‘The will of the Chinese people’: Beijing's narrative of invading Taiwan

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image from Kremlin.ru (via Wikipedia) under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The following article, written by Kuan-shun Yang, is part of a special joint issue between New Bloom and Taiwan Insight on the 2024 elections. It is first published on Taiwan Insight on January 2, 2024 and the New Bloom on  January 9, 2024. The following edited version is republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement with New Bloom.

For decades, Taiwan has lived under Beijing’s constant military threat of “reunification.” However, Taiwan is often portrayed by Chinese propagandists as a “troublemaker” capable of destabilising the Indo-Pacific region or making China “upset about everything we [Taiwan] do, about our existence,” as Taiwan’s ex-ambassador to the United States Hsiao Bi-khim noted. Taiwan’s independence, be it a political appeal or an objective reality, is provocative to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP’s mouthpieces have effectively convinced numerous international observers to discourage Taiwan’s quest for independence and characterized Taiwan’s autonomy as an affront to the Chinese people.

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and his predecessors have consistently stressed the importance of the “Taiwan question” to the Chinese nation and the necessity of unification. In a recent interview, former Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai, described the Taiwan question as a “life-or-death question for China” with “no room for concession.” Chinese officials and commentators often invoke the “will of 1.4 billion Chinese people” when discussing the criticality of the CCP’s historic mission to integrate Taiwan.

Some narratives attribute the rise of nationalistic sentiments in Chinese society and the escalating “spiral of hostility” across the Taiwan Strait to Taiwan’s behaviour. Several factors are cited to explain this increasing hostility toward Taiwan. For instance, Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, unlike its KMT predecessor, never accepted China’s 1992 Consensus, which implies Taiwan is part of China. The “de-sinicisation” movement the DPP administration is purportedly promoting may erode Chinese cultural elements in Taiwan. Therefore, it is essential for Taiwan to maintain a sense of friendliness in Chinese society as a guardrail for Taiwan’s security. Encouraging goodwill among the Chinese people and reducing the need for forced unification could involve Taiwan’s efforts to integrate into China.

Shared wish for peace across the Strait

Public opinion in Taiwan, as revealed by a longitudinal survey by Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, indicates that over half of the Taiwanese respondents see Chinese people favourably. The same polls also show that nearly two-thirds of Taiwanese respondents would develop a more positive impression of China if it ceased its military actions against Taiwan. A majority of them even agreed to view China in a more positive light should there be a deal to prevent the Chinese invasion of Taiwan in exchange for Taiwan’s refraining from claiming its formal independence.

Source: Academia Sinica, “Research on the China Image 2014-2019″

Source: Academia Sinica, “Research on the China Image 2014-2019″

Chinese people’s so-called “hostility” towards Taiwan may also be overstated. A survey published in the Journal of Contemporary China in May indicates that 55 percent of Chinese respondents endorse Beijing’s armed unification of Taiwan, with only 1 percent advocating an immediate war against Taiwan. Moreover, around one-third of them do not support armed unification. These findings starkly contrast with the impression of unanimous support for forced unification the CCP’s propaganda apparatus often implies among the Chinese populace.

Overstated “will of the people”

It remains a question whether the Chinese people, ruled by an unelected regime, can truly influence their political elites’ decision-making process, particularly on the topic of invading Taiwan. The “wolf-warrior” comments and expressions of “hurt feelings” by nationalist “little pink” internet users in China can be orchestrated by CCP propaganda machinery to legitimise the regime’s assertive foreign policy. Apart from the evident propaganda distributed through official channels, there have been instances where the CCP allowed nationalistic sentiments to gain traction during disputes involving China and other countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United States.

With Xi’s consolidation of political power in recent years, it may also be hyperbolic to suggest that a single issue could jeopardise the foundation of his rule. Over two decades ago, David Lampton observed that Chinese leaders were concerned about being ousted by nationalistic people if they could not stop Taiwan’s pursuit of independence. Today, it may be challenging to envision a realistic scenario or practical mechanism whereby the CCP regime could be toppled by enraged nationalist sentiments in China due to a failed attempt to unify Taiwan. Given the intricately constructed and omnipresent surveillance state in place, any public discontent within China may only manifest in a decentralized and disorganized manner, as seen in events like the “White Paper Revolution” last year and the “Lying Flat Movement” among Chinese youth.

China's economic downturn involving a property market crisis, bad debt and slow growth may not immediately spark widespread unrest, but it could strain the CCP’s internal control capabilities. Given the current trajectory of economic decline, Beijing’s expenditures on maintaining domestic stability are expected to increase to uphold its ability to suppress domestic grievances. While this may not lead to an immediate reduction in China’s military spending, it could signal that China’s economic health has deteriorated to a point where U.S. President Joe Biden was convinced that China’s capacity for invading Taiwan is constrained. As Wang Fei-ling of Georgia Institute of Technology points out, even an assertive leader like Xi “has to worry about where his money is going to come from.”

Regardless of how much Xi views the unification of Taiwan as a critical component of his mandate and historic mission, it is essential to distinguish between the Chinese leader’s long-term objectives and his policy priorities at the moment. Xi may continue to assert that the resolution of cross-Strait disputes cannot be postponed indefinitely. However, Chang Wu-ueh of Taiwan’s Tamkang University argues that Xi may not prioritise the Taiwan question when his authority within the party is unchallenged, and using force against Taiwan could trigger undesirable American intervention. Instead, Xi may opt to address more pressing strategic concerns like tackling China’s immediate economic challenges and managing the China-U.S. relationship, particularly in the lead-up to the 2024 American presidential election. This argument gains credibility when considering Xi’s reported assurance to President Biden that he has no plans to invade Taiwan by 2027 or 2035.

Xi's seemingly conciliatory words provide no leeway for Taiwan to act recklessly. He maintains his adamant stance that “China needs to eventually move toward a resolution” when meeting Biden. Political leaders in Taiwan, including the independence-leaning Vice President and presidential front-runner Lai Ching-te, pledged to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. As Chang points out, Beijing is likely to increase pressure on Taiwan after the presidential election, particularly if Lai is elected. This would send a clear message to both domestic and international audiences about China’s claim on Taiwan.

Hence, it is crucial not to overstate the CCP’s proclaimed priorities without verifying their actual significance to both the regime and the Chinese people. Regardless of whether the CCP claims to have a mandate from the “vox populi,” it is important to emphasise that statements or narratives invoking “the will of the 1.4 billion Chinese people” do not hold the legitimacy to dictate the actions of Taiwan or any other country. Making inaccurate judgments based on such claims can lead to potentially dangerous miscalculations and erroneous decisions, which may ultimately harm the interests of the U.S. and its allies, all to appease CCP’s demands. All nations around the world need to recognise that they are stakeholders of the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. By addressing China in its entirety, it becomes evident that the peaceful coexistence between Taiwan and China serves the best interests of all parties involved.

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