The 13th Straits Forum and Beijing’s United Front “People-to-People Exchanges”

The 13th Straits Forum and Beijing’s United Front “People-to-People Exchanges”

The 13th Straits Forum and Beijing’s United Front “People-to-People Exchanges”

On December 10-11, 2021, the “13th Straits Forum” (第十三屆海峽論壇) was convened in the city of Xiamen, in China’s southeastern Fujian Province. First held in 2009, the forum has become an annual event hosted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to promote cross-Strait ties. The 2021 forum was organized under the slogan of “Expanding People-to-People Exchanges, Deepening Integrated Development” (擴大民間交流, 深化融合發展). Official PRC outlets claimed that “nearly 2,000 Taiwan compatriots from all walks of life” attended the forum, including “representatives of political parties, co-sponsors of the forum, industry elites, social organizations and religious circles.” State media further asserted that “10,000 people joined the forum online and in-person and nearly half were from the Taiwan region,” although the actual number of people from Taiwan who may have participated in the event is unknown.

In keeping with the forum’s linkage to the united front work (統戰工作) bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 共產黨), the opening of December’s forum featured an address by Wang Yang (汪洋), the CCP Politburo Standing Committee member who bears primary responsibility for the united front policy portfolio. [1] Wang’s address contained much of the usual CCP boilerplate about “achieving the complete unification of the motherland” and the Chinese people’s “rock-solid determination to oppose separatism,” but also attempted to strike a positive note in characterizing the event as a “common people’s forum” (百姓論壇) intended to build a “bridge of trust” (連心橋) across the Taiwan Strait.

For its part, Taiwan’s government was harshly critical of the event. On December 6, Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正), the vice-chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (大陸委員會), preemptively criticized the Straits Forum as a “large-scale united front platform [directed towards] Taiwan, completely dominated by and with an agenda designed by the Chinese Communists,” and discouraged Taiwan citizens from taking part. When speaking subsequently before the Legislative Yuan, Chiu advised political figures and others from Taiwan to steer clear of such events, and therefore to avoid becoming “Chinese Communist united front targets” (中共統戰對象).

Themes from the 13th Straits Forum

PRC state media coverage of the forum showed a range of carefully stage-managed activities, ranging from political speeches, to testimonials by Taiwanese businesspeople who had found success in China, to music performances, and even a children’s “street dance” competition. As alluded to in the official slogan and the speech by Wang Yang, the forum emphasized the promotion of “people-to-people” (or “among the people”) exchanges (民間交流), divided among four specified sub-categories: “youth exchanges” (青年交流), “grassroots exchanges” (基層交流), “cultural exchanges” (文化交流), and “economic exchanges” (經濟交流). 

The promotion of business ties was a major theme, with PRC state media claiming that “in the business cooperation meeting […] some 15 deals were signed worth more than 3.7 billion yuan ($580 million).” A significant emphasis was also placed on outreach and career programs for Taiwan youth, which have been a major point of focus for CCP propaganda and united front efforts throughout 2020 (see here and here). The state news network CGTN proclaimed that “Over 1,600 jobs and internship opportunities are available to young people from Taiwan through the forum, in fields including rural development, entrepreneurship, talent training and industrial cooperation.”

PRC state media coverage also gave significant focus to a propaganda line that accused—without specificity or evidence—Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) of suppressing participation in the forum via intimidation. Chinese Taiwan Net (中國臺灣網), an official PRC website for Taiwan-related news, accused the DPP of conducting a campaign of “green terror” (綠色恐怖) on the island. Per this account, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council “successively disgraced itself” by “preventing relevant people from attending,” and the “DPP authorities” had further employed counter-subversion laws to “intimidate the Taiwan masses” from attending. In remarks made about the forum on December 15, Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光), a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the PRC State Council (國務院台灣事務辦公室), stated: “We ask the DPP authority: they crack down on dissidents on the island, stir up ethnic antagonism and divisions in Taiwan society. What kind of democracy is that?”

