Taiwan and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation

China’s core leader, Xi Jinping, believes the time has come for the country to grasp a “strategic opportunity” to advance the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. He intimated as much in his work report to the 19th Party Congress. And this week the Communist Party paper the People’s Daily published a “manifesto” in the People’s Daily, explicitly stating that China stands on the cusp of writing a new chapter in the history of the nation.

The “manifesto” is an extraordinary document, part cheer-leader for the Party’s achievements, part call for a newly robust Chinese posture. It reflects the Chinese leadership’s belief that China has a historical opportunity to stake out a global leadership role. Enumerating the numerous ills facing western societies, which have accelerated the long-held feeling that the west is in decline, it is a statement that China is ready to seize the moment and restore China’s rightful position in the world. “Rejuvenation” is no longer a distant aspiration.

This isn’t a surprise for anyone with an understanding of the CCP’s “historical determinist” worldview. The Chinese leadership has watched its economic, diplomatic and military power grow, and “bided its time” as the west’s fortunes have waned. The election of Donald Trump has hastened the feeling that American hegemony has begun its inexorable decline. Trump’s abdication of American global leadership combined with a global system that was already in flux, has accelerated the feeling that China’s time has come.

Chinese leaders remind us that China does not seek hegemony and does not have a history of imperial expansion. Indeed, China has not invaded and occupied other sovereign nations, engaged in covert security operations, enforced regime change, or any number of other foreign interventions carried out in the name of American national interests.

But, a newly robust Chinese world view informing its foreign policy behaviour has important implications, not least for Taiwan, a mere hundred miles away and the locus of contemporary Chinese nationalism. After the violent denouement of the Democracy Spring movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the CCP has staked its legitimacy on economic growth and nationalism. As growth has slowed, the balance between these two pillars has shifted.

For Chinese nationalists, the “manifesto” is a long-yearned for assertion that under the Party’s leadership China’s rise necessitates a recalibration of the world order – one in which China will play a much more prominent role. Symbolic Centennials of the founding of the CCP (2021) and the PRC (2049) are no longer on the distant horizon. Xi has risen to unassailable power, but a paramount leader needs to deliver more than tub-thumping rhetoric.

The CCP has found nationalist causes, especially Taiwan, useful for entrenching popular support. It has also primed the Chinese people to believe that the CCP leadership is the only means to restoring China to greatness. But on one part of the “national rejuvenation” puzzle, it has failed to deliver. The desire to “recover” a Taiwan “lost” during the “hundred years of national humiliation” has been so relentlessly affirmed through the education and media systems that it is the sina qua non for patriotic Chinese.

Separated by vastly different socio-economic development experiences, most Taiwanese identify with Taiwan as a discrete, democratic society that is manifestly not-China. The desire for unification in Taiwan is virtually non-existent. Decades of Chinese carrots in the form of economic opportunities and sticks in the form of enforced international isolation and underlying military threat have removed “Taiwan independence” from the political agenda, but failed to move opinion towards China. The CCP’s favoured political partner in Taiwan, the KMT, was unable to change opinion in a meaningful way and alienated voters in trying to do so.

And so China continues to exert pressure on Taiwan, each turn of the screw designed to undermine, isolate and incapacitate Taiwan and the Tsai administration. A symbol of the new world order, it does so with impunity. PLA Air Force planes can circumnavigate Taiwan and the Civil Aviation Administration of China can unilaterally establish new routes in the Taiwan Strait because no-one bar the Taiwanese object. It can jail Taiwanese activists or bar Taiwan from WHA meetings. When it requires Taiwanese criminals are repatriated to China, countries from Spain to Kenya oblige. All are demonstrations that Taiwan is subordinate, that the privileges of “functional autonomy” extend only so far.

While western countries like Australia are newly discovering a sting in the tail to their ‘win-win’ engagements with China, Taiwan is used to dealing with Chinese pressures. The question is how much pressure China will dial up. Courting Taiwan’s small number of diplomatic allies, barring Taiwanese representation from international meetings and enforcing the political correctness of multinational companies’ drop-down menus is pressure at a much lower level than China is capable of exerting. And it is unlikely to deliver results commensurate with the aspirations of a new era of national rejuvenation.

