Nowhere was the quinquennial gathering of leaders from the most powerful communist party in the world more closely watched with concern than among the people and leaders of Taiwan. In the wake of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mid-October 20th National Congress—which witnessed Xi Jinping (習近平) secure his norm-shattering third term as general secretary—tensions in the Taiwan Strait appear set to intensify amid growing angst within Taiwan about the possibility of a military conflict in the coming years. As policymakers in all capitals search for solutions to manage competition without veering into conflict, it will increasingly behoove them to assess the perceptions of the Taiwanese people and their leaders when considering the conditions for maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. This analysis will survey the reactions from Taipei—both from official statements and from polling data—to make a preliminary analysis of what the trendlines are for the future of cross-Strait relations in the near-term after the 20th Party Congress.
The Tsai Administration’s Response to the 20th CCP Congress
Despite Beijing’s decision to freeze high-level dialogue with Taipei since June 2016, the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) Administration has made repeated attempts to keep the door open for dialogue and to maintain stable cross-Strait relations. This was demonstrated in the form of multiple pronouncements made by the Taiwanese leader during major policy speeches (see here and here), as well as her credible management of increasing tensions caused by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) multifaceted campaign of coercion and military aggression over the past several years. Her National Day speech this year—delivered on the 111th anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising (武昌起義) that led to the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC)—was no exception. As President Tsai emphasized during the remarks: “Provided there is rationality, equality, and mutual respect, we are willing to work with the Beijing authorities to find a mutually agreeable arrangement for upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. This is our shared responsibility.”
Although delivered prior to the release of Xi Jinping’s work report from the 20th Party Congress, President Tsai’s October 10 National Day speech can be viewed as the point of reference for the Taiwan-relevant portions of the work report. Given the important symbolic value of National Day for cross-Strait ties, the speech has long been used by Taiwanese leaders to convey their positions on cross-Strait relations. The celebration both commemorates the historical events that connect the formation of the ROC government in Taiwan with the Chinese mainland, and marks the continuous existence of that regime.
Despite President Tsai’s repeated overtures to Beijing, much of Xi’s work report was a rehash of statements already made on other occasions. Indeed, much of the report’s language focused on Taiwan was a recapitulation of 2019’s 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” (告台灣同胞書)—themes that in turn were re-emphasized in the August release of the PRC’s White Paper on “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era” (台灣與新時代中國統一事業).
Leading with the bottom line up front, Xi’s work report emphasizes a point that has been made increasingly clear in recent years: “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) remains Beijing’s baseline and only model for cross-Strait unification. The principles undergirding this model are the “One-China Principle” (一個中國原則) and the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識). The latter formula, which is presented by the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨) as the two sides agreeing to different interpretations on the definition of “One-China” (一中各表), perhaps once permitted “creative ambiguity” in how authorities on both sides interpret the principle—this is despite Beijing having never explicitly recognizing this fact. Any room for ambiguity all but evaporated in the aftermath of Beijing’s squashing of freedom in Hong Kong, which was ostensibly protected by “One Country, Two Systems.”
While defying Xi’s preconditions for talks, President Tsai led the cross-Strait relations portion of her National Day speech by stating that “[p]eace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is the basis for the development of cross-Strait relations.” Placing the onus for the deterioration of cross-Strait ties on Beijing, President Tsai made it clear that it is “the Beijing authorities’ escalation of their military intimidations, diplomatic pressure, trade obstructions, and attempts to erase the sovereignty of the Republic of China (Taiwan) [that] have threatened the status quo of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the region.”
In a direct response to Xi’s work report, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會)—the cabinet-level agency in Taiwan’s central government in charge of cross-Strait policy—put a finer point on Taiwan’s position when it released a statement on October 16 reading:
The Republic of China is a sovereign state. Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwanese people will never accept any political endgames unilaterally set by the CCP, be it the “1992 Consensus under the ‘one China’ principle” or “one country, two systems”; meanwhile, we believe that only the 23 million people of Taiwan have the right to decide our future.
While President Tsai’s National Day speech and MAC’s press release do not necessarily signal a new policy position for Taipei, they raise a critical question: what could the Taiwanese people accept, and what type of future do they want?
Public Opinion in Taiwan: A Fledgling “Taiwan Consensus”
A critical factor that ought to be assessed when considering the viability of any policy framework for cross-Strait relations is whether those propositions would be acceptable to the people of Taiwan, as such policies would quickly falter without public support. This illuminates one of the many shortcomings of the “1992 Consensus,” which is its lack of clarity—especially in terms of Beijing’s position—and the inability of leaders in Taiwan to adequately explain the tacit agreement to the voting public. Even KMT Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫) conceded the difficulty of explaining the formula when he described it as a “no-consensus consensus.”
To gauge the public response to the policies put forward in the CCP’s work report, the MAC conducted a series of public opinion surveys. On October 27, MAC released the results of these polls, which were conducted during and immediately after the 20th Party Congress from October 19-23. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the polls indicate overwhelming public disapproval of the Chinese positions. Furthermore, they suggest that a fledgling consensus is forming within Taiwan against the fundamental positions clearly put forward in the CCP’s work report.
