Tiananmen Squared? Doubling Down on Taiwan’s Status Quo
From mid-October to early December, potentially radical events impacted cross-strait relations between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (China). It started when Xi Jinping gave himself an expected but unprecedented third term at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the same event, his predecessor, Hu Jintao, was escorted out of the Congress prompting a variety of rumors. In an election on November 8 in the United States, Republicans dramatically underperformed, leaving Democrats in control of the Senate and eking out a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives.
On November 26 in Taiwan, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) received a thrashing in local elections, winning only five out of 21 magisterial or mayoral seats and none outside of their traditional base in Taiwan’s south. The current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, announced she would resign as the party’s chairwoman. Four days later, Jiang Zemin, China’s leader during an era of growth and optimism (and the subject of semi-adoring memes) died. The news came in the middle of protests that spread rapidly across China, sparked by COVID measures many saw as draconian, and resulting in what appears to be the rolling back those restrictions. While these events only hint at possible changes to the basic logic of cross-strait relations, they appear to confirm a seemingly contradictory trend: the more tension across the strait mounts, the more firmly the status quo of Taiwan as a de facto separate self-governing entity (neither part of nor apart from the mainland) becomes entrenched.
Taiwan’s View Across the Strait
The success of the Kuomintang (KMT), which has traditionally favored closer ties with China, over the pro-independence DPP in November’s election would initially seem to defy 20 years of shrinking support for reunification. China expert David Shambaugh wrote these words in 2001: “If Beijing truly wishes to solve the Taiwan problem, it must be prepared to undertake substantial political changes at home. It must shed its ossified positions and develop a truly innovative and flexible formula that actually attracts Taiwan back into the national fold. Forcing unification will never work, and the Hong Kong model will not satisfy the Taiwanese.”1 Shambaugh acknowledged that such a solution would be difficult, but it was not far-fetched. According to data from the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University in Taiwan, support for unification among Taiwanese that year stood at roughly 20% (combining the smaller group that wanted immediate unification with those inclined to move toward unification in the future). As is evident in Graph 1, this was about twice as many people as supported Taiwan independence (either immediate or in the future), with most supporting maintenance of the status quo.
Yet just a couple of years later, attitudes changed significantly. A statistical analysis of this data shows that a structural break happened from 2002 to 2003, when unification support dropped from about 18% to 13%. Though the cause cannot be proven, this may represent a response to the 16th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the transition of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao.
An identical analysis performed on pro-independence support identifies 2017 to 2018 as another break. In that period, support for independence jumped from 20% to 27%, and support for reunification fell another 5%. Many factors probably contributed, but the spectacle of Xi Jinping failing to appoint a successor and removing presidential term limits should have been definitive. This marked a rejection of the most important limit on Xi’s power, the regularized transfer of China’s top offices. We might then expect next year’s survey results to show a further increase in support for independence after Xi Jinping’s third term became a reality this fall. Though it is also possible this was expected and already baked into respondents’ attitudes.
Repression in Hong Kong, a city once seen as a model for Taiwan’s reunification, has ramped up dramatically since the passage of a new National Security Law in 2020. In two years, Hong Kong’s score on political rights and civil liberties by Freedom House dropped by 12 points. Ten media outlets closed from June 2021 to June 2022 and are being replaced by mainland-style state-owned media. On November 25, a 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal, a Canto-Pop singer, a cultural studies professor, and former lawmakers where found guilty of failing to properly register a now-defunct humanitarian fund. This authoritarian zeal does little to recommend Beijing to the people of Taiwan.
For any still considering unification, the mainland’s ongoing response to COVID could be decisive. China reports its official COVID death rate per capita is unfathomably low at around one death per 100,000 people. Rates in South Korea or Taiwan are more than 50 times higher. While this success is probably exaggerated, the real accomplishments of the regime in keeping COVID deaths low during a time when it was raging out of control elsewhere bought significant good will, for a time. Yet, a nationalist insistence on rejecting foreign vaccines and a somewhat baffling reluctance to force vaccination — especially among the elderly — has led to the strictest anti-COVID policies in the world. According to the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT), as of December 1, 2022, China had the world’s strictest COVID policies, with a score on its Stringency Index of 70.8 out of 100, while Taiwan was just under 40. Indeed, residents of Taiwan enjoyed a much less strict anti-COVID regime throughout most of the pandemic while still achieving relatively low COVID death rates and despite alleged PRC efforts to block Taiwan’s access to U.S.-made vaccines. Even as Beijing relaxes its COVID rules, the repression of and reprisals for protests that sparked this change further reinforce Taiwanese understandings of the relative lack of freedom in the PRC.