Indubitably nested within the relationship between the US and China, it is easy to forget that Taiwan was, until relatively recently, a geopolitical hotspot. In the mid-1990s, Chinese missile exercises prior to the first direct election of the president in Taiwan, necessitated President Clinton’s dispatch of the Pacific Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. In the mid-2000’s Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian’s rhetoric threatened to cross Chinese “red lines”, and the PRC passed legislation requiring a military response to prevent “Taiwan independence”.

In the past decade, cross-Strait relations have receded from the global stage. While not resolving the underlying militarization of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s entente cordiale added a veneer of stability. Underpinned by the diplomatic fudge of the “1992 Consensus”, economic cooperation reduced tensions between Taiwan and China to an unprecedented extent. The partial detente was good timing for a hands-off Obama administration preoccupied with the Middle East and Afghanistan, and the first Xi administration dealing with monumental domestic challenges.

Donald Trump has an uncertain China policy that veers between extreme deference and spiky rhetoric: No one really knows what his intentions are towards China, possibly least of all, Trump himself. His preferences, unstable as they are, may become clearer if and when a House Foreign Affairs Committee bill that would authorize high level official visits between the US and Taiwan and an act of Congress encouraging consideration of US Navy port calls in Taiwan progress. These would likely be seen as unacceptable provocations by a country no longer shy about its aspirations.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

Advertisements

China and celebrity politics

Writing in the 1970s, the Italian sociologist Fransico Alberoni described celebrities as a “powerless elite”, because they did not possess authoritative or institutional power. Since then, the rise of a celebrity industry associated with expansion of the media, internet and entertainment industries, has changed celebrity culture beyond all recognition. Celebrities are still an elite, but they are no longer powerless.

As the lives and loves of celebrities have become ubiquitous in western popular culture, performers like Angelina Jolie, Bono and Beyoncé have acquired huge stores of cultural, economic and even political capital. Donald Trump, a celebrity businessman with no political experience, has shown it is even possible to ride the affordances of fame to within reach of the White House.

The American presidential election is a combination of soap opera and reality TV, covered by media enthralled by dramatic storylines, drawing on metaphors from sports and war, playing to a global audience on television and social media. As each day brings further revelations, insults and gaffes, pored over by a proliferating pundit class, the political process in the US looks increasingly like a made-for-TV production.

When the sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee opens in Beijing this month, the contrast could not starker. While elite politics receive abundant coverage in China’s media, we can be fairly sure there will be no intemperate tweets, personal attacks or unsavoury stories emanating from the meeting.

Unlike in the US, where electoral competition demands politicians embrace the media and entertainment industries, celebrity and elite politics have not, as yet, converged in China. It is unimaginable that any Chinese leader would play the sax on a late night chat show like Bill Clinton did, or dance with Ellen DeGeneres like Barack Obama, or hang out with the Spice Girls like Tony Blair (let alone be a frequent guest on shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show like Donald Trump).

Chinese officials prefer to follow a script that promotes the decorum and gravitas of office. They don’t do sit-down personal interviews or fraternize with performers trailing paparazzi photographers. And for all the Chinese government’s massive online presence, no one in the Politburo has a social media account.

Yet, while Chinese politics does not embrace the celebrity mechanism, China is far from immune to the seductions of fame. In a country that has long emphasized public restraint and traditional values, celebrity is big business and subtly pervasive.

Chinese and western celebrities are prominent in China, on billboards, magazines and social media. Chinese movie and pop stars are as glamourous, worshiped and wealthy as their western counterparts. But the Chinese celebrity industry’s balancing of serving popular tastes with political correctness, has resulted in a celebrity culture that is distinct from the west.

Chinese celebrities are expected to uphold certain standards of behaviour and act as positive role models for society. The triviality and excess surrounding celebrity lifestyles in the west are generally replaced with narratives of persistence, cultivation of talent and high standards of morality.

Celebrities may be akin to carnival performers, but in an orderly society the carnival is also ordered, with performers and audiences assigned distinct roles. Celebrity is conferred on people who generally conform to dominant social norms. China’s own celebrity CEO, Jack Ma, became rich and famous through hard work and perseverance, and his success acts as an example for others to emulate.

But, the commodification of individuals with talent and looks is not alien in China. From luxury cars, clothes and watches, Chinese celebrities endorse some of the world’s most glamourous brands. And many ordinary Chinese appear increasingly susceptible to the attractions of “DIY celebrity”.

