Beijing is reportedly planning to implement a ‘new strategy’ to win the hearts and minds of young Taiwanese. Like everything else that has come before it, it’s bound to fail.
With every effort to push its unification agenda meeting abject failure in recent years, the Chinese government is reportedly planning a “new approach” to Taiwan affairs, one that it is said will focus on social contact by prioritizing young people and small businesses.
Beijing’s review of its approach to Taiwan, along with an ongoing shakeup of the people in charge of implementing cross-Strait policies, comes after a very frustrating eight years of rapprochement between the two sides under former president Ma Ying-jeou. To Beijing’s dismay, rather than win hearts and minds deepening investment and closer contact achieved the opposite effect and contributed to the consolidation of Taiwan’s idiosyncratic identity — an amalgamation of localist consciousness, historical and geographical factors, liberalism, democracy, as well as Japanese and Western influences — distinct from that which prevails in China.
Having learned mostly nothing from this recent experience, Beijing’s “new” approach to wooing Taiwan therefore has very little newness about it. It is more of the same, basically, with new faces and organizations doing pretty much the same thing. It’s not even “old wine in a new bottle,” as the Chinese love to say; what with the people and organizations that will purportedly take the lead from now on, the bottle itself is old.
At its heart, the new plan intends to skip official institutions in Taiwan — both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) — and deal directly with the grassroots. Rather than being new, this strategy had already been adopted by the second term of the Ma administration, when it had become clear that years of work with the “Beijing-friendly” KMT and various compradores would not yield the expected dividends within society. Even large businesses and Taishang, who often were regarded as a means to promote an unificationist agenda, appear to have lost their luster in Beijing’s eyes. Instead, young Taiwanese and small businesses are now regarded as the “best bet” to pave the way for unification.
An unnamed source close to the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) late last month told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that the new strategy would focus on offering “preferential policies” to the Taiwanese public with new emphasis on engaging different walks of life in Taiwan through local and civilian organisations. Those apparently include “low-profile” organizations in China.
One such group that, according to reports, has been tapped to play a bigger role in cross-Strait affairs is the All-China Federation of Taiwanese Compatriots (ACFTC). Presided by Wang Yifu, the ACFTC will reportedly lead a new civilian body on behalf of Beijing to deepen interactions with young people in Taiwan and perhaps replace existing communication channels.
According to the SCMP, the “new approach underscores Beijing’s injection of fresh blood to spearhead a new strategy.”
Such efforts, to put it gently, are delusional. The ACFTC is little more than a collection of old men who defected to China decades ago, and whose contacts back in Taiwan are more often than not part of the marginal (and rapidly ageing) segment of society that still believes in the virtues of unification. Thus, like everything else before it, the “new” strategy is bound to fail, largely due to the fact that old wine continues to fuel Beijing’s approach to Taiwan.
The old spirits are a brew of Chinese Communist Party ideology that has no traction whatsoever in Taiwanese society and the stubborn belief that financial benefits can over time dilute, and eventually displace, national identification.
The old spirits are a brew of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology that has no traction whatsoever in Taiwanese society and the stubborn belief that financial benefits can over time dilute, and eventually displace, national identification. The first ingredient (ideology) tastes like vinegar, especially to the young Taiwanese who are now said to be the targets of China’s new charm offensive. Combined with the dismal human rights situation in China, the crisis in Hong Kong, and Beijing’s repeated attacks on Taiwan’s dignity and international space (not to mention the kidnapping of Taiwanese nationals), this ideology can only continue to alienate the Taiwanese and to deepen their sense of identity.
No amount of financial incentives (the second ingredient in the mix) will change that. Pragmatic as ever, many Taiwanese — youth included — have no compunction in doing business with or in China. But for the great majority of them this does not change the fact that Taiwan is their country and China, much as the United States is to Canada, little more than a neighbor where career and business opportunities exist (a much more serious challenge to Taiwan in this respect is the brain-drain factor associated with this phenomenon, but that is to be discussed another time). There is little that the “new strategy” can do to change that; Beijing has had economic determinism as part of its cross-Strait strategy for decades, seeking to lock in Taishang, local vendors and tour operators across Taiwan, with precious little success in translating that into political support for unification.
Wang, a close aide to President Xi Jinping who was vice-governor of Fujian when Xi was its provincial governor (1999-2002), appears to have convinced the Chinese leader that he has the ability to turn things around and should oversee the new strategy. If President Xi indeed has been convinced by this, it would demonstrate that he, like his close advisers, are completely out of touch with the mood in contemporary Taiwan.
This co-called “new strategy,” such as it is, is the typical institutional repackaging that occurs when governments have run out of ideas. The TAO and the semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), which spearheaded cross-Strait efforts during the Ma years (2008-16), have now fallen out of favor, and some of their officials have become the targets of President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Through its intransigence and inability to admit defeat, the CCP has painted itself into a corner and must now prove that it remains capable of engineering the unification it has promised to its nationalistic base. Having no viable strategy for “peaceful unification” at its disposal, it shuffles people around and creates new boxes in the organizational chart.
The Taiwanese, however, will see through all this in a heartbeat.