Given the declining support for reunification and recent events, the KMT’s gains should not be interpreted as a sudden warming toward China. The result was, in part, a reaction to the party in power. The DPP was punished for a perceived failure to address familiar domestic issues from unaffordable housing to an aging population. More importantly for cross-strait relations, it was a sign that, having moved away from its unification message in the early 2000s, the KMT is now effectively the pro-status-quo party that can still be supported even as impressions of China worsen. This makes the DPP by default the more radical party even with its highly nuanced approach to independence. Voters were also punishing President Tsai’s 2021 refusal to accept much-needed vaccines from China during a severe COVID outbreak as prioritizing political ideology over common sense.
In sum, with only 6.5% of Taiwan residents in favor of reunification and continuing action by Beijing likely to make that number drop further, the KMT’s victory shows that even the pretense of peaceful reunification seems to have reached the dustbin of history. With Taiwan moving for outright independence and China peacefully allowing it highly unlikely, this leaves only two real options for Taiwan: status quo or conflict.
China’s View Across the Strait
It is unclear what dissatisfaction and protests over the anti-COVID lockdown tell us about Xi Jinping’s grasp on power. While they are the largest in size and scale since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, they simply cannot compare to those expressions of dissatisfaction when perhaps a million people assembled at the height of the protest, as unrest erupted in 400 other cities for 51 days. This scale and longevity was only possible because of a major split among top Chinese leaders. Today, such a division seems impossible. Xi Jinping has achieved a hold on the CCP and China that is unprecedented since Mao. Additionally, the tools of Chinese repression have evolved dramatically. In 1989, the CCP rolled in the tanks, a strategy little different from Stalin’s in Prague, 1968. Today, the Chinese state has the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship: a $200 billion public security budget, a 1.5 million person special police force geared largely toward riot control (the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force), and an unprecedented system of digital and real-world surveillance that allows authorities to track down and identify protestors.
If protests, COVID-related incidents, a major drop in China’s economy, or anything else were to seriously weaken Xi Jinping, it might make it difficult for him to press the issue of Taiwan. The island may be a useful nationalist rallying point, but outside of semiconductors (more on this later), it is of little practical, cultural, or historical importance to average Chinese. Xi and his allies might decide that reunification with an island the Kangxi emperor called “a mudball in the sea” is not worth prioritizing over the livelihoods of the 1.4 billion people and maybe even the survival of the CCP and his regime.
Yet, diversionary war theory also shows us that moments of domestic turmoil can prompt leaders to take dramatic action abroad in hopes of taking advantage of Rally Round the Flag Syndrome. If Xi faces serious problems at home he might echo Russia’s Minister of the Interior before the start of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, who said, “What this country needs is a short victorious war to stem the tide of revolution.” This is easily the most dangerous scenario. To date, the basic understanding from all sides of the Taiwan conflict is that as long as Taiwan does not make overt moves toward independence, the People’s Republic will not take dramatic action to reunify it with the mainland, and that it will largely be able to carry out its affairs with only moderate levels of interference from Beijing. Therefore, support for the status quo has consistently been the most popular option for most residents of Taiwan (see Graph 1). Yet, the logic of diversionary war can lead to gambling on resurrection, where a leader takes drastic and risky actions in the hopes of strengthening a failing regime. If Xi Jinping sees problems at home as sufficiently threatening, costly, or insurmountable an invasion of Taiwan or at least a manufactured crises over it would be an obvious and already prepared distraction.
