Last week, Nikkei Asia reported that Wang Huning (王滬寧), a high-ranking member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, has been given the “mission is to lay the groundwork for Taiwan unification.” Specifically, he has been asked to create an alternative to “one country, two systems,” the idea of allowing Taiwan, similar to arrangements with Hong Kong and Macao, to maintain a separate cultural and economic existence while transferring ultimate sovereignty to China’s government.
This move exists against the backdrop of two key pieces of information. The prolonged trend of people from Taiwan increasingly identifying as Taiwanese more than they do Taiwanese and Chinese (with an extremely low number of them identifying as solely Chinese). Plus, Taiwanese reaction to the 2020 enforcement of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, after mass public protests, which led to polling suggesting that people in Taiwan distrusted China’s promise of “one country, two systems” even more than previously.
These realities pose a challenge to China’s government because it has made taking control of Taiwan one of the key pillars of its national “rejuvenation” — as last year’s white paper on Taiwan outlined. What’s more, while it refuses to rule out the use of force, it has also said consistently that, “The policies of peaceful reunification and One Country, Two Systems are the best way to realize reunification across the Taiwan Strait,” including in the full text from last October’s report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
How Wang could seek to fill this seemingly impossible — and still entirely ambiguous — policy position, adjusting or replacing the “one country, two systems” concept first proposed by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), is an open question. But there are clues in his background as a highly successful academic which hint at least at the direction he might go in.
Wang has risen up the Chinese Communist Party ranks under three separate administrations, led first by Jiang Zemin (江澤民), then Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), then Xi Jinping (習近平). This maneuverability has him marked by the Yi Wang, Senior Lecturer Griffith University, as someone who, “can be sharp as an intellectual,” but who “as a bureaucrat/politician … is more subtle and sophisticated, knowing when and how to pull in his horns or to hide his light under a bushel while offering his ideas and services to his political patrons, almost always anonymously.” Thus, quite obviously, no-one should expect sentiment from Wang that is far from the direction already set out by Xi Jinping.
But on the issue of enforcing China’s sovereignty and its importance, there are strong grounds to see him as a true believer. Wang’s first book State/National Sovereignty (國家主權) analyzed “the internal and external aspects of sovereignty,” meaning how it can be enforced both within and without a territory. According to this Journal of Contemporary China paper, it ultimately emphasized the “importance of national equality and national self-determination for safeguarding international peace.” Clearly how this is interpreted depends on what constitutes the “national,” but given his role in China’s government, his position here has to mean strictly enforcing “self-determination” for China, not Taiwan.
As to more practical hints on how that belief structure might transform into political policy, another point identified by the same Journal of Contemporary China paper may be of use. The paper summarizes his view, “that political reform should not be pursued at the expense of stability and that strong and unified central leadership is crucial to further reforms [emphasis added].” Additionally, his most famous book, America Against America (美國反對美國), is rallying cry against what he sees as “a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism,” according to a profile by Palladium Magazine. These ideas, according to that profile, saw him operate as a key figure behind Xi Jinping’s 2021 “common prosperity” campaign, a regulatory pushback against private sector decadence and a “moralistic effort to reengineer Chinese culture from the top down.” Do they now hint at reducing the cultural and economic autonomy on “offer” (under the implicit threat of force if such an offer is refused) to capitalist, liberal Taiwan?
It’s entirely speculative, and therefore not worth placing much weight behind at the moment, but what we can say is that Wang’s involvement in decision-making over Taiwan would not be the first hint in this direction of late. Last year’s white paper promised, “Taiwan will enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region” after “reunification.” But some commentators noticed that the commitment outlined in previous white papers “not [to] send troops or administrative personnel to be stationed in Taiwan” had been removed this time around, and so had the idea that Taiwan could retain its own army.
If that is the direction Wang will push for, the question becomes exactly who the target audience is for the new Taiwan pitch. The people of Taiwan have already seemed to show little interest in the more “generous” offers of the past, so one would think a “tougher” offer would be less popular still. The obvious guess would be that the real audience would be the U.S. and the people of China — tough talk aimed at securing “the internal and external aspects of sovereignty” that Wang described in his first book, rather than genuinely entering any dialogue with the people of Taiwan. But we’ll have to wait and see.