What Does Beijing Mean by Its “Initiative in Resolving the Taiwan Problem”?

What Does Beijing Mean by Its “Initiative in Resolving the Taiwan Problem”?

What Does Beijing Mean by Its “Initiative in Resolving the Taiwan Problem”?

On March 11, concurrent with the closing of the 2022 session of the National People’s Congress (NPC, 全國人民代表大會), the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP, 中國共產黨) official mouthpiece People’s Daily (人民日報) published a nominal op-ed that purported to express the views of five delegates to the NPC. Among these five individuals was Huang Zhixian (黄志賢), who serves as both the CCP party secretary and president of the “All China Taiwanese Association” (中華全國臺灣同胞聯誼會), or Tailian. The Tailian, a “multi-ethnic Taiwan compatriots patriotic mass organization” formed in Beijing in 1981, is one of the most prominent of the multiple front groups for Taiwan affairs maintained by the CCP. Huang was the designated leader of the CCP’s stage-managed “Taiwan delegation” (台灣代表團) at this year’s NPC, as well as a focal point for Taiwan-related propaganda during the proceedings.

The section of the op-ed that appeared under Huang’s name (almost certainly ghost-written by functionaries within the CCP propaganda bureaucracy) was titled “Extensively Assemble and Promote Strong Energy for National Unification” (廣泛彙聚促進祖國統一的強大正能量). The text predictably parroted CCP boilerplate regarding Taiwan, but it included an easily overlooked sentence that was very revealing. Following from an assertion that “the many uncertainties and instabilities [surrounding] the Taiwan situation are increasing,” the article stated that “We must recognize the inevitable historical trend that the motherland must and will be unified, and deeply understand [that] the right to take the initiative and the lead in resolving the Taiwan problem is completely in the grasp of this side, the ancestral mainland” (我們要看清祖國必須統一也必然統一的歷史大勢,深刻認識解決臺灣問題的主動權主導權始終掌握在祖國大陸這一邊).

On its own, this striking statement—which appears to deny the people of Taiwan any agency in determining their own future—could be dismissed as a casual statement made by a relatively minor functionary of the CCP’s united front bureaucracy, lacking in any authoritative status. However, statements such as this do not emerge from the CCP propaganda apparatus by accident. Furthermore, this is not the first time that this phrasing, or close variations of it, have appeared in recent CCP discourse. Amid informed speculation as to how the upcoming 20th CCP Party Congress might affect the PRC’s Taiwan policy, it is worth asking: When the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) asserts its “right to take the initiative and the lead in resolving the Taiwan problem,” what exactly does this mean—and what does it portend for cross-Strait relations and the status of Taiwan?

The CCP’s Recent History of Asserting Its “Initiative” in Controlling Cross-Strait Relations

This particular thematic language regarding Beijing’s sole authority over cross-Strait relations and “inevitable” unification dates back at least to 2019. In December 2019, the website of People’s Daily employed such language in summarizing the comments of four “Taiwan problem experts” at a conference hosted by the National Society of Taiwan Studies (NSTS, 全國臺灣研究會), a state think tank that serves as one of the most influential institutions within the CCP policy bureaucracy for Taiwan-related issues (see here and here). Per this commentary, the four “experts”—executive deputy director of the NSTS Wang Sheng (王昇), director of Xiamen University Taiwan Studies Research Institute Li Peng (李鵬), Shanghai Institute of International Studies research fellow Zhou Zhihuai (周志懷), and China Academy of Social Sciences Taiwan Studies Institute deputy director Zhu Weidong (朱衛東)—all agreed that “the initiative for developing cross-Strait relations is completely held in the hand of the mainland” (兩岸關係發展的主導權始終牢牢掌握在大陸手中).

A similar recitation of this language, by a more authoritative figure, was observed in July 2021. Speaking at the “Fourth Cross-Strait Youth Development Forum” (第四屆海峽兩岸青年發展論壇) in Hangzhou, Wang Yang (汪洋)—the Politburo Standing Committee member with primary responsibility for the united front policy portfolio—was cited in state press as saying that, although the current situation surrounding Taiwan was “complicated and severe” (複雜嚴峻), circumstances were on Beijing’s side and “the right to take the lead and the initiative in resolving the Taiwan problem is completely in the grasp of this side, the ancestral mainland” (解決臺灣問題的主導權主動權始終掌握在祖國大陸這一邊). 

