This phrase is in, that phrase is out. Given the opacity of Chinese politics, it is understandable that observers should rely on scrutiny of the official-speak of its leaders. But myopia and over-sensitivity are risks that can come with such close readings. 

The most recent case in point may have come over the past week as regional and international media sought to read the broader implications for China’s Taiwan policy in a speech by CCP Central Committee member Wang Huning (王沪宁) to an annual meeting of top political brass to coordinate related policy for the coming year.

In the wake of the Taiwan Affairs Work Conference, which was held in Beijing on February 22-23, a number of media and observers noted apparent changes in tone between Wang’s speeches this year and last. In addressing the issue of “Taiwan independence” (台湾独立), the Chinese-language Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported, Wang had “elevated” his language from the simple word “oppose,” or fandui (反对), to the more energetic — and to some ears, more combative — phrase “resolutely combat” (坚决打击).

“Wang Huning Makes a Tough Speech on Taiwan,” reads a February 26 headline at RFA.

Noting that Wang’s speech had come just weeks after Taiwan’s presidential election in January, the Financial Times had offered an identical analysis days before, reporting that China’s leadership had “sharpened its rhetoric towards Taiwan, raising the pressure on the country as its president-elect Lai Ching-te prepares to take office in May.”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post emphasized the apparent absence of language from the previous year referring to China and Taiwan as “one family across the Taiwan Strait.” The paper noted that Wang’s speech pledged instead to “advance the process of reunification” (推进祖国统一进程), and to “firmly support patriotic and pro-unification forces on the island and unite Taiwan compatriots” (坚定支持岛内爱国统一力量,广泛团结台湾同胞).

The sum of these apparent shifts in phrasing, seen in the context of the recent election in Taiwan of William Lai, whom the SCMP referred to as “the independence-leaning DPP candidate,” seemed to indicate that China is now on a worrying new course with its Taiwan policy. For some, concerns were further confirmed this week with news that Premier Li Qiang (李强) had dropped mention in his government work report, delivered at the National People’s Congress on March 5, of the phrase “peaceful reunification” in reference to Taiwan.

The sum of these apparent shifts in phrasing . . . seemed to indicate that China is now on a worrying new course with its Taiwan policy.

As Chao Chun-shan (赵春山), a professor and former cross-straits relations advisor for two Taiwanese presidents, summed up the situation for RFA: “The tough [words] are getting tougher, the soft [words] aren’t getting softer.”

While these reports are not off the mark in assessing the comments of both Wang Huning and Li Qiang in the context of Taiwan’s recent presidential election, understanding whether or not their language marks a real shift from the past requires a deeper and more careful look back on China’s official discourse.

Where is the Yardstick for Tough Talk on Taiwan?

Reports on Wang’s speech refer not to a full-text of his address but rather to a shorter read-out of the speech released by the CCPs official Xinhua News Agency. So far, a full-text version of Wang’s speech has not been made available. While this fits with general practice, it does limit our view into what was actually said, and what was not. Certainly, the words as we have them do seem marginally tougher in comparison to the speech Wang Huning gave at last year’s meeting — and it goes without saying that anything uttered by an official as senior as Wang does bear weight.

However, as we assess either text — Wang’s address to the Taiwan Affairs Work Conference, or Premier Li’s work report to the NPC — and make judgments as to possible tonal change in the short term, it makes sense to measure against the more authoritative senior-level statements and programs of the Party.

What yardstick should we use?

In fact, Wang’s speech and Li’s work report point the way. When discussing Taiwan, both refer directly to the “overall strategy for solving the Taiwan issue in the New Era” as the basis for their actions in 2024. So what exactly is this “overall strategy”?

Liu Jieyi, former director of the Taiwan Affairs Office. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tipped by Xi Jinping in his political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP on October 16, 2022, the “overall strategy for solving the Taiwan issue in the New Era” (新时代党解决台湾问题的总体方略) was elaborated in greater detail weeks later by Chinese diplomat Liu Jieyi (刘结一), then director of the Taiwan Affairs Office. This came in an article for Qiushi (求是), an official journal under the Central Party School that interprets and transmits Party policy, which did not go unnoticed by Taiwanese experts on China’s cross-straits policy.

In what should be seen as the most authoritative explanation so far of this elusive but important “overall strategy for solving the Taiwan issue in the New Era,” Liu Jieyi says that all Taiwanese “separatists” must be “smashed” (粉碎), a term that appears in other official summaries and interpretations of Xi’s speech in Party media in 2022 and 2023. While the recently noted shift from “oppose” to “resolutely combat” seems to some observers to mark a worrisome hardening of language, this use of “smashed” (or “crushed”) in the CCP’s overall strategy is arguably harder still. 

This language appears in Point Eight of Liu Jieyi’s Quishi article, and in Point Nine he is clear that “interference by external forces” on the Taiwan issue must be “persistently opposed.” At no point does he rule out the use of force, but emphasizes earlier on in the text, in Point Four, that “peaceful reunification” and the “one country two systems” formula are the way forward. “The national unity we pursue is not only formal unity,” Liu writes, “but more importantly, the spiritual unity of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan straits.”

