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Anti-secession law: provocation or compromise?
Chen Yali and Eric Hagt, Jamestown Foundation
1/28/2005

On December 11, the pan-green coalition failed to secure a majority in Taiwan's Legislative Yuan. The hope that this setback for Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party would lead to a relaxation of relations between China and Taiwan did not last long. Within a week, Beijing's own legislative body, the National People's Congress, leaked through Xinhua News Agency the introduction of an "anti-secession law" that would mandate forceful reunification of any part of China, including Taiwan, should it declare independence. This law, though not yet passed, has been criticized by some Taiwanese and American scholars as a dangerous altering of the status quo and a blatant attempt to take advantage of what China sees as Taiwan voters' rejection of Chen's pro-independence themes, which it interprets as a result of its own pressure on the island's disposition. While the introduction of the anti-secession law may be ill-timed and provocative, it is unlikely an impulsive reaction to Taiwan's legislative elections. More probably it is an indication of Beijing's increasing focus on managing the Taiwan problem at a more macro level that takes into consideration China's internal political divisions on the cross-straits issue as well as domestic economic and social challenges that the Hu-Wen Administration faces in the years ahead.

The anti-secession law is not a recent development; rather it is a culmination of an internal discussion during the past five to six years between hawks and doves in China's decision-making apparatus over the problem of Taiwan. [1] Previous evidence of this debate was the strongly worded May 17th statement by the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, which declared, "China will never compromise its stand on one China…and will never tolerate ‘Taiwan independence'." Hardliners inside and outside the military have advocated a much more hawkish stance toward Taiwan, advocating "The use of force to solve the Taiwan problem is inevitable and the earlier, the better." [2] This point of view has freer voice in China's media where a conservative, nationalistic perspective is more "politically correct." Doveish policy positions are heard less and are more nuanced if they are ever published. However, there is ample evidence that their position is confronting the hardliners in government, military and think tank circles and is affecting the discourse on policy formulation toward Taiwan. An article in the October issue of Outlook Magazine urges the government to "think of a way to solve the Taiwan problem" with the big picture of "China's peaceful development, improving people's well-being and realizing the Chinese nationality's revitalization." [3] Thus, rather than a new belligerent stance toward Taiwan, this anti-secession law is more likely a compromise between the two sides.

When Hu Jintao met Chinese-American community leaders during his visit to the United States two years ago, he said Beijing was seriously considering drafting a new National Unification Law. Such a unification law would mandate reunification and perhaps by a specific time schedule. Thus, the present anti-secession law, which stems from this idea of a unification law, represents a significant step back from the aggressive approach of hardliners. According to what has already been revealed in the media, the law may appease the hawks mandating war if Taiwan declares independence, yet, if passed, it technically brings war no closer, and in essence simply clarifies Beijing's previously stated position that it would retake the island by force if it claimed de jure independence. The nature of the law and how much detail its articles will contain is still unknown. A more hawkish group could still push tougher language in the final draft, focusing on reunification and a strict time schedule. Alternatively, if a softer line is taken, emphasis may be put on peaceful dialogue to attain unification. Regardless, the reality that the new law will be an anti-secession legislation at its core rather than one of national unification represents a fundamental compromise.

This law also represents a deeper long-term strategy for managing cross-straits relations. While democratization within the Communist party has so far not made it onto the agenda of China's 4th generation of leadership, Hu Jintao and especially Wen Jiabao understand they cannot hold back intra-party reform over the long run. This political reform process would almost certainly entail an uncertain transition period and any leader in Beijing, whether Hu Jintao or his successor, is fearful that Taiwan or other regions of China may take advantage of instability. It is noteworthy, that Taiwan probably had its best opportunity to declare independence during the upheaval of the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. The outbreak of SARS in 2003 that confronted the new leadership in Beijing almost resulted in a political crisis and posed for them a grim challenge that could be repeated in other forms in the future. In the event of political, economic or social crisis, the anti-secession law eliminates the ambiguity of Beijing's response if Taiwan or any other part of China were to take advantage of a period of instability and declare independence.

Beyond the intra-government debate over Taiwan, the government may have increased its legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese by proposing legislation that precludes Taiwan from declaring independence. Judging by the majority of opinion in China's media outlets, there is widespread sympathy for the anti-secession law. This sentiment underscores a growing nationalism throughout China, especially among the younger generation, that feeds on a deep sense of historical injustice, of which the status of Taiwan is an integral part, and a pride because of China's economic success. Thus, an anti-secession law indirectly affirms that the issue of China's territorial integrity, and by extension Taiwan, is a concern that transcends the current leadership. China's unity is the domain of all Chinese people and therefore its safeguard is the responsibility of all future leadership.