Wang Yang further reiterated the “initiative” theme at a party conference on Taiwan affairs (對台工作會議) convened in Beijing on January 25 of this year. Alongside the standard assertions of resolute will to defeat “Taiwan independence provocations and interference by foreign forces” (台獨挑釁和外部勢力干涉), Wang was cited once again as asserting that the PRC “firmly grasped the leading initiative in cross-Strait relations” (牢牢把握兩岸關係主導權主動權), and that “[regarding] the complete unification of the motherland, time and circumstances are ultimately on our side” (祖國完全統一的時和勢始終在我們這一邊). [1] 

From all of this, it can be seen that the Huang Zhixian op-ed released at the end of the NPC was simply providing a near-verbatim recitation of messages and phrasing attributed to Wang Yang since at least the summer of last year. Such phrasing might be dismissed as empty boilerplate, but it is indicative of an attitude that bodes ill for any prospect of meaningful negotiations between the PRC and Taiwan.

What Does Beijing Mean by Its “Initiative” in Taiwan Affairs?

Employing its own English language media outlets, the official interpretation offered by the PRC to international audiences is that all of this messaging is an expression of confidence and strategic patience. Following a November 15 phone call between CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) and US President Joe Biden, a state media readout of Xi’s comments quoted the PRC’s supreme leader as saying that “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification [sic] with utmost sincerity and efforts.” In an apparent sign of coordinated messaging, the PRC-influenced South China Morning Post reported later that same week that an unnamed government “adviser on Taiwan affairs” had indicated the view of the CCP leadership that it had “the situation under control and sees no reason to rush towards unification.” Similarly, a state media commentary published December 30 indicated that, due to the “mainland holding initiative,” “the unification of the motherland is on track” (祖國統一在路上). And, after Wang Yang met on March 9 with the “Taiwan delegation” to the NPC, the PRC state news outlet CGTN cited Wang to assert that there was “increasing uncertainty and instability in the Taiwan Straits, but the mainland has the comprehensive strength and confidence to cope with all kinds of complex situations.”

Despite such soothing reassurances, there are elements of the textual language surrounding the PRC’s declared “initiative” that are revealing of Beijing’s attitudes, and that present serious concerns for Taiwan’s sovereignty and future security. The terms zhudongquan (主動權) and zhudaoquan (主導權) are frequently paired together in PRC discourse, but the conveyed meaning of the combination is stronger than that of the English word “initiative.” The latter term, zhudaoquan, carries an emphasis that is arguably closer to “controlling position” or “dominance.” This places the CCP’s language about “initiative” in a different light: rather than representing a simple statement of confidence about the direction of the CCP’s Taiwan policy, it is an assertion of the superior position of the PRC, and a clearly implied denial of Taiwan’s legitimacy or its right to engage in dialogue on anything approaching an equal footing.


All of this raises doubts in turn about the sincerity of the PRC’s position on matters such as the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識), the term given to the tacit agreement between Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) and CCP negotiators in the early 1990s that the two sides were both part of “one China,” but with differing interpretations as to what that means (一中各表). Senior PRC officials have consistently invoked the “1992 Consensus” as a necessary starting point for cross-Strait negotiations, and the CCP propaganda system has repeatedly attacked “Democratic Progressive Party authorities” (民進黨當局) in Taiwan for their refusal to accept the framework. However, the “1992 Consensus” carries with it an implication of parity between the two sides—a position negated by the PRC’s assertion of its dominance, and of its sole right to determine the course of Taiwan’s future.

The PRC narratives surrounding its asserted “initiative” for “resolving the Taiwan problem” provide further illustration that Beijing, far from being prepared to engage in sincere dialogue, is seeking to deny Taiwan any legitimacy or agency over its own affairs. Instead, Beijing posits itself astride a position of dominance in cross-Strait relations; there is an “inevitable historical trend” of unification with Taiwan; and Taiwan’s populace must accept this and bow to the PRC’s superior power and authority. Underlying the seemingly benign expressions of confidence and patience expressed by PRC officials in their assertions of “initiative” in cross-Strait policy, there is a darker message indicative of the CCP’s imperial attitude towards Taiwan.

The main point: The CCP propaganda system has adopted a consistent theme of emphasizing the PRC’s “initiative” in Taiwan policy. Messages to international audiences stress that this indicates Beijing’s patience and confidence in ultimate unification—but the actual language employed reveals Beijing’s imperial attitude towards Taiwan, and its intent to deny Taiwan’s people any agency over their own future.

[1] There may be differing interpretations regarding the translation of this sentence: the character 勢 has multiple meanings, to include “power,” “configuration,” “circumstances,” or “momentum.” An official PRC English-language media translation uses the latter meaning, translating Wang’s assertion as: “The time and momentum for realizing China’s complete reunification are always on our side.” (See: “Wang Yang Stresses Maintaining Initiative, Ability to Steer Cross-Straits Relations,” Xinhua News Service, January 26, 2022, https://en.cppcc.gov.cn/2022-01/26/c_702941.htm.)