The often risible comments by Chinese officials about Taiwan are certainly entertaining, but they signal a dangerous malaise within the CCP, one that should not be laughed at.
The rhetoric used by Chinese officials about Taiwan in recent years has attained such levels of stridency that it has become easy to dismiss it as little more than necessary platitudes, humorous outbursts that briefly make international headlines before life returns to its normal course.
Whether it is a warning over Taiwan collaborating with foreign powers to defend itself or Beijing’s view of the Taiwan independence movement as a small group of bandits, much of what comes out of official channels in China today is downright disconnected from reality. With their regular confabulatory press briefings, An Fengshan and Ma Xiaoguang, spokespersons for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), have become the Chinese equivalents of regular characters on the Saturday Night Live comedy show. Meanwhile, other officials in China or posted abroad constantly warn of war should Taiwan fail to return the embrace of a jealous and resentful suitor.
Examples of Beijing’s disconnect are legion, and due to space limitations let us only focus on what was said this week. When An tells a press briefing (Dec. 13) that “more communication and mutual trust between the [TAO] and [Taiwan’s] New Party could push forward the ‘peaceful development’ of cross-Strait relations and advance the process toward the ‘peaceful reunification of the country,’” we cannot but scoff. The pro-unification and rapidly greying New Party, which recently announced its intention to open a liaison office in China, has become so marginalized in Taiwanese politics that it hasn’t won a single seat in the legislature since 2008 (when it obtained a grand total of one) and probably never will again. Comprised of discarded Kuomintang (KMT) members and increasingly mingling with the equally marginal and gangster-linked China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), the New Party is in no position to “push forward,” as An put it, “the ‘peaceful development’ of cross-Strait relations and advance the process toward the ‘peaceful reunification of the country.”
When, in the same briefing, An says that “the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration has always obstructed communication and cooperation across the Taiwan Strait, and stirred up opposition and hostility between people on both sides,” and that “[a]fter 30 years of cross-Strait exchanges, communication, cooperation and development have been the common aspiration of people on both sides of the Strait and nothing can reverse this trend,” we know we are dealing with someone who isn’t describing reality as it is, but rather what Beijing would want it to be. Both Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008) and Tsai Ing-wen (2016-) made repeated efforts early on in their administrations to communicate with Beijing, only to be turned down when Beijing realized that such exchanges could not be held on its terms alone, largely due to the democratic rules of the game that exist in Taiwan. Such comments also paper over Beijing’s frustration when the KMT was in power, again because its interlocutors in Taipei also had to respect the will of the people who put them in office (and paid the price, as Ma Ying-jeou did, when they failed to do so).
With their regular confabulatory press briefings, An Fengshan and Ma Xiaoguang, spokespersons for the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, have become the Chinese equivalents of regular characters on the Saturday Night Live comedy show.
And then this gem, also from the same Dec. 13 presser, which pretty much contradicts every opinion poll taken in Taiwan since the 1990s: “More Taiwanese have realized the mainland’s [sic] sincerity and view the mainland objectively. The mainland has provided opportunities rather than threats to Taiwan.” Indeed the Taiwanese see China more objectively today, what with the erosion of freedoms in China proper and in Hong Kong, a disturbing preview of what would happen to Taiwan should it unify with China.
Every week, An and officials like him give us variations on the same theme, broken records from a world that seems to be getting more and more detached from reality.
While it would be tempting to reduce this disconnect to Beijing’s inability to understand Taiwanese society and the international context in which cross-Strait relations are evolving, there is a grave underlying theme to all this that we cannot afford to ignore. This theme consists of three pillars:
Propaganda. The repetition of a meme — even if it is false — is at the core of Marxist-Leninist propaganda efforts. The aim isn’t to reflect reality but rather to shape it, to reinforce a notion by dint of repetition. It is saturation bombing, meant to sideline and ultimately replace other views on a particular subject. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not invent this art form: Nazi Germany (see Victor Klemperer’s LTI — Notizbuch eines philologen) and the Soviet Union used and abused language to achieve similar objectives. One major difference is that today the CCP has global mass media and the Internet at its disposal to conduct propaganda and political warfare. (For more humor courtesy of China, see this editorial in the Global Times denying Beijing is attempting to influence other governments.)
Lack of strategy. For decades China has tried coercion and sweeteners to compel the Taiwanese public to agree to unification on terms that will always be mainly set by Beijing. Both strategies — from the missile threat of 1995-96 to rapprochement during the Ma Ying-jeou years (2008-2016) — have failed, in both cases undermining support for unification while deepening Taiwanese self-identification and support for independence, de facto (“status quo”) or de jure. The CCP’s belief in economic determinism, which operates under the principle that material gain (or the promise thereof) will somehow replace nationalism, identity and enthusiasm for a liberal-democratic way of life, has time and again been proven wrong by its experience with Taiwan (and arguably in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong as well). The obstinate attachment to more of the same comes from a sense of frustration, of the realization that Beijing does not have a viable strategy to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese.
Audience. Much of what CCP officials like An say is aimed at a domestic audience, not at Taiwan or the international community. While it plays a role in indoctrination efforts (combined with information denial through censorship and other control mechanisms), the official rhetoric is inevitably related to the lack of strategy discussed above. It is, above all, the result of the CCP’s insistence on its indispensability for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In other words, the CCP has painted itself into a corner, and having staked its legitimacy on its ability to deliver on its promises, it cannot admit defeat, as doing so would (so it believes) threaten its hold on power. In Taiwan’s case, this would be the admission that “peaceful unification” is a dream that simply will not come about; and following that, the very dangerous possibility that other corners of the People’s Republic of China might also only be tenuously linked to the “Motherland.” For its own stake, the CCP simply cannot make such an admission. The public, and if not that, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or other factions within the CCP, would not permit a Chinese leader to admit defeat on a “core issue” like Taiwan, even if doing so resulted in a new policy that, by being closer to reality, stood a better chance or reducing conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
Combined, these three variables create an unstable mix that could compel the CCP, in a time of weakness, to lash out. Vulnerability + frustration + Orwellian surrealism + capability are the ingredients for disaster.
Combined, these three variables create an unstable mix that could compel the CCP, in a time of weakness, to lash out. Vulnerability + frustration + Orwellian surrealism + capability are the ingredients for disaster. To what extent would the PLA be called upon to release some of that pressure is anyone’s guess, but if the Chinese leadership finds itself cornered at some point in the future, we cannot expect it to calculate rationally about the costs and benefits of taking military action to appease various factions back home. Not when the CCP’s first principle is its own survival.
That isn’t to say that Taiwan and its allies should panic every time a Chinese official issues a threat, let alone that we should allow such language to dictate how we conduct our affairs. Instead, we should understand this language for what it is and what it is part of, why it is used, why it is repeated, and how it underscores a worldview that, under certain conditions, could quickly translate into pressure to use force against Taiwan. An and others are certainly entertaining, but their role in all this signals a dangerous malaise within the CCP, one that should not be laughed at, and one that should be prepared against.