If the above seems unlikely, a less extreme version arises from Xi Jinping’s analysis of his own legacy. For decades, the conventional wisdom about Taiwan was that Chinese leaders were not under any particular pressure to regain Taiwan, but they could not lose it. This was the compelling force for status quo on the Chinese side. Yet it also reflected a system in which power was passed from leader to leader every 10 years. The longer Xi Jinping stays in office, the more he may feel the need to justify his unprecedented extra term(s) with accomplishments that could be viewed as historic. Xi hinted at this when he recently suggested that the Taiwan issue “cannot be passed from generation to generation.” Much the same is said of the logic of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The U.S. View Across the Pacific
As China’s military capacity improves and it becomes less likely that the U.S. could successfully defend Taiwan, American strategic thinking has recently been emphasizing tactics to make a preemptive attack on Taiwan self-defeating. In a 2021 article in US Army War College Quarterly, Jared Morgan McKinney of Missouri State and Peter Harris of Colorado State argue that “the United States and Taiwan should lay plans for a targeted scorched-earth strategy that would render Taiwan not just unattractive if ever seized by force, but positively costly to maintain.”2 Specifically, they recommend threatening to destroy Taiwan’s chip-making facilities which produce “65% of the world’s semiconductors and almost 90% of the advanced chips.” This would create a massive shortage of the chips that power China’s world-beating electronics industry and hope to make an invasion of Taiwan prohibitively costly. The thinking seems to be mirrored by the U.S. defense establishment. At the Richard Nixon Foundation’s recent Grand Strategy Summit , former U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador Robert O’Brien said something similar: “If China takes Taiwan and takes those factories intact – which I don’t think we would ever allow – they have a monopoly over chips the way OPEC has a monopoly, or even more than the way OPEC has a monopoly over oil.” Unsurprisingly, many officials in Taiwan do not like this sentiment. They argue that it is unnecessary as post-invasion Taiwan’s chip industry could quickly be rendered useless by trade restrictions that would deprive it of tools (for example, lithography equipment from Netherlands-based ASML Holding) and components from the global supply chain.
Global supply chains also become important when thinking about the impact of China’s strict anti-COVID measures and the associated protests. Many concluded that one of the lessons of the early days of the pandemic was a clear need to reduce dependency on China. The urgency of this need seems only to have increased as “boards in Europe shudder at images of workers kept behind fences by guards” and protests disrupt the production of iPhones. In response, Apple is accelerating already existent plans to move production out of China. Perhaps this pressure for relocation will wane along with COVID lockdowns and protests. If it does not, this could mark the first steps of a move away from the economic integration that helped keep the peace and prevented a new cold war.
Just as recent events in China and Taiwan do not herald any systemic change, a new makeup of the United States Congress is unlikely to mark a major shift. Increasingly, one of the only things Republicans and Democrats agree on is being tough on China. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan in August 2022 that was viewed by Beijing as highly provocative. Republican Kevin McCarthy, who is vying to replace Pelosi as speaker of the House, has said he would like to do the same. Yet, there is still a difference between parties. McCarthy has said he will establish a select committee on China “to expose and fight against the Chinese Communist Party’s cyber, trade and military threats against America.” In a recent Pew poll, conservative Republicans were about 15% more likely than moderate Democrats or Republicans to see Chinese military power and Chinese competition with the U.S. as a serious problem, with the gap stretching to 25% with liberal Democrats. On other China-related issues, the difference was not clear. For now, things seem stable from the U.S. side, but a major shift — perhaps to Republicans in 2024, or Democratic efforts to compete with tough-on-China rhetoric — could portend a further heightening of tensions around Taiwan.
Taiwan’s reality is one of rising tensions, but also of a doubling down on the status quo. Peaceful unification or independence looks impossible. The consequences of conflict appear ever-less attractive, with even Taiwan’s long-standing U.S. ally discussing the destruction of its chip-making infrastructure, a move that would devastate the global economy. This has made the status quo not simply an acceptance of reality but a vital, even dogmatic, ideological, or radical, policy position. As Graph 2 shows when Chengchi University began its survey in 1994, almost 40% of Taiwanese choose the option of “maintain status quo, decide later.” Since then, more respondents have instead chosen “maintain status quo indefinitely,” with that option surpassing “decide later” for the first time in 2022.
Increasingly, the status quo is the only option for Taiwan or the United States. The more pressure mounts, the harder they will press for it. The only undecided variable at this point is the mind of Xi Jinping.
- David Shambaugh, “Facing Reality in China Policy,” Foreign Affairs, 2001, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2001-01-01/facing-reality-china-policy. ↩
- Jared McKinney and Peter Harris, “Broken Nest: Deterring China from Invading Taiwan,” The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters 51, no. 4 (November 17, 2021): 23–36, https://doi.org/10.55540/0031-1723.3089. ↩