Writing in their excellent 2011 book Online Society in China, scholars David Herold and Pete Marolt argued that Chinese internet users preferred anonymity, eschewing “performance” in favour of simply “living online”. Borrowing the words of Chinese media scholar, Hu Yong, the majority of people were “onlookers”, happy with their role as observers.

However, there are signs of a changing emphasis, from merely worshipping the stars to wanting to become one—or at least the truncated version of fame available to DIY celebrities.

It is a truism that anyone can become famous via the internet. Admittedly there are more examples of becoming infamous, symbolised in China by the cases of Furong Jiejie, Muzi Mei and Guo Meimei.

But nowadays there are examples of Chinese using the internet to seek fame and perhaps wealth: from the profusion of live-streaming apps like Ingkee and the crass stunts featured on video site Kuaishou, to more mundane expressions of “me-casting” manifest in public declarations of love, body challenges and China’s ongoing selfie craze.

While these trends can appear vulgar, they are mainly harmless modes of entertainment and self-expression. Banal as they are, they portend changes in the social mores of mainly younger people, challenging traditional values such as protecting face and public reticence.

The rise of individualism among the younger generation in China is well known. Among the expansion of subcultures and behaviours considered unbecoming by their parents, are changing expectations and attitudes. This includes feelings about public performance, mediatisation and celebrity.

There is little research on the social and political implications of these changes, but there are signs that the Chinese government is aware of the need to connect with younger people, including the vast expansion of e-government services and the professionalization of political communications.

Elite leaders have even taken tentative steps towards experimenting with the informalities common to politicians in the west; President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant and sending a message on weibo among them. Yet, despite the fact that First Lady Peng Liyuan is a famous singer and fashion icon, it is fanciful to talk of the celebritization of Chinese politics.

As Chinese celebrity culture continues to mature and expand its reach, and positive attitudes toward fame become normalized among the young, it will become something that future governments may find it easier to adapt to rather than merely seeking to control. For now though, a Chinese version of The Donald remains agreeably far off.

China Daily piece here.

CCP-KMT Leaders’ summit meeting

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and Kuomintang Chairman Eric Chu are holding a summit in Beijing on Monday, the highest-level talks between the two parties in six years. While Taiwanese officials describe it in anodyne terms—discussing “issues of mutual concern”—simmering tensions across the Taiwan Strait make this meeting highly significant.

The two leaders will no doubt discuss their parties’ failed gamble on Taiwanese politics. The CCP and the KMT expected that by building closer cross-Strait ties they would strengthen support for the Taiwanese ruling party, which shares the mainland’s goal of eventual reunification. Instead the Taiwanese public rebelled against mainland influence in domestic politics.

In February of last year, the KMT brought cross-Strait relations to their strongest point in history. Representatives of the two governments met officially for the first time in decades.

Despite that breakthrough, the political fortunes of the KMT and President Ma Ying-jeou deteriorated dramatically. Student-led protests, dubbed the “sunflower movement,” blocked the keystone policy of Ma’s second and final term, an extension to the free trade agreement signed with China during his first term.

Then in November the KMT suffered devastating losses in mid-term elections, after which President Ma stepped down as chairman of the party. His approval ratings now languish in the teens. Ordinary Taiwanese are increasingly queasy about the KMT’s close links with the CCP.

With a paucity of viable candidates, the KMT is unlikely to hold on to the presidency. It may even lose control of the legislature for the first time in history come the elections in January 2016. Internal divisions threaten to split the party.

Beijing must now proceed along two tracks, shoring up the KMT while preparing for a DPP administration. That is the true agenda of this week’s summit.

Last year Mr. Chu narrowly retained his position as mayor of Xinbei, formerly known as Taipei county and now the island’s most populous city. He is the only potential presidential candidate with sufficiently broad support in the party and in society. In public, he insists that he won’t run.

In reality Mr. Chu is divided about running for the presidency. If he bows out, KMT losses are likely to be magnified. But he stands a far better chance of winning if he waits for 2020. If he runs next year he will also have to explain to the people of Xinbei why he is breaking his promise to them to finish his mayoral term.