Kuomintang Participation in Forum Events

Questions regarding the nature of the Straits Forum further connect to domestic political controversies within Taiwan itself. While Taiwan’s DPP-led government discouraged any participation, senior figures from Taiwan’s leading opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨), participated in some of the forum’s events via remote video connection from Taiwan. On December 10, KMT Deputy Chairman Hsia Li-yan (夏立言) presented a speech to the “19th Cross-Strait Youth Forum” (第十九屆海峽青年論壇), one of the component events of the broader forum. As covered by pro-KMT media, Hsia praised the past policies on cross-Strait relations under the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and stressed initiatives in “three directions” (三個方向): (1) supporting the rights of young people to engage in “lawful and legitimate exchanges” (合法正當交流); (2) expanding the scope of exchanges across a range of areas, to include politics, economics, history, and culture; and (3) employing exchanges as a means to “seek common ground while acknowledging differences […] [to promote] mutual understanding, [and] from this point resolve differences [and] eliminate the distance between the two sides.”

KMT Chairman Chu Li-lun (Eric Chu, 朱立倫), who has expressed support for the annual event as a “people’s” (民間) forum dating back to its creation in 2009, also participated via a pre-recorded speech presented to the forum on December 11. In the speech, Chu stated that “today’s Kuomintang […] bears a heavy responsibility for promoting stable cross-Strait relations,” and that the KMT would promote “peaceful cross-Strait development” within the framework of the “party constitution and party platform.” Chu also vowed to uphold the interests of Taiwan citizens living in China, and expressed his support for “exchanges in the six people’s social fields” (民間六大社會領域的交流) of culture, urban affairs, scholarship, commerce, religion, and sports.


The 13th Cross-Strait Forum once more demonstrated the CCP’s ongoing focus on “people-to-people” exchanges in cross-Strait relations: one that eschews formal state-to-state interactions, while emphasizing non-governmental contacts, particularly in terms of inducements offered to Taiwanese businesspeople and young adults. This follows a pattern clearly demonstrated throughout the tenure of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), in which Beijing has sought to deny any legitimacy to Taiwan’s DPP-led government—and even, in more recent propaganda, to level the risible charge that Tsai’s administration is conducting a campaign of “green terror” against opponents within Taiwan (an accusation that was undercut by Beijing’s own claims of widespread Taiwanese participation).

The highly critical position towards the 13th Straits Forum taken by Taiwan’s DPP-controlled government on the one hand, and the more positive stance taken by the leadership of the KMT opposition on the other, further demonstrate Taiwan’s stark partisan divide in responding to PRC united front initiatives. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council was correct to caution that this event was “completely dominated by and with an agenda designed by the Chinese Communists,” and that it is part and parcel of the CCP’s broader united front effort to seek avenues of influence within Taiwan, with the ultimate aim of subverting Taiwan’s autonomy and its liberal democratic society.

It is noteworthy that, in their remarks to the Straits Forum, KMT Chairman Chu Li-lun and Deputy Chairman Hsia Li-yan both attempted to frame their remarks within language that, while positive towards enhanced civic exchanges with the PRC, did not compromise the KMT’s traditional emphasis on a Republic of China (ROC, 中華民國) identity for Taiwan. This space for a state identity for Taiwan separate from the PRC (sometimes termed huadu [華獨], as discussed by J. Michael Cole in our previous issue) is fundamental to the KMT’s conception of cross-Strait relations. However, it is anathema to Beijing, which is steadily insisting, ever more impatiently, on moves towards unification on the terms of its own “One China Principle” (一個中國原則). In these circumstances, the KMT faces a fundamental quandary in seeking to pursue warmer cross-Strait ties, while adhering to a position on Taiwan autonomy that Beijing is intent on eroding.

The ultimate irony of the Straits Forum (as well as the many other stage-managed “exchange” fora sponsored by the PRC) is the matter of nominally civic, non-governmental exchanges being advocated through an event that was itself carefully controlled and stage-managed by the CCP united front bureaucracy. In this context, any such civic exchanges are “among the people” only on one side of the equation—which is exactly how the leaders of the CCP want it to be.

The main point: The “Cross-Strait Forum,” an annual event organized by the Chinese Communist Party’s united front bureaucracy to promote “people-to-people exchanges” between the PRC and Taiwan, held its most recent meeting in December 2021. The contrasting positions towards the event taken by Taiwan’s DPP-controlled government on one hand, and by the leadership of the KMT opposition on the other, illustrate Taiwan’s stark partisan divide in responding to PRC united front initiatives.

[1] Alex Joske, “The Party Speaks for You: Foreign Interference and the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front System,Australian Strategic Policy Institute, June 2020, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/party-speaks-you.