Earlier this week it was reported that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is planning to merge its Taiwan Affairs Office with its Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office as part of a Government streamlining effort.
How much truth there is to this rumor is not yet clear. As with most CCP policy shifts, it is veiled in secrecy and few people have been willing to speak openly about it since the rumors first emerged late last week, ahead of the CCPs 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) event.
As we have reported, one Communist Party official, Liu Jieyi (劉結一) who is Deputy Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, has described the rumors as “not authoritative.” This suggests that it is an idea that the CCP is just floating at the moment.
But does it actually matter that much to Taiwan? Certainly, it should not. How an overseas government chooses to structure its own state bureaucracy should be a matter entirely for them. But when you are talking about a regime that claims sovereignty over you and could choose to use its considerable military might to invade and overthrow your democratically elected government, then any decision of this nature warrants further scrutiny.
It is possible that this could be a case of government streamlining as some outlets have reported. Even the huge CCP bureaucracy is subject to at least some form of economic reality and if there is a possibility of making efficiency savings then that could be a motivating factor.
But observers of Communist China are right to be skeptical about this because rarely are economic efficiencies the primary motivation for any decision the CCP takes. Politics and specifically the entrenchment of Party power in this single-party Communist state is almost always the prime motivation behind any policy shifts. And the stance on Taiwan’s reunification is seen as key in this.
What seems more likely is that the CCP is trying to send a message to Taiwan that it is the same as Hong Kong and Macau. They could even be making an oblique offer to Taiwan to accept the same "One China, Two System" agreement that Hong Kong and Macau are currently enduring, even though the current situation in Hong Kong illustrates all to clearly why this cannot be a voluntary option for Taiwan.
Taiwan’s historic relationship with China is very different to Hong Kong and Macau
In the circumstances, it is important to reemphasize the point that Taiwan is very different to Hong Kong and Macau and to paint the situation of these three places as being the same is fundamentally inaccurate.
Both Hong Kong and Macau have been a part of sovereign Chinese territory for most of their history. Hong Kong was incorporated into China between 221-206 B.C., during the Qin Dynasty and remained part of the country until 1898 when it was temporarily leased to Britain. Portugal had leased Macau from China from 1557 until it was handed back in 1999, but for much of that time it had officially remained under Chinese sovereignty.
Taiwan, on the other hand, was not settled by any Chinese migrants until the 15th century and was not officially annexed into China until 1683. Just over 200 years later, it was given to Japan as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki and remained part of Japanese territory until being handed over to the Republic of China government in 1945. It has therefore only ever been part of China for 216 years and has never been part of what is officially referred to today as the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan is not legally part of China
The legal status of Taiwan is also very different to that of Hong Kong and Macau. Both of them were formally handed over to the Chinese in 1999 as part of agreements that stipulated they would be governed under the "One China, Two Systems" policy. Despite frequent breaches and denials of this agreement by the CCP, it is still indisputable that both Hong Kong and Macau are an official part of Chinese sovereign territory.
There is no such agreement in place for Taiwan and experts who have consulted the agreements and treaties signed around the end of the Second World War when Japan formally relinquished sovereignty over Taiwan agree that it was never formally handed back to China. Therefore the Chinese claim to sovereignty over Taiwan is rooted far more in their own propaganda than any historical or legal fact.
Of course, the CCP perpetuate the claim over Taiwan as a core foundation of its Chinese nationalist narrative that it uses to rally support among the more susceptible Chinese people. While they no doubt do harbor ambitions to annex Taiwan once more at some stage, whether they would be willing to upset the regional and international status quo over this issue remains questionable… at least for the time being.
How China classifies its Taiwan Affairs Office is just one piece of this extremely complex propaganda chess board. It should not matter to Taiwan, but it does. And whether reclassifying the Taiwan Affairs Office is merely moving a pawn one space, or shifting the Queen into an attacking position, Taiwan needs to take stock of it.
But the reality remains that Taiwan still meets all the criteria for being a sovereign nation. It is also a free democratic state where the people enjoy freedoms that can only be dreamed of in Communist China. And while the international community may still not formally recognize Taiwan, moves such as the recently passed Taiwan Travel Act in the USA show that they will still back Taiwan if push comes to shove.
Regardless of how the CCP chooses to categorize Taiwan in its own regimes bureaucracy, Taiwan and the Taiwanese people will never freely be a part of Communist China. But all changes must be monitored if Taiwan is to continue to defend itself against the Communist threat and maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.