From the perspective of Taiwan, a de facto independent sovereign state which continues to exist in the shadows of an authoritarian regional hegemon, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) occurred amid a nadir in relations between Taipei and Washington. Since 2016, when the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Dr. Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) assumed the presidency of the island country, the Chinese government suspended all diplomatic contacts with their Taiwanese counterparts. Further, Chinese grayzone warfare tactics intensified to a considerable extent during 2022, particularly following the historic visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
As Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平) continues to tighten his grip on power, the primary implication of the congress for Taiwan is the clear resolution of Beijing to consolidate its strategy of hitting the people of Taiwan with a “velvet hammer” – a variety of the carrot-and-stick approach which affords favorable treatment to those who accept CCP’s conditions, and warrants the infliction of pain on those who attempt to go against Beijing’s will. Specifically from the perspective of the civil society, it is profoundly discouraging that the CCP’s resolve in shrinking China’s civic space will also have a direct impact on China-Taiwan relations, further hindering the opportunity to sustain even minimal exchanges through informal channels. This dynamic, in turn, is bound to exacerbate Taiwan’s strategic challenge as the lack of communication between both sides of the Taiwan Strait will deepen the information deficit on the Taiwanese side.
In analyzing the implications of the National Party Congress for Taiwan, it is imperative to emphasize the institutional change brought about by these high-profile deliberations. Crucially, CCP amended its party constitution, or charter, to explicitly express the CCP’s commitment to “resolutely oppose and contain Taiwan independence” while strengthening the Chinese military to promote “unification of the motherland.” Additionally, as maintaining regime stability constitutes the most pivotal task for any authoritarian regime, it is important to highlight that under Xi, CCP has explicitly sought to consolidate its grip on power through emotional appeals, building up patriotic fervor and situating the collective quest for retribution for “the century of humiliation” as its most crucial raison d’être. Consequently, the language of report presented by Xi to the Congress is important. By asserting that unification (or more aptly, forced annexation) of Taiwan is “a natural requirement for realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the importance of the “Taiwan question” was effectively elevated to that of a fundamental building block of CCP’s state-society relations.
As it is established that the congress emphasized the pressing nature (in Beijing’s perception) of redefining relations with Taiwan, manifested through the amendment of CCP fundamental text, it is worth pondering over the practical implications.
To sum it up briefly, the language of the amended charter highlights the continued unwillingness of the Chinese side to deal with the management of Taiwan-China relations through consensus, instead prioritizing the party diktat.
This relates back to the aforementioned concept of the velvet hammer. On the one hand, Xi is seeking fabricate a restrained posture by underscoring the importance of concepts such as “peaceful unification” and the “One Country, Two Systems” (一國兩制) framework. Within the broader framework of China’s psychological operations, this narrative undeniably seeks to strengthen the allusion of inevitability of Chinese annexation of Taiwan, while simultaneously presenting an doubtful promise of moderation towards those who acquiesce (the velvet component). On the other hand, by refraining to renounce the use of force by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to annex Taiwan, China is seeking to broadcast a broadly-resounding message, targeted predominantly at Taipei and Washington, that kinetic confrontation is not out of the question.
Such use of rhetorics in the amended party chapter can be effectively understood through Thomas Schelling’s deterrence framework. The renowned game theorists posits that successful deterrence relies predominantly on credibility in two areas: threat and assurance. The threat requires signaling both the costs of a proscribed action and sufficient political will to impose those costs. The assurance requires conveying to the target, in a way that it can trust, that it will not be taken advantage of if it refrains from taking the proscribed action. Consequently, by including such strong language pertaining to potential military activities aimed at annexing Taiwan, the 20th party congress contributed to the bolstering of deterrence against any actions regarding a formal declaration or affirmation of Taiwan’s independence in terms of threats.
Yet, a particularly disenchanting and strategically severe consequence of the deployment of such language is that it will also effectively serve as a deterrent for civil society organizations which might have otherwise sought to informally engage with partners in China or Taiwan, respectively.
Following the party congress, the civic space over the Taiwan Strait has shrunk even further. From humanitarian projects to LGBTQI+ rights, the early 2010s saw an intensification in Taiwan-China relations facilitated by CSO cooperation.
Yet, the current increasingly belligerent stance of key stakeholders in Beijing was reiterated in official documents, effectively deterring NGOs from collaborations due to the threat of retaliation for violating the ever-evolving “red lines.”
In conclusion, while we ought to eschew exaggerated narrative of the imminence of Chinese annexation of Taiwan, the 20th party congress has further underscored and institutionalized Beijing’s authoritarian, non-negotiable stance on the future of relations. This, paired with the eradication of effective communication channels, is working to Taiwan’s disadvantage by deepening its information deficit. Consequently, as we move forward, Taiwan’s quest to expand its international space is becoming increasingly important also in terms of Taipei managing its dealings with Beijing. The establishment, operation, and strengthening of global solidarity networks will remain crucial for effective information gathering and analysis, as well as inward and outward-looking China capacity building ventures.