After big talk ahead of China’s Two Sessions meetings suggested Beijing would speed up its “reunification” plan for Taiwan, the Taiwan content at the meetings themselves has been characterized by muted statements, most notably from outgoing Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) during his annual work report. This absence may itself be significant, creating a “blank page” for new officials to set policy — with one key official already known to be set for a key role.
The initial, misleading hint that significant Taiwan-based announcements may turn up during the Two Sessions — annual meetings of China’s National People’s Congress (the national legislature) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (a national advisory body) — had come from National People’s Congress deputy Li Yihu (李義虎) last Monday. “The [Communist] Party’s overall strategy for resolving the Taiwan issue in the new era has basically taken shape, and the strategic goals and focus of the future reunification cause have also become very clear,” Li said in an interview with China Review News Agency before adding, “The mainland will promote national reunification on a fast development track.”
However, from both meetings so far, the most significant mention of Taiwan has come from Premier Li Keqiang, who in his annual work report emphasized a steadier, peaceful trajectory. “We must adhere to the overall strategy of the Party in the new era to solve the Taiwan issue, adhere to the one-China principle and the ‘1992 Consensus,’ firmly oppose ‘independence’ and promote reunification, promote peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, and promote the peaceful reunification of the motherland,” he said, according to an official Chinese-language readout of his speech.
“The compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are connected by blood, and we must promote economic and cultural exchanges and cooperation between the two sides, improve the system and policies that enhance the well-being of Taiwanese compatriots, promote the common promotion of Chinese culture between the two sides, and work together to create a great rejuvenation,” he added.
There’s not much here to look at. But that might be the point.
Writing on Twitter, Wen-Ti Sung (宋文笛), a sessional lecturer in the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program, said these comments are “not designed to break new grounds.” Rather, “If Li [Keqiang]’s speech is any guide, for 2023, Beijing is shooting for incremental progress, rather than quick results, on Taiwan.”
This analysis is borne out in the structure of the speech, according to Sung. “Li still lists ‘oppose Taiwan independence’ ahead of ‘promote unification’ (反獨, then 促統). Which suggests China is largely playing defense on Taiwan during Taiwan’s presidential campaign year,” he says. Furthermore, “Li lists cross-strait relations’ ‘peaceful #development’ ahead of ‘#unification’, which suggests Beijing’s desire to maintain stability on the Taiwan front as it tackles other more pressing priorities like great power relations and domestic economic recovery.”
The same “nothing to see here” approach to Taiwan has also been reflected in other key speeches at the Two Sessions. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech came out strongly against the U.S.’s tactics in “implement[ing] all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against [China].” However, it barely mentioned Taiwan. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s United Daily News pointed out that outgoing Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Wang Yang’s (汪洋) final work report did not make any substantive mention of Taiwan policy, either.
This does not mean Taiwan is somehow forgotten. Instead, according to Wen-Ti Sung, the absence could be about leaving a “blank page” for a batch of new officials appointed after the Communist Party Congress last year. “Outgoing officials like Li & Wang have the option of pulling a Nancy Pelosi [the former U.S. House Speaker who visited Taiwan last year] and [making] a tougher farewell move just before they retire, and [giving] their successors more room to maneuver. But Beijing is refraining from that, preferring to not risk any more Taiwanese blowback,” Sung says.
If this is the choice, the question becomes: Who might be in place to fill these blanks?
There’s at least one clear contender. Following the Communist Party Congress last year, Wang Huning (王滬寧) emerged as the fourth highest-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and earlier this year Nikkei Asia reported that Wang had been given the “mission is to lay the groundwork for Taiwan unification.”
It’s a matter of speculation how Wang might set about his brief. However, while this week he has been attending the Two Sessions, presiding over a meeting of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, less than a month ago he was receiving a Taiwanese delegation led by opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Vice Chairman Andrew Hsia (夏立言).
This suggests the filling of blanks has already begun, just in a less public forum than the Two Sessions.
Image: Chinese government
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