Beijing has given up on winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese. Instead, using violence-prone proxies and a fake civil society, the CCP wants to destabilize Taiwanese society and undermine support for the country’s democratic institutions.
After years of trying in vain to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese as part of its mergineffort to engineer the unification of China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has recognized the error of its ways and has abandoned that strategy. Instead, it is now intensifying efforts to corrode and undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions, create social instability, further isolate Taiwan internationally, and hollow-out Taiwan’s economy by attracting its talent.
The key reason behind that shift is the abject failure of its attempt, during eight years of rapprochement under the Ma Ying-jeou presidency (2008-2016), to shape Taiwanese self-identification and support for unification through various economic incentives and various acts self-described as “goodwill.” When, for reasons having to do with Taiwan’s “democratic firewall,” that approach did not yield the expected dividends (and in fact had the counterproductive effect of strengthening Taiwanese identification), and when this was followed by the return to power of the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which secured control of both the executive ands legislative branches of government in the January 2016 elections, Beijing found itself without a coherent strategy. Or rather, one important aspect of the CCP’s dialectic approach to Taiwan — the “win hearts and mind” strategy — was at long last buried.
To make matters worse, it also became increasingly clear that its supposed partner in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT), was itself no longer able, or was outright unwilling, to participate in unificationist efforts. Among the reasons explaining this was a generational shift within the party and, more importantly, the fact that the KMT had itself become a participant in Taiwan’s democracy and therefore was bound by its rules. To win elections, the party knew it had to reflect the wishes of the majority of Taiwanese and the expectations of its “blue” base, which, as the Hung Hsiu-chu debacle in late 2015 made all too clear, would not countenance any policy that was perceived to be getting too cosy with Beijing (e.g., going beyond the so-called “1992 consensus” or a deepening commitment to “one China” on Beijing’s terms). Well before president Ma stepped down on May 20, 2016, the CCP had lost patience with the KMT and was bypassing it by interacting directly with local representatives, civic groups, and proxies in Taiwan.
The situation became such that earlier this year, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Zhu Chenghu, a top military strategist and influential voice in Beijing, spoke for many in the CCP when he complained that the KMT was no longer committed to unification and party members that made visits to Beijing were “lying and eating and drinking.”
Consequently, the CCP is left with mostly coercive means by which it seeks to accomplish its objectives. Among those are an intensification of PLA exercises and intrusions, supported by psychological warfare, to create an atmosphere of embattlement in Taiwan; increased efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally by preventing its participation in multilateral institutions as well as pressure on governments, institutions and companies; and the acceleration of a multi-pronged campaign to erode Taiwan’s democracy and government institutions (and perceptions thereof) through the empowerment, penetration, and co-optation of non-state actors.
If the CCP cannot win over the Taiwanese to the extent that they would agree to unification, it will seek to achieve this goal by other means. It never had the welfare of the Taiwanese in mind, and therefore will have no compunction in abandoning the soft approach.
If the CCP cannot win over the Taiwanese to the extent that they would agree to unification, it will seek to achieve this goal by other means. It never had the welfare of the Taiwanese in mind, and therefore will have no compunction in abandoning the soft approach. What it wants is two-fold: to bolster the party’s credibility by delivering on its promise to engineer the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese race” and to secure control of real estate that stands right in the middle of China’s ambitions to break out of the “first island chain.”
I would argue that the threat of military action, though serious, remains a somewhat distant one. A more immediate and direct challenge to Taiwan’s sovereignty and way of life is the present — and rapidly intensifying — attack on its democratic institutions. Already in December 2016, the CCP mouthpiece Global Times argued in an editorial that China should seek to “Lebanonize” Taiwan. While we should be careful not to treat everything that is published in the ultranationalist Global Times as a reflection of Beijing’s strategy, there are, nevertheless, several signs that such efforts are underway.
Chief among them is the emergence of a “civil society” that often resorts to physical assault and destruction of public property, targeting elected officials, members of the press, activists, students, and law enforcement officers. Moreover, evidence is now emerging that many of those groups have some ties to the CCP, from leaders of the “800 Heroes” who have violently opposed pension reform to Chang An-le’s China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), which often mobilizes gangsters at its rallies and around which other organizations, such as the Concentric Patriot Association of the ROC, which makes a sport of assaulting Falun Gong practitioners, tend to gravitate. Chang, a former leader of the Bamboo Union who served time in a U.S. federal prison, has openly spoken about his close relationship with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO). His party advocates for unification and promotes a “one country, two systems” formula for Taiwan. It has fielded candidates in previous elections — performing abysmally as expected — and will do so again later this year in the municipal elections.