There is still time for Mr. Chu to change his mind before the nomination deadline of May 16. It is reasonable to expect that Mr. Xi will use this week’s meeting to pressure him to run and offer support to boost the KMT’s slim chances

The Chinese side will hope such a high-profile meeting will allow Mr. Chu to showcase his credentials as a man that China is willing to work with. The talks come only a day after a joint KMT-CCP forum in Shanghai that always produces a number of joint recommendations and policies. Expect China to throw a few concessions Mr. Chu’s way, so he can return to Taiwan looking like a man who can get a good deal. Continue reading

Gearing up for Taiwan 2016

Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) will meet in Beijing on Monday to exchange opinions on “issues of mutual concern.” At the top of the list will be the KMT’s prospects for presidential and legislative elections scheduled for January 2016, and contingencies should the KMT lose.

Xi Jinping and Eric Chu’s summit is the first between respective party leaders since 2009. It comes a year on from the first face-to-face meeting of official representatives of the governments of the People’s Republic of China (PRC, hereafter China) and the Republic of China (ROC, hereafter Taiwan) for several decades.

That symbolic breakthrough was the last dose of positive news for the KMT and the Ma Ying-jeou administration. President Ma, who stepped down as KMT Chairman in December following devastating losses in local elections in November, has witnessed a wave of social protests, a student occupation of the legislature and the demise of an economic agreement with China that was intended to be the keystone policy of his second and final term.

The depth of Taiwanese people’s disapproval of President Ma has severely damaged the KMT’s chances of retaining the presidency. The scrimmage to succeed him has exposed a lack of viable candidates and the escalation of factional battles and grim succession politics raises the specter of splits that have historically afflicted the party. Not only does the KMT face the impending loss of the presidency, there is a chance that the China-leaning Pan Blue alliance in which it is the major partner may lose control of the legislature for the first time. It is a prospect that should provide plenty for Chu and Xi to ruminate on.

The CCP and KMT have a long and tangled history and the contemporary impasse over Taiwan’s status and its relationship with China is to a great extent a legacy of ideological (and at times bloody) battles between the two parties. In recent years, the two old adversaries have discovered common ground—as they did many years ago in the fight against Japanese imperialism. Both oppose “Taiwan independence” and both believe that increased economic interactions are inevitable and good for Taiwan.

For some among the KMT, and unanimously in the CCP, the hope and expectation is that economic interaction will draw the two sides together, facilitating eventual political union. The common ground between the CCP and KMT is embodied in the shared endorsement, if not understanding, of the so-called “1992 Consensus” (“one China, separate interpretations”). This face-saving conceit has proven useful as the basis for the détente policies of the last seven years. It has also ossified as the major distinction between the DPP and KMT. Since China’s bottom line is acceptance of the one China principle and the DPP rejects the “1992 Consensus,” the KMT portrays itself as the only party that can deal with China—simultaneously Taiwan’s most important economic partner and an existential threat.

Given the KMT’s current weaknesses in other sectors (like the economy, previously a strength), the party will try to increase the salience of cross-Strait relations in the run up to the 2016 elections. Chu’s meeting with CCP general secretary and Chinese president Xi Jinping helps that cause.

The KMT has attacked the DPP’s traditional blind spot on China policy to a greater or lesser extent during every presidential election campaign. Seeking reelection in 2012, President Ma scored points by attacking Tsai Ing-wen’s untested “Taiwan consensus.” In light of that defeat, the DPP launched a party-wide drive to address the perceived weakness of their China policy.

The heterogeneity of positions across the party meant that the ultimate policy recommendations did not radically differ from the “Taiwan consensus” (which urges caution in cross-Strait affairs and establishing bipartisan agreement and supervision before pursuing further economic policies with China). However, Tsai, who has again secured the DPP’s nomination, appears much more confident in her understanding and delivery of the DPP’s position.

At a party meeting in April, Tsai expressed her support for “maintaining the status quo” and “stability in cross-Strait relations,” remarks that won praise from officials in the United States. Earlier this week, though, President Ma used a long address to the Mainland Affairs Council to question how Tsai expects to achieve these goals while rejecting the “one China” principle and “1992 Consensus.” Tsai’s response should provide food for thought for Chu and Xi as they meet in Beijing: the Taiwanese people, she said, do not share Ma’s preoccupation with the intricacies of the “1992 Consensus” because they are too busy worrying about a swathe of economic and social ills.

If Tsai’s moderate rhetoric is sufficient to convince the electorate (and opinion polls suggest it is) that the DPP’s China policy won’t be a dangerous liability, the KMT has nothing left to fight with. Outside of championing the “1992 Consensus,” the KMT is bereft of ideas. Continue reading