While the proposal of the anti-secession law may reflect a compromise of internal debate and as a means to manage cross-straits relations for the longer term, Beijing's timing seems clumsy and even self-defeating. By making the legislation public immediately following the legislative elections in Taiwan, it appears as though Beijing is manipulating, if not the election itself, the sentiment it believes was expressed by this vote. That is, the people of Taiwan have said no to Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence, pro-constitutional reform rhetoric and yes to the pro-status quo of the pan-Blue camp. An anti-secession law will reinforce these gains for Beijing. On the surface, such actions reveal a lack of understanding of Taiwan's legislative elections, its democratic process and the evolution of Taiwan's identity.

With the smoke now lifting from a heated campaign, it seems clear that although the DPP certainly fell short of its goal to win control of the Legislative Yuan, stasis between the pan-greens and pan-blues in the legislature was maintained and will only be a minor check on Chen's second presidential term. The fact is, the social base for DPP support remains strong and is probably growing. While the KMT held their traditional control of local factions and used electoral districting to their advantage, vote-buying was also widely reported. Most importantly however, the pan-Blue coalition struggles to find a voice among the people at a time when many issues critical to Taiwan's future require inspired leadership. The DPP, on the other hand, is a young vibrant party with vision. Chen lost a chance to win a majority of seats by critical though last-minute errors in his campaign, especially his focus on national sovereignty issues rather than local economic interests. In addition, the DPP was the only party to actually gain seats in the legislature — hardly a crushing blow.

The argument, however, that the new law is a rash and heedless reaction to the elections, does not seem plausible. First of all, there is the practical consideration that the NPC's standing committee is in session and so drafting and reviewing such laws would come at this time. Also, it is highly doubtful Beijing has such a narrow understanding of Taiwan's election process, including its legislative elections. Several bodies extensively research Taiwan affairs including the Institute of Taiwan Studies under CASS (China Academy for Social Sciences), the Institute for Taiwan Studies under Xiamen University, the Tongzhan Ministry under the State Council and many academics advising the government on Taiwan policy. Beijing perhaps understands all too well that the DPP and Chen have lost little in the election and that the conflict over Taiwanese national identity and independence has only been temporarily sidelined as an issue. But most importantly, as described above, this law represents a shift in managing the cross-straits issue from one of reaction to events taking place in Taiwan, a Taiwan-centric perspective if you will, to that of an outcome from a political discourse between the decision-makers in Beijing — a China-centric perspective.

Regardless of the other factors, however, the timing of this law certainly appears to be a provocative move to the Taiwanese, whose sensitivities in this regard should be of paramount consideration if indeed the law's purpose is in part to manage the cross-straits issue. It is clear that the development of Taiwan's national identity, integral though not equivalent to its disposition on independence, is deeply affected by China's actions. Any attempts, perceived or real, by Beijing to influence public opinion in Taiwan is met with sound resistance and further alienates its people. As with the missiles lobbed into the Taiwan Straits in 1996 and Zhu Rongji's finger-wagging in 2000, both produced unfavorable results for Beijing.

If war in the Taiwan Straits is to be averted, both Taiwan and the Mainland government will have to show more understanding of the other's internal political process. For Taiwan, while the legislative elections did not significantly change the political balance on the island, Chen's pro-independence and constitutional revision rhetoric has been checked which should offer up Beijing an opportunity to begin dialogue. On the other hand, China's internal political discourse is often a struggle between hard and soft lines. The Taiwanese people need also to better understand this process. It seems clear that Beijing will not allow Taiwan to declare independence, but if this newly introduced anti-secession law means just that and was arrived at through compromise in Beijing, then there is still much room for peaceful dialogue.


Notes:

1. Outlook Magazine (Liaowang Zazhi), article by Xu Bodong and Li Zhenguang, Oct 2004

2. Globe Magazine, http://jczs.sina.com.cn, July 16, 2004

3. Quote by Mo Jihong, Xianggang Shangbao, Dec 25, 2004

Chen Yali is the Editor-in-Chief of Washington Observer, an independent Chinese-language weekly magazine on American foreign policy and politics based in Washington DC.

Eric Hagt is the Director of the China Program at the Center for Defense Information.


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