Between China and Taiwan: Not Only Politics and Economics

This is a guest post by my colleague Chun-yi Lee, who edited a fantastic special issue in China Information to which I contributed this paper with Eliyahu V. Sapir. 

In the past, when we have referred to scholarly works on cross-Strait relations, the most common topics have been the strategic triangular relationship among the United States, Taiwan and China from an International Relations perspective; the security question, both from military and economic perspectives; and certainly, trade or investment across the Strait or in greater China. In other words, the outputs of scholarly works have been mainly focused on political or economic fields, most of them adapting a grand structural analytical framework.  However, we have noticed that the focus of much scholarly work has changed. More researchers focus not only on politics or economics, apply not only structural or policy analysis, but focus more on people-to-people interaction between Taiwan and China. In other words, we have started to see ‘people’ in the studies of cross-Strait relations, not only policy papers or investment figures.

Research on Taiwanese business people (Taishang) showed the earliest interest in ‘people’ in cross-Strait research. From soon after the lifting of martial law in 1987, many Taiwanese people started to use the excuse of ‘visiting relatives’ to set up businesses in China. However, until December 15, 2008, when President Ma Ying-Jeou lifted the prohibition on three direct links (by trade, mail and air) between mainland China and Taiwan, the Taishang had to invest in China through a third area/country. Opening the three direct links also meant that people who live in mainland China could visit Taiwan, initially with tourist groups. Gradually the immigration agency in Taiwan also relaxed the restrictions on Chinese citizens from certain cities to visit Taiwan individually, which means those citizens can visit Taiwan at their own convenience; they don’t need to register as a group with travel agencies.

How have those changes affected cross-Strait relations? More civic contacts mean that Taiwanese and Chinese people understand each other more from real life, not just from governmental propaganda or imagination. Consequently, more interesting research topics in cross-Strait studies emerged. The original motivation for this issue (Special Issue on Changing cross-Strait Relations, China Information March 2013 27(1)), to call for contributions from different perspectives on cross-Strait relationship studies, arose because we have witnessed a change in the nature of the cross-Strait relationship. It is time to refresh our understanding of that relationship. The macro-structural analysis of the cross-Strait relationship will continue to play an important role; however, more attention should be given to cross-Strait people-to-people interaction. This issue includes five cutting-edge research papers. Two of them are from a macro perspective or ‘top-down’ approach, one focusing on Taiwan’s domestic policy towards China, while the other one discusses the strategic triangular relationship involving the US, China and Taiwan. Jonathan Sullivan and Eliyahu V. Sapir’s paper focuses on the changing impact of Taiwan’s domestic politics on her mainland policies. They compare three presidential terms, namely Chen Shui-bian’s two terms from 2000 to 2004 and 2004 to 2008 and Ma Ying-jeou’s first term from 2008 to 2012.  Based on different questions raised by both Presidents Chen and Ma at different times during their reigns, their paper provides a thorough and systematic analysis of the differences in discourse context throughout three presidential terms from 2000 to 2012. One interesting and important factor that they mention at the end of their paper is the strategic implication of presidents’ public speeches. They use the example that the interpretation of ‘sovereignty’ used by Chen when addressing overseas audiences is very different than his approach in front of domestic audiences. They conclude that it is important for Taiwan’s leaders to target the specific audience with strategic purpose. Richard Weixing Hu’s paper analyses the cross-Strait relationship under an international structure, though Hu argues in his paper that China has been all the time seeking to ‘de-internationalise’ the cross-Strait relationship. Hu points out that Washington is a significant player across the Strait, but her role is delicate. According to Hu, America has to find a better niche in the currently peaceful cross-Strait relationship; he also argues that though that relationship presently seems to be harmonious, the dynamics of domestic power alternation in Taiwan will possibly disturb the cross-Strait détente and thus unbalance the triangular USA–China–Taiwan relationship.

The other three papers take a ‘bottom-up’ approach, to discuss Taiwanese people’s interaction across the Strait in business affairs and in their daily life. Taishang Taishang are certainly the main actors across the Strait. Gunter Schubert presents the importance of the Taishang as the ‘linkage community’, who play a significant role in the cross-Strait relationship. Schubert indicates clearly that though there is some existing research into the influence of Taishang on Chinese politics at local level, up to date there has not a systematic study of Taishang influence on Taiwan’s high-level politics. However, cross-Strait civic interactions have not only involved economic activities. André Laliberté analyses the cross-Strait relationship from a refreshing angle, from the perspective of religion and culture, using the Tzu Chi Buddhist foundation as the entry point. In China, religion has always been a sensitive topic; however, Tzu Chi as a Buddhist foundation was accepted by the Chinese authorities in March 2008. In this paper, André explains how Tzu Chi has influenced Chinese society, as a concrete case of Joseph Nye’s ‘soft power’ concept. He also raises the possibility that the benevolence embodied by Taiwanese volunteers in China could change perceptions in cross-Strait relations. Not focusing on cross-Strait economic and political confrontation or competition, Laliberté argues that in a way China perhaps can learn from Taiwan’s experiences, to use religious charity foundations to provide social services. The final paper of this issue is from Pin Lin, who takes a sociological and anthropological look at a group which has often been overlooked: Taiwanese female migrants to China. Tracing a group of Taiwanese female migrants’ daily experiences in China from 2004 to 2005 and then 2008 to 2010, Lin presents the gap between expectation (before migrating to China) and reality (after settling down in China); his results show this group of Taiwanese women finding it difficult to mingle with Chinese society. From his respondents, Lin argues that those Taiwanese women in China are like ‘birds in golden cage’, are isolated and alien to the Chinese society.

The impact across the Strait is bilateral, both from Taiwan to China and from China to Taiwan. It also has multiple strands, combining political, economic, and sociological aspects. We believe that these papers present a balanced combination of macro and micro research in cross-Strait studies. More importantly, this issue presents an updated dynamic in the field.