How Beijing Uses People-to-People Ties as Leverage Over Taiwan
By David Gitter and Elsa Kania / October 01, 2016 / The Diplomat
Since Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration in May 2016, her reluctance to endorse the so-called “1992 consensus,” a vague understanding that the Mainland and Taiwan constitute “one China,” has become an increasingly contentious issue in cross-strait relations, resulting in Beijing’s suspension of official communication mechanisms between the two sides. Beijing has also sought to exert pressure against the Tsai government by undermining Taiwan’s international space.
This has led to the recent rejection of Taiwan’s participation in the annual meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as well as the deportation of nearly 200Taiwanese citizens accused of fraud from countries such as Armenia, Cambodia, Kenya, and Malaysia to Mainland China, instead of Taiwan. These continued pressure tactics may also have economic consequences for Taiwan. In recent months, tourism from Mainland China to Taiwan has decreased significantly, and the asymmetric interdependence in cross-strait economic relations could be further exploited if relations were to worsen.
Perhaps less apparent is the fact that the multiple dimensions of Beijing’s coercive diplomacy have been complemented by the Communist Party of China’s renewed utilization of people-to-people relations in order to advance political objectives.
Although official and semi-official mechanisms of cross-strait relations have been halted, the Chinese leadership has emphasized their intention to maintain and even expand all unofficial ties. While Beijing has followed through with its promise to cut official communications between the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), as well as associated semi-official mechanisms, the TAO has concurrently reaffirmed the importance of people-to-people relations. Even as the TAO’s response to Tsai’s inaugural address made clear China’s dissatisfaction with Tsai’s failure to adopt its preferred political base for continued ties, the final paragraph of its official statement set clear limits on Beijing’s choice to suspend talks:
The Taiwan compatriots share blood ties with us and there is no force that can separate us. We will further expand exchanges between compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, advance cross-Straits exchanges and cooperation in various fields, deepen the integrated economic and social development of the two sides, and improve the well-being and strengthen the close bond of people across the Straits, so that the two sides of the Taiwan Straits will build a community of shared future and join hands to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Beijing has since reinforced this rhetoric with action. Over the past several months, a variety of cross-strait exchanges, mediated through the TAO, have occurred. These meetings are not merely gestures of goodwill, but rather attempts to protect Beijing’s interests. Chinese leaders understand well that contemporary cross-strait ties are both broad and deep, and a total cessation of all economic, educational, and social relations would be unprecedented and counterproductive. The TAO’s recent initiatives reflect Beijing’s hopes that Taiwanese with a stake in smooth cross-strait ties might be convinced to pressure their government into more politically accommodating positions, with a particular focus on local ties, the business community, and youth.
As recent meetings since Tsai’s ascension to the presidency show, local-level exchanges seem to offer China’s leaders an especially useful platform to undermine the Tsai administration. Jessica Drun of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) astutely points out that exchanges with local-level Taiwanese that make public concessions on the 1992 Consensus give Beijing a chance to counterbalance national cross-strait policies, and provide political currency to Tsai’s domestic foes. Read more…