Xi and Ma in Historic Summit: Status Quo on Taiwan Persists…for Now

Last Saturday saw an unprecedented meeting between the respective leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC – Mainland China) and the Republic of China (ROC- Taiwan). Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Ma Ying-jeou of the ROC shook hands and smiled for the cameras before their brief summit in Singapore, an historic but largely symbolic dialogue.

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An historic handshake

Since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Civil War in 1949 and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) comrades to flee to Taiwan, there has existed a very tense cross-Strait relationship between Beijing and Taipei whose rulers both claim their governments to be the true and sole representatives of all China.

Three serious ‘crises’ have broken out between the mainland and Taiwan since 1949. The first crisis occurred during 1954-5 when the PRC seized several islands from the ROC and conducted heavy shelling of KMT defensive positions. The US administration was so concerned by the aggression of the communists that the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended dropping a nuclear bomb on the Chinese mainland, a suggestion fortunately dismissed by President Eisenhower.

In 1958, the PRC again resorted to heavy shelling of KMT positions on several disputed islands in the Tawain Strait. The ROC responded with their own artillery with the end result being 2,500 dead on the Taiwanese side, compared with 200 PRC troops killed. America intervened on the side of the ROC by providing them with howitzers and air-to-air missiles, honouring an agreement of mutual defence that had been signed after the first crisis four years earlier. The Soviets, too, put diplomatic pressure on Mao Zedong to halt his assault, fearing the American response should the conflict intensify.

Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis
Beijing did not react well to US involvement in the 2nd Taiwan Strait Crisis

For the next four decades an uneasy peace existed across the Taiwan Strait, with both the PRC and ROC largely concerned with ensuring domestic stability and (after Mao’s death at least) economic development. In 1992, a Consensus was reached between Beijing and Taipei that unequivocally stated that there was only one sovereign state encompassing all of China, the disagreement remaining over which government was the legitimate ruler.

This seemed set to cement the peace but its impact was almost immediately undermined. In 1995-6, trouble flared up again as the PRC embarked on a series of provocative missile tests in the coastal waters off Taiwan. A response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s supposed agitation for independence – which of course went against the 1992 Consensus – Beijing’s actions prompted the Clinton administration to send two aircraft carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait, the biggest American military deployment in Asia since the Vietnam War. The PRC responded by undertaking live firing training drills in the build-up to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election. The attempts to intimidate Taipei and the Taiwanese electorate failed, however, with Lee’s popularity receiving a boost in the aftermath of the scare.

Since 1996 the relationship has remained relatively stable, improving significantly during Ma’s tenure, with a renewed focus on economic engagement. This has led many Taiwanese to become increasingly wary about Ma’s intentions and his decision to meet with Xi in Singapore met with widespread disapproval back home. With only a few months remaining in office and no possibility of a further term given constitutional constraints, Ma’s gesture appears one of egotism designed to secure his place in history. For many Taiwanese, however, his diplomacy has simply led to a strengthening of the PRC’s hand and given the impression that Taipei’s resolve to oppose pressure from Beijing is failing.

Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma's China diplomacy
Protesters took to streets across Taiwan in opposition to Ma’s China diplomacy

There was never any likelihood that the Xi-Ma summit would lead to significant policy change. In this respect, it is similar to the meeting that took place between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek at Chongqing in 1945. With the Japanese enemy defeated and World War Two ended, the US hoped that they could broker a peace deal between Mao’s communists and the Nationalist KMT government, which had been sporadically fighting a civil war for the best part of two decades.

The Double Tenth Agreement that arose from the three-month negotiations included the CCP concession that the KMT was the legitimate government of China and a declaration by the Nationalists that they recognised Mao’s group as an official opposition party.

Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing
Mao and Chiang raise a toast at their August 1945 meeting in Chongqing

Of course in reality neither party had any intention of stopping short of outright victory and the internal conflict would rage brutally for a further four years before Chiang eventually realised that his days were numbered and he escaped across the Strait where he would rule until his death in 1975.

There will come a time when the historical enmity between the PRC and ROC will explode again and it is likely to involve America when it does. At the moment the relationship is as strong as it is ever going to be, Ma’s efforts over the course of his presidency ensuring temporary peace even if it is at the expense of his people’s honour.