Another worrying development is the cross-pollination of various groups that have mobilized violently in the past year or so, including the aforementioned protesters against pension reform, opponents to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and supporters of the embattled National Taiwan University president Kuan Chung-ming. In all cases, protesters have resorted to physical violence to intimidate officials, activists, members of the press, and law enforcement. (I noted similar cross-pollination in the lead-up to the Sunflower Movement in 2014, which I discuss in detail in by books Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan and Convergence or Conflict in the Taiwan Strait.) Members of the CUPP have often appeared at those protests as well. Another pro-unification party, the New Party (NP), some of whose members are now under investigation in a spy case, has also provided support and provided the T-shirts for a recent protest in support of Kuan. (NP member Wang Ping-chung, who is accused of violating Taiwan’s National Security Act, has been barred from leaving the country. Earlier this year, he and other NP officials, including chairman Yok Mu-ming, were present at an event in New York City organized by the National Union for the Promotion of China’s Peaceful Reunification, one of many organs linked to the CCP’s political warfare efforts. CUPP members were also present.)
The CUPP and CCP-linked elements also appear to be cultivating ties with independent politicians, including Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who in recent months has appeared at at least one event alongside the CUPP’s Chang and who has given some protection to violence-prone groups such as the Concentric Patriot Association while cracking down on pro-independence groups. The CUPP seems to have given its support to Mayor Ko’s re-election bid for Taipei, and its spokeswoman will be running as an independent candidate in the election for mayor in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.
Worryingly, the CUPP and Bamboo Union, as well as other pro-Beijing triads, such as the Four Seas Gang, have access to firearms and other weapons, which they may attempt to bring into Taiwan and provide to a “civil society” bent on escalation. A large cache of firearms — the largest in a decade — was seized at the weekend originating in the Philippines and transiting via Hong Kong before arriving in Taiwan. A total of 109 firearms, including Bushmaster XM15-E25s, Spike’s Tactical ST-15s and a Striker-12 shotgun, as well as 12,378 rounds of ammunition were seized in Keelung. One officer said of the arms cache, “You could set up an army with those!” Minister of the Interior Yeh Jiunn-rong said that if the guns had flown into the market, “the consequences would have been disastrous.” The individuals arrested in the case were from the Bamboo Union (some of them fled to Singapore but were sent back to Taiwan).
The fact that these groups, and the pro-Beijing political parties, have little public support and stand no chance of winning seats in elections (although the CUPP and NP could seek to influence and form alliances with independent candidates) is besides the point. Their principal aim is to foster instability, with hopes that physical violence will spark a commensurate response by society. In some fundamental ways, these are akin to the Sturmabteilung (SA), or Brown Shirts, in late 1920s and early 1930s Germany, which unleashed violence upon society and blamed the Weimar Republic — a democracy much reviled by the Nazis and other extreme-right political parties — for the social chaos.
Taiwan’s law enforcement must step in when necessary, and make it clear that the state retains the sole right to use force. Yielding that to society, especially to “political triads,” would be a recipe for disaster and would most assuredly play into Beijing’s hands.
It will therefore be extremely important that the Taiwanese authorities address the violence appropriately. Standing by, like law enforcement did in Germany at the time, would be a recipe for disaster as other non-state groups are likely to respond and thereby contribute to the escalation — or “Lebanonization” — that the CCP is looking for. Therefore, Taiwan’s law enforcement must step in when necessary, and make it clear that the state retains the sole right to use force. Yielding that to society, especially to “political triads,” would be a recipe for disaster and would most assuredly play into Beijing’s hands. (The KMT, which may be tempted to align itself with such groups, must also be very careful not to legitimize groups and actions whose aim is the destruction of state institutions.) “Lebanonization” refers to the break-up of society into various groups, with state institutions unable to ensure stability and security. Needless to say, Beijing would love to see such an outcome in Taiwan, which would be conducive to the emergence of a leader who promises stability — and likely would be much less democratic and greatly more amenable to some kind of deal with the CCP.
The Tsai Ing-wen government will also need to give serious thought to how it wants to handle the challenges posed by political parties like the NP and CUPP. The fact that pro-unification parties are allowed to come into being and run in elections is a commendable example of Taiwan’s democratic maturity. However, as the historian Richard J. Evans observed in his landmark study of how the Nazis came to power The Coming of the Third Reich, “Democracies that are under threat of destruction face the impossible dilemma of either yielding to that threat by insisting on preserving the democratic niceties, or violating their own principles by curtailing democratic rights.” The NP and CUPP need to demonstrate that they are capable of and willing to respect the democratic rules of the game. If, on the other hand, they are committed to democracy’s undoing, and that giving them free rein would, as Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, argued, provide democracy’s “deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed,” then action needs to be taken and these “parties” need to be outlawed. The same applies to civil society, where the right to protest, a key component of a vibrant democracy, needs to be protected, but at the same time excesses — violence, disinformation and so on — cannot be brooked by society, especially if those are unleashed as part of a program by a revisionist authoritarian state to undermine the democratic firewall that has served Taiwan so well over the years.