The best salespeople know this: Don’t peddle old wine in a new bottle. But that’s precisely the mistake China’s ruling party has made — yet again.
Beijing is trying to persuade Taiwan to adopt the “Chinese Dream,” a common prosperity vision of closer economic integration. It wants to convince Taipei of the merits of unification “through peaceful means” rather than by force. This is not a new idea. It has been the carrot that China has used for decades to try and remind the Taiwanese of the benefits of having Beijing on its side. The alternative, as China likes to remind everyone, is nowhere near as appealing.
The 21 measures announced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council last week are focused on the southeastern province of Fujian, the closest to self-governed Taiwan.As part of the plan, which Beijing says is part of the “Party’s overall strategy for solving the Taiwan issue in the new era,”companies from thereare being encouraged to list on Chinese stock exchanges, students can come to Fujian and study, and more incentives have been announced to make it easier for both Taiwanese tourists and residents to visit and live in Fujian.
Why Fujian? The Chinese province across the strait from Taiwan, as my colleague Howard Chua-Eoan writes, is historically significant for both sides. President Xi Jinping was governor there for two years, and the links go back even further. Around the 1600s, Taiwan became home to Fujianese migrants. Minnan, their common language, isstill spoken by many in both populations to this day.
The plan to bring Taiwan and Fujian closer together, as the Party’s document points out, is a way to promote the concept that “both sides of the Taiwan Straits are one family.” Except, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. And if Beijing thinks that regularly flying warplanes over the island is a helpful way to remind the Taiwanese of what it means to be family, I am sure citizens there wish they had better choices.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, responsible for China policy on the island, has rejected the plan, calling it out as yet another failed attempt to win over Taiwanese people. And it’s not like Taiwan and China aren’t already economically close. They’re intricately connected and co-dependent. Taiwan is one of the biggest investors in China and in turn, Taiwanese companies like Foxconn Technology Group and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. have turned into gigantic conglomerates by setting up factories and hiring low-cost labor on the mainland. But things are changing. The Chinese dream that Beijing is selling isn’t that appealing anymore as its economy goes through a slump.
This is why the Fujian plan seems at best out of touch and opportunistic, and, at worst, hypocritical and disingenuous. It is also counter-productive if peaceful unification is to be what China says is a realistic end goal. The carrot-and-stick approach is pushing the Taiwanese even further away from China, and towards a stronger sense of Taiwanese identity, as Sana Hashmi, Fellow at the Taipei-based Taiwan Asia Exchange Foundation,told me. “The declining Chinese identity and increasing Taiwanese identity is really bothering China,” Hashmi says. “More and more people are identifying themselves as Taiwanese over the last few years, and that is really worrisome for Beijing.”
Data supports Hashmi’s observations. Research from the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University shows the changes in attitudes over the last three decades. When the survey first began, about half of those questioned felt both Taiwanese and Chinese, while only about a quarter felt distinctly Taiwanese. But since 2007, there has been a dramatic shift. Now, almost two-thirds of people surveyed feel distinctly Taiwanese, and the number of those who identify as being Chinese and Taiwanese is about 30%.
So what happened? It’s obvious that closer economic ties are not the answer. They simply don’t address the political system. As this Brookings study shows, the Taiwanese are more likely to reject China’s political system than not. In the survey, 63% of respondents had a negative view of the Chinese government, and fewer than 12% chose a response that suggested Beijing was even a little bit friendly to Taiwan.
These attitudes are hardening and are particularly noticeable as next year’s election draws closer. While China has rolled out incentives to convince Taiwan of economic integration before, it’s also doled out the sticks, in the form of “coercive tactics,” as the Council of Foreign Relations points out, that fall just short of armed conflict. Its objective is to “wear down Taiwan and prompt the island’s people to conclude that their best option is unification with the mainland.”
What might Taiwan look like then, in a perfect Chinese world? Hong Kong, where “One Country, Two Systems,” hasn’t worked out, is an obvious example. But that is precisely the outcome Taiwanese people don’t want. They know their future doesn’t lie with China, even if they don’t want full independence. And it is these sorts of philosophical questions that are going to be the biggest challenge for China in convincing Taiwan that unificationis a good idea. Even the most sophisticated sales pitch will be of no use in the face of rising Taiwanese self-confidence and identity.