On December 28, 2022, the Chinese government announced that Song Tao (宋濤) had been appointed as the new director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院臺灣事務辦公室), the leading organization in charge of Beijing’s relations with what it regards as a province needing to be “reunified.” Replacing Liu Jieyi (劉結一), who had headed the TAO since March 2018, the 67-year-old Song is expected to play a key role in cross-Strait affairs amid escalating tensions and ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election next year. His three deputy directors are Chen Yuanfeng (陳元豐), Long Mingbiao (龍明彪), and Pan Xianzhang (潘賢掌).
A veteran diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Guyana and the Philippines, Song has also served as counselor at the Chinese Embassy in India, vice minister of foreign affairs, and deputy head and executive deputy chief (minister-level) of the Foreign Affairs Office, the execution arm of the Foreign Affairs Leading Group. Song was a member of the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (中國共產黨中央委員會) from 2017 to 2022. He also headed the CCP’s International Liaison Department (ILD, 中共中央對外聯絡部) from November 2015 to June 2022.
According to analysts, Song will likely be named one of the 24 vice chairpersons of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, 中國人民政治協商會議), an advisory body under the United Front Work Department (中共中央統一戰線工作部).
New Direction, or More of the Same?
Unlike his three most recent predecessors as heads of the TAO—Liu, Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), and Wang Yi (王毅)—Song assumes the new role without being a member of the CCP’s Central Committee (he was not re-elected at the CCP National Congress in October last year). As a result, within the government hierarchy, Song does not technically have ranking equal to that of provincial heads, which could complicate his ability to negotiate with—if not impose his will on—the heads of the various provinces that are key to China’s Taiwan strategy.
Song nevertheless has the advantage of having worked in Fujian Province when Xi Jinping (習近平) served as governor there (1999-2002), where he was considered a close confidant of the future CCP secretary general. Song was also Xi’s special envoy to North Korea in November 2017, and played similar roles on visits to Vietnam and Cuba. This, above all else, may have been the factor leading to Song’s appointment, given Xi’s emphasis on elevating sycophants. (Song had been due for probable retirement after leaving the ILD.) This also suggests that Xi, as the head of the CCP’s Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs (中央對台工作領導小組)—the party’s highest decision-making body on Taiwan affairs—will continue to have final say on the tone and direction of the TAO. Consequently, as some analysts have noted, Song will likely be tasked with implementing Xi’s personal will on Taiwan.
Song is also close to Wang Huning (王滬寧), the fourth-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP (PSC, 中國共產黨中央政治局常務委員會) and a deputy to Xi at the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs. Wang Huning is also a candidate for elevation to chairman of the CPPCC later this year. Wang Yi, who it has just been announced will serve as director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the CCP, is also expected to become secretary-general of the CCP Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs. Given the grip the “big three” (Xi, Wang Huning, and Wang Yi) will have on Taiwan affairs, we are unlikely to see a major departure from past TAO approaches to Taiwan under Song—who, as the junior partner on the Taiwan file, will merely play the role of executor.
For Taiwan, the most pertinent aspect of Songs résumé could be his experience with “united front work” and the ILD, the ministerial-level agency that coordinates the party’s relations with foreign political parties, international political organizations, and overseas political elites. The ILD is also believed to be involved in intelligence collection and political work against foreign political parties. Thanks to his recent and relatively long stint with the ILD, Song is expected to play a significant role in Beijing’s efforts to further increase the pressure on—and to isolate—Taiwan in the lead-up to the presidential and legislative elections in January 2024. Such efforts will accompany the PRC’s ramped-up military pressure on Taiwan, which has escalated significantly since August 2022 following then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
Image: Song Tao, in his prior role as the director of the CCP International Department, speaking at an event in March 2021. (Image source: Peng Pai News)
It did not take long for Song to set the tone. In an 1,800-character New Year message titled “Work Together, Create Great Achievements Together” (攜手奮鬥 共創偉業) published in the first 2023 issue of Relations Across Taiwan Straits magazine (兩岸關係), Song emphasized that “peaceful reunification [sic], one country, two systems [一國兩制] and the ‘1992 consensus’ [九二共識]” remained Beijing’s non-negotiable plans for Taiwan. Analysts observe that Song’s TAO is now aimed primarily at promoting “national reunification”—both within Taiwan and internationally—rather than opposing Taiwan independence. To this end, Song wrote that during 2023, the Chinese side will “carry out extensive and in-depth discussions on cross-Strait ties and national reunification with people of foresight from all walks of life of Taiwan society.”
Such remarks suggest that greater emphasis will be placed on outreach to, and negotiations with, various pro-CCP or amenable elements within Taiwanese society (the “people of foresight”) to influence politicians, elites, and the public ahead of the 2024 elections. While such efforts may encounter difficulties as long as people-to-people exchanges between the two sides continue to be hampered due to the COVID-19 situation in China, it is expected that once regular travel resumes, the CCP will quickly seek to intensify its influence work within Taiwan (various events have been held online since the onset of COVID and attendant travel restrictions). This will likely include focusing on traditional political parties through the TAO’s Liaison Bureau (聯絡局) and the Political Parties Bureau (政黨局)—the latter of which was created in 2009 by then-TAO chief Wang Yi, primarily to strengthen exchanges with various political parties in Taiwan (especially with the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP, 民進黨], with a focus on eroding its hostility toward China). TAO efforts will also focus on outliers and independent candidates, as well as persons of influence within the business, cultural, religious, and political spheres.
According to former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, 國民黨) legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元), who hews ideologically close to the CCP line, of all the TAO directors since the agency’s inception, Song is the one who has “the deepest knowledge of the DPP” and has had “many contacts and communications with” Chiu Tai-san (邱太三), the current minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會), Taiwan’s TAO counterpart.
Song’s note also played on the themes of “peace” (mentioned nine times) and the “Taiwan issue” as a “domestic matter” that needs protection from “external interference” (primarily from the United States). He also equated the results of last November’s local elections in Taiwan, in which the ruling DPP fared rather poorly, to overwhelming desire among the Taiwanese public for peace and opposition to independence. With this latter element, Song was signaling what we can assume will be one of the key themes of the TAO’s efforts on Taiwan for the next year in preparation for the 2024 general elections: that a vote for the DPP is a vote for war. Much of this will be handled through the TAO’s Information Bureau (新闻局).
As the Mainland Affairs Council’s response to Song’s New Year note made clear, a majority of Taiwanese remain opposed to the idea of unification with China under the “one country, two systems” formula, a lack of appeal that has been compounded by the deepening authoritarianism in China under Xi. As such, Song’s ability to use the TAO to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese through exchanges and inducements—in other words, to promote the new focus on “reunification”—will remain limited, all the more so due to his expected inability to depart from Xi’s dictates. Consequently, the TAO’s principal role will be to coordinate multifaceted efforts to divide Taiwanese society by exacerbating polarization, spreading disinformation, and heightening, in parallel with military coercion, a sense of imminent crisis. If China cannot win over a sufficiently large number of Taiwanese to shift political decisions in Taipei, it can at least endeavor to turn the Taiwanese public against the DPP—and whomever will be President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) successor as the party’s candidate in 2024—as well as to discredit the United States as a security partner of Taiwan. This, above all, will be Song’s remit for the foreseeable future.
The main point: Although he brings an impressive résumé, the new head of the Taiwan Affairs Office will be a mere executor of the CCP’s Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs policies on Taiwan. Beyond continuing his agency’s efforts to co-opt politicians and other influential figures on the Taiwan side, Song will be charged with implementing the CCP’s cognitive warfare efforts in the lead-up to Taiwan’s general elections in 2024.