Make no mistake, though. The PRC views Taiwan as part of its territory and will ultimately be prepared to use force to secure this economically-vibrant island. When its leaders choose their moment, America will have a choice whether to enforce its traditional commitment to Taiwanese territorial integrity or allow a scenario similar to the one that resulted in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine last year.

Xi and Ma posed for the cameras, as Mao and Chiang did back in 1945. As with their predecessors, today’s leaders know that the status quo will not last forever.

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China’s Corruption Plague: official impunity in the PRC

News that a former police chief fraudulently acquired 192 houses in the Chinese city of Lufeng has led to the latest in a series of outcries against official corruption in China. Under Hu Jintao’s leadership, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken a very public stand against party corruption, aware as they are of its dangers if left unchecked.

Several government and regional officials have even been executed over the past few years because of corruption. Nevertheless, cronyism, nepotism and opportunism persist within the party hierarchy despite historical warnings against rampant corruption.

The CCP came to power largely as a result of the perceived corruption amongst the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) rulers that preceded it. A remnant of the warlord era, the KMT operated without the rule of law and acted as a self-serving elite to the detriment of China’s historically-downtrodden peasantry. In such a political and economic climate, where the many were openly subordinated to the few, the appeal of communism was strong. After a bitter civil war, the KMT leadership was forced to cede government and flee to Taiwan where it has remained ever since.

The corrupt flamboyance of the KMT leadership alienated Chinese citizens
The corrupt flamboyance of the KMT leadership alienated Chinese citizens

Corruption has existed at the highest level of state throughout Chinese history and continued after the KMT overthrow. During the early years of CCP rule, the effective use of propaganda, coupled with a continuous appeal to class struggle through which the country’s citizens turned on one another (see the Cultural Revolution), conveniently hid the continued excesses of the powerful. Mao and his political elite led a life anathema to their teachings and re-directed national resources and productivity to their own and their families’ benefit.

The return to a relatively stable China in the 1980s suddenly revealed the corrupt practices of the CCP leadership to an increasingly-aware populace. Opening up the economy, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms provided a greater opportunity for corruption as party officials greased their pockets with kickbacks from manipulated contract awards to their colleagues in industry. Additionally, the convenient placement of party relatives on planning boards or in construction jobs helped nepotism to flourish. Indeed, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were partly borne out of the increasing weariness to corruption amongst the emerging middle class.

Corruption prosecutions in the Hu era have satisfied some, accompanied as they have been by glitzy showtrials and intense media scrutiny. However, such prosecutions often have an underlying political motive. Scrutiny and judgement are only passed upon those deemed troublesome or irrelevant to the party hierarchy. Being a relative, or clique member, of one of the top brass brings virtual immunity. Bo Xilai, a potential trouble-stirrer and Hu opponent experienced this phenomenon first hand.

Bo Xilai: sacked and arrested for corrupt practices common at the top of the CCP
Bo Xilai: sacked and arrested for corrupt practices common at the top of the CCP

The problem for the CCP is balancing. It needs to keep its party members in line to avoid resentment building up amongst the population, particularly those finding evermore sophisticated ways of bypassing the government’s social media barriers. At the same time, party loyalty must be seen to have its rewards. Discontentment within the party is equally, if not more dangerous, to the CCP rulers than popular unrest. It is for this reason that officials in backwater provinces can escape the watchful eye of Beijing and lord it over their districts in an almost dictatorial fashion. It is for this reason that massive construction and infrastructural projects are awarded to party-affiliated firms and donors, even if quality is sacrificed in the process.

The CCP has learnt from the history of the KMT. Blatant corruption cannot persist in a country numbering well over a billion people. It requires a subtle process of give and take, whereby cronyism persists for the good of party stability whilst overambitious corruptors are made to pay the penalty for ruining party image.

Whilst Hu Jintao was mildly successful in preserving this delicate equilibrium, the rise of social media, even in China, threatens to make the task a lot harder for his successor Xi Jinping. Without it, the story of the police chief with 192 houses would probably never have been revealed. Party and officials alike need to beware.