countries are of particular concern). It is also possible that China will resort to greater use of its economic leverage vis-à-vis Taiwan, while making implicit assurances that the election of more China-friendly candidates will see such measures suspended. On top of all that will come active interference in Taiwan’s domestic politics, which will amount to a direct attack on Taiwan’s sovereignty and on one of modern Taiwan’s defining features.

The Tsai Ing-wen government faces a tall task in 2022. It must effectively defend Taiwan against various Chinese depredations, maintain societal unity to the greatest extent possible during an election year, and ensure that in standing up for itself, it will not be perceived as provoking Beijing or otherwise contributing to cross-Strait tensions. And Taiwan’s government must do all of that while continuing to grapple with COVID-19 and the pandemic’s various follow-on effects.

Better buckle up, because 2022 could be quite the ride.

The main point: The 2022 political calendars in Taiwan and China intersect in ways that may be conducive to heightened tensions.