Across the Taiwan Straits, the Chinese Communist Party has been holding its rather ironically titled ‘National People’s Congress’, where the party elites for the next five years are put into office and the outside world is given a small glimpse of what the largest single-party authoritarian regime on the planet is planning for the next five years.
And whatever your views on the relationship between Taiwan and China, it is a cold, hard fact that the Communist Party plans will have an impact on Taiwan to a greater or lesser degree. So, what exactly has been learned after a week of long, dry, meandering speeches and countless meetings between the Communist Party bureaucrats who will dictate how the next five years will pan out.
Xi’s here to stay
Well, the main headline that is emerging over the past day or so is that the current leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is quite clearly going nowhere anytime soon. Indeed, he may well now have a job for life. There was never any real question of him not serving for the next five-year period, as Communist Party rules entitle him to.
But in a clear break with recent tradition, he has not given any indication of a possible successor at the end of that period. In recent times, Communist Party leaders have appointed at least one younger member to the party’s main Politburo Standing Committee.
Such an appointment is usually seen as an indication of a likely heir to the top job, but while Xi has appointed five new names to the committee, alongside himself and premier Li Keqiang, none appear to fit the image of heir apparent. The new appointees are all male, all in their 60’s, and all would reasonably be expected to retire at the next ‘National People’s Congress’ in five years’ time.
And while there are plenty of jokes to be made about Communist Party clones as the seven men lined up in near-identical dark suits, the more worrying message this new Committee appears to be telling us, is that Xi Jinping is not planning on retiring himself anytime soon.
This had been rumoured ahead of this event and the introduction of “Xi Jinping Thought” in the Communist Party constitution appeared to suggest as much late last week. That alone makes Xi the most powerful Communist Party leader since Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. The absence of an heir suggests that, like those two, XI is planning to remain leader for life.
For Taiwan, that is a real concern. While Xi was open to improving relations with Taiwan while the KMT Government of Ma Ying-jeou edged the island towards reunification, he has steadfastly refused to engage on any level with the newly elected DPP Government of Tsai Ing-wen.
With the KMT looking unlikely to make it back into office any time soon, and Tsai rightly refused to acknowledge the so-called “1992 Consensus” or the ‘One China’ principal on any level, this deadlock appears unlikely to shift anytime soon.
Taiwan Policy Changes
In his keynote speech, which lasted an astonishing three and a half hours, Xi reemphasised his hard-line stance on the issue of secession, playing on the nationalist narrative he has pushed so hard during his first five years in power.
“We will resolutely uphold national sovereignty and territorial integrity and will never tolerate a repeat of the historical tragedy of a divided country. All activities of splitting the motherland will be resolutely opposed by all the Chinese people. We have firm will, full confidence, and sufficient capability to defeat any form of Taiwan independence secession plot. We will never allow any person, any organization, or any political party to split any part of the Chinese territory from China at any time or in any form.”
Certainly, there is no room for ambiguity in his intentions from those comments. But as Richard Bush has highlighted for the Brookings Institution, there were some changes in the detail of Xi’s references to Taiwan.
Bush highlights that over the previous three National People’s Congress, there have been nine elements to the CCPs policy towards Taiwan which have remained constant. However, Xi’s speech this time dropped three of them, most crucially the commitment to “place hopes on the Taiwan people as a force to help bring about unification.”
It could be argued that XI has finally realised that the CCP will never over win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. Opposition to unification is growing and the events in Hong Kong where a ‘one party two systems’ policy is backfiring massively are entrenching those views still further.
But the other way to look at this omission is that the CCP is no longer to going to give any heed to the opinions of the people of Taiwan in their policies towards the island. While Xi did say elsewhere that the CCP would “respect the current social system in Taiwan and the lifestyles of the Taiwan compatriots”, he specifically did not make reference to their opinions.
When put together with his language on the issue of Taiwanese independence, which was stronger than usual, this interpretation appears to make sense. But such a shift could be seen as a response to a DPP Government that CCP dislikes rather than an overt threat to Taiwan. In all likelihood, the day-to-day frostiness between the CCP regime and the Taiwanese Government will continue, as Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council has acknowledged.
What does appear more threatening is the CCP’s plans to invest further in the Chinese military. Already the largest military in the world, Xi has now pledged to make it the best in the world too. Any boost in Chinese military capabilities must always be seen as a threat to Taiwan’s national security, since the CCP has not, and is unlikely ever to, rule out conquering Taiwan by force someday.
The words of Xi Jinping at the National People’s Congress appear to suggest that such a military intervention is not planned in the immediate. But in the long term, the likelihood appears to be growing.
In 2021, the CCP will celebrate its 100th birthday. Let’s hope they don’t decide they want Taiwan as a present.