This “spiritual unity,” he says, requires progress on two fronts, which he calls the “two wheels” (两个轮子), for the development of cross-straits relations. First, opportunities should be provided for mutual development and the improvement of standards of living for Taiwanese. Second, there should be greater exchange around a shared traditional Chinese culture. “The convergent development of various areas of cross-straits [relations] is the foundational project of peaceful unification,” writes Liu.

This overall strategy, as outlined by Liu Jieyi, combines the hard and the soft in good-cop-bad-cop fashion — “two wheels” of peaceful integration on the one hand, and the “crushing” of the forces of independence on the other. When we read Wang Huning’s speech and Li Qiang’s work report against the backdrop of this more canonical text on Taiwan, it can be said that both read like condensed versions of the overall strategy rather than departures from it. In fact, Wang’s use of “combat” (打击) and Li’s use of “oppose” (反对) with respect to “separatist plots” (分裂图谋) around the notion of “Taiwan independence” could just as easily be read as a toning down of rhetoric rather than an escalation of it.

China’s overall strategy on Taiwan, as outlined by Liu Jieyi, combines the hard and the soft in good-cop-bad-cop fashion.

The broader point here is not to argue in favor of either conclusion in terms of shifts in tone, but rather to caution that China’s posture towards Taiwan should not be measured by the wording of any one speech without reference at least to a fuller view of recent language — and particularly without reference to policy statements cited in these speeches themselves as being foundational.

Smashing, Combatting and Opposing

Even setting aside the overall strategy that CCP officials, including Xi Jinping, cite as foundational for Taiwan policy at the present moment, a look back on Taiwan-related rhetoric over the past several years turns up a telling mix of hard and soft.

At first glance, Wang Huning’s shift this year from the apparently softer “oppose” to the possibly harder “combat” might appear to be a significant escalation. Go back one year earlier to 2022, however, and you find that Wang Yang (汪洋), then presiding over the Taiwan Affairs Work Conference, urged the “crushing” (粉碎) of independence proponents.

Looking back on coverage of Taiwan affairs in the party-state media, we generally find that senior officials have tended to use more moderate wording — if that is how we choose to understand language like “oppose” — while the spokespersons interfacing with the media have tended to use harder language in their press briefings.

For example, the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, the administrative agency responsible for cross-straits relations, and effectively equivalent to the Taiwan Work Office, has generally been quoted urging “opposition” to the forces of “Taiwan independence.” Song Tao (宋涛), director of the office since 2022, has used “oppose” consistently (and here) — even as recently as February 29 this year, when he met in Shanghai with the visiting vice-chairman of the Kuomintang, Andrew Hsia (夏立).

By contrast, spokespersons for the Taiwan Affairs Office have consistently used “combat” and “crush” during press briefings to refer to China’s posture on “Taiwan independence.”  During a briefing in 2021, Xinhua reported of spokesperson Zhu Fenglian (朱凤莲): “She pointed out that resolutely combating the intransigent elements of ‘Taiwan independence’ and preventing ‘Taiwan independence’ activities, is the proper meaning and necessary condition of cross-straits relations and peaceful development.”

The Devil in the Details

If we focus too narrowly when observing the Taiwan-related discourse of the CCP, or if our gaze is too colored by the context of the moment, there is the risk that our sensitivity to nuance might become over-sensitivity to significance. Which brings us back to the question of government work reports and the absence this week of any reference to “peaceful reunification.”

At first glance, this absence seems like an important one. At Reuters, it merited prominent mention in a headline, the clear implication being that something fundamental had shifted. The report noted an increase in China’s defense spending, “as Beijing hardens its stance on Taiwan.”

In this context, the evidence for China’s hardened stance comes from the apparent changes in language discussed above, including the absence in Li’s report of “peaceful reunification”? But how significant is this absence? Does it point to a fundamental shift in policy?

Once again, it is crucial to step back and take a broader look at the recent CCP language concerning Taiwan. The point is not to get lost in the details, even as we are mindful of them.

In his political report to the 20th National Congress, Xi Jinping emphasized the peaceful development of cross-strait relations, and “advancing peaceful reunification” (推进祖国和平统一进程), following the pattern set by every political report since Deng Xiaoping first put forward the concept in the late 1970s. The Qiushi elaboration by Liu Jieyi of the “overall strategy for solving the Taiwan issue in the New Era” name-checked in Xi’s report — and recently cited in both Wang’s and Li’s addresses — is capped in its final line with a reference to “peaceful reunification.”

Are we so sure this language has been brushed aside by the latest government work report? When it comes to Taiwan, China’s language often combines the soft and the hard in bewildering succession. When we don’t hear this or that word, it is often best to take that step back — or just to wait a little bit longer.

At an NPC press conference early yesterday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that those “playing with fire” over Taiwan “will get burned.” Hard language. Meanwhile, carried prominently on the front page of the People’s Daily the same morning — in bright red bullets — was a message from top leader Xi Jinping to a joint group meeting of China’s top political advisory body, the CPPCC, that brought back that phrase observers had keenly missed just days before. “[We must] steadily strengthen the forces against ‘independence’,” Xi said of Taiwan, “and work together to promote the process of peaceful reunification.”

Hard or soft, observing China’s rhetoric on Taiwan (and much else) surely requires some elasticity.

Alex Colville


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