Around 83.9 percent disapproved of the work report’s emphasis on implementing the “overall strategy for resolving the Taiwan issue” (解決臺灣問題的總體方略), and 85.6 percent expressed disapproval of the statement that the PRC “will never promise to renounce the use of force and take all necessary measures against Taiwan.” An even higher percentage (91.6 percent) disapproved of the CCP threatening Taiwan with force by deploying military planes around the island. Other specific findings of the poll were:
- Over 80 percent (82.3) of the respondents disapproved of the CCP’s claim that “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan. Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese, a matter that must be resolved by the Chinese,” and that the PRC would adhere to the “1992 Consensus” of the “One-China Principle.”
- Nearly 80 percent (79.3) expressed disapproval of the CCP’s assertion that “peaceful reunification, one country, two systems” is the best way to achieve cross-Strait “reunification.”
- The disapproval towards the CCP’s “one country, two systems” arrangement spiked to nearly 90 percent (88.6) when it was defined that it would treat Taiwan as a local government and special administrative region, acquiesce to be ruled by the CCP, and that the Republic of China would no longer exist.
- Finally, 85 percent expressed agreement with the statement that Taiwan’s future and cross-Strait relations developments should be decided by Taiwan’s 23 million people.
Another important dimension to understand is how Xi’s work report has affected Taiwanese perceptions on longer-term issues, including opinions on unification, independence, or maintaining the status quo with Beijing. By comparing the polling conducted in August 2022 with the surveys released in October 2022, the key trendlines in Taiwan citizens’ preferences remained largely consistent, with the overwhelming majority (86.3 percent) favoring some form of the status quo (compared to 86.1 percent in August). While there was a slight increase of 1.3 percent in the proportion of people who favor independence immediately (now at 7.7 percent)—and a 1.6 percent increase in the number who favor maintaining the status quo and then moving towards independence (now at 22 percent)—the proportion of respondents who favor either maintaining the status quo, and then moving towards unification or immediate unification, also remained steady at around 7 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively.
Despite President Tsai’s call for Beijing “to find a mutually agreeable arrangement for upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the pathway to a durable cross-Strait peace remains elusive as long as General Secretary Xi continues with his policy of linking “peaceful unification” with “One Country, Two Systems”—and for setting preconditions for cross-Strait talks rigidly based on Taipei’s acceptance of Beijing’s “One-China Principle” without any clarifications as to its own position on the “1992 Consensus.”
As indicated by the recent public opinion poll conducted by the MAC, there is a clear consensus coalescing within Taiwan against the foundational positions put forward in the CCP’s work report. While opposition to the PRC’s policy does not represent an affirmative policy position, public reactions to the CCP’s cross-Strait policy under Xi could serve to reinforce a new consensus between Taiwan’s major political parties—a trend that has been growing in recent years. As David Brown, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in a 2020 article for the Global Taiwan Brief:
[T]here is now more convergence of the views and policies of the two main parties toward Beijing than at any time in the past. What has been driving this degree of convergence? Over the past 15 years, both parties have sought to move toward the center in order to better align themselves with majority opinion and win elections. Recently, however, the harder line that General Secretary Xi Jinping has adopted toward both Taiwan and Hong Kong since 2019 has pushed the two parties closer together. In the face of CCP repression, both the DPP and KMT are invested in defending Taiwan’s interests.
While Beijing claims that its cross-Strait policy will “fully accommodate the interests and sentiments of our compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi’s Taiwan policy clearly reflects a growing disconnect with the people of Taiwan. This could be a cause for serious alarm. As Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) recently warned in an interview with Josh Rogin of the Washington Post: “[I]f Xi Jinping is so detached from the reality of the situation in Taiwan […] you can expect his policy toward Taiwan might not be as realistic as we hope.”
With the positions of Beijing clearly staked out, it seems increasingly unlikely for there to be any thaw between now and 2024, or even after that. A victory for the ruling-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) will in all likelihood continue the current status quo, with the possibility for further escalation by Beijing. However, even if the KMT were to win the 2024 presidential election, it will be impossible for it to either accept “One Country, Two Systems,” or else convince the electorate that any agreements it reaches with Beijing would be honored (especially in light of Hong Kong). As a result, the prospect for a significant reduction of cross-Strait tension is unlikely, even post-2024.
In particular, Xi’s linking of “peaceful unification” through “One Country, Two Systems” and the core tenets of the “One-China Principle” with the so-called “1992 Consensus” are critical missteps by Beijing. This approach essentially ties the hand of the Kuomintang—which has long endorsed the “1992 Consensus”—to the “One Country, Two Systems” by associating the two concepts. It is also a warning to the leaders of the opposition party to not stray far from Beijing’s line as Taiwan gears up for the 2024 general elections.
Nevertheless, if supporters of both major parties—and the independent parties—within Taiwan can come to an affirmative consensus on a unified position on Taiwan’s relations with China, it could demonstrate to Beijing that it needs to negotiate in good faith with the democratically elected leader of Taiwan, regardless of their party affiliation. This would make a fair and durable peace more likely. Taiwan appears to be on that path. As President Tsai stated in her National Day speech: “The broadest consensus among the Taiwanese people and our various political parties is that we must defend our national sovereignty and our free and democratic way of life. On this point, we have no room for compromise.”
The main point: In the wake of the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, it is more important than ever to understand the opinions of Taiwan’s people. As recent polling has shown, China’s messaging appears to be contributing to a new Taiwanese consensus on cross-Strait policy.