Amid the worst security crisis in the Taiwan Strait in over 20 years, China’s State Council has released a new white paper on “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era.” The paper outlines, in detail, Beijing’s approach to Taiwan under the “new era” of Xi Jinping’s leadership, and serves as an update to previous white papers on Taiwan issued in 1993 and 2000.
The paper begins by underscoring China’s commitment to “Resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification,” calling this goal “a shared aspiration of all the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation,” “indispensable for the realization of China’s rejuvenation,” and “a historic mission” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As justification for the CCP’s claim over Taiwan, the white paper includes a lengthy discussion of historical ties between China and Taiwan. In this telling of history, “Japan’s 50-year occupation of Taiwan epitomized” China’s period of “national humiliation” and is thus a historical wrong that must be righted. The white paper emphasizes that “The fact that we have not yet been reunified is a scar left by history on the Chinese nation.”
Importantly, though, the white paper also provides a realpolitik justification: “National reunification is the only way to avoid the risk of Taiwan being invaded and occupied again by foreign countries, to foil the attempts of external forces to contain China, and to safeguard the sovereignty, security, and development interests of our country.” Later, the white paper repeats accusations that the U.S. is “using Taiwan to contain China” and “undermine China’s development and progress.”
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The white paper maintains China’s preference for “peaceful reunification,” which is identified as “the first choice of the [CCP] and the Chinese government.” However, as is long-standing CCP policy, the paper reiterates that China “will not renounce the use of force” in pursuing the goal of unification. It does attempt to reassure readers on that point by pledging that the “[u]se of force would be the last resort taken under compelling circumstances.”
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In another point of consistency, the white paper maintains the “One Country, Two Systems” framework for a post-unification Taiwan, pledging that “Taiwan may continue its current social system and enjoy a high degree of autonomy in accordance with the law.” Yet the paper also repeats more recent assertions made in the Hong Kong context that “Two Systems is subordinate to and derives from One Country.” In Hong Kong that logic has been used to restrict free speech and limit political participation to vetted “patriots.”
Beijing seems aware of the arguments that its Hong Kong policy since 2019 has destroyed any chance of Taiwan accepting a similar model for unification. However, rather than providing reassurances that Taiwan would be treated different, the white paper instead flatly denies that there was any problem in its handling of Hong Kong. “The practice of One Country, Two Systems has been a resounding success” in Hong Kong, where “Order was restored and prosperity returned” thanks to intervention from the central government, the paper claims.
As Crisis Group analyst Amanda Hsiao pointed out on Twitter, the 2022 white paper represents a diluting of previous descriptions of “One Country, Two Systems,” which included more detailed commitments about Taiwan’s autonomy. The 1993 white paper said that Taiwan would maintain “administrative, legislative, independent judicial, final adjudication rights” as well as “autonomy over party, govt, mil, econ, financial matters,” Hsiao tweeted. Similarly, both the 1993 and 2000 white papers on Taiwan specifically stated that China would “not send troops or administrative personnel to be stationed in Taiwan” following unification. That pledge is conspicuously absent in the latest version.
The 2022 white paper does pledge that “Taiwan’s social system and its way of life will be fully respected, and the private property, religious beliefs, and lawful rights and interests of the people in Taiwan will be fully protected” – but with the all-important disclaimer that this is only possible “Provided that China’s sovereignty, security and development interests are guaranteed.” In other words, “respect” for Taiwan’s “way of life” is subordinated to security interests as defined by the CCP. The guarantee of rights in particular seems limited to “All Taiwan compatriots who support reunification of the country and rejuvenation of the nation,” whom China says “will be the masters of the region.”
Left largely unspoken is the fate of those Taiwanese who do not “support reunification.” China has already taken legal action against “diehard separatists” on Taiwan, including several members of the ruling Democratic Progression Party. “The Chinese mainland will seek criminal responsibility for them, valid for life,” the Taiwan Affairs Office said while making the announcement. Indeed, there have been clear signals that any unification scenario on Taiwan would involve prosecution and jail time for Taiwan’s current leadership. That is the latent threat behind China’s repeated accusations that the DPP is “separatist” or “secessionist” – both crimes under the National Security Law adopted in 2015.
The 2022 white paper notes explicitly that “[m]oves to separate Taiwan from China represent the serious crime of secession” before saying that “The DPP authorities have adopted a separatist stance, and colluded with external forces in successive provocative actions designed to divide the country.”
In that sense, the white paper will only add to concerns raised by China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye. The diplomat recently made headlines for casually suggesting that China “will do re-education” in Taiwan “after reunification.”
Those comments are particularly alarming given the Chinese government’s massive re-education campaign in Xinjiang, which has involved involuntarily (and extrajudicially) detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minority group members. Survivors report being forced to undergo long “education” sessions praising the Chinese Communist Party and denouncing themselves for being overly religious or questioning the CCP’s benevolence.
Despite the controversy, Ambassador Lu doubled down on his comments in a second interview, claiming that “the Taiwan authorities” have “effectively indoctrinated and intoxicated” the population through “desinicization” policies.
“It’s necessary to reeducate [Taiwan’s population] to eliminate the separatist thought and secessionist theory,” he added.
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It’s clear from his follow-up comments that Lu did not misspeak or misrepresent official thinking on “re-education” in Taiwan. Indeed, Lu’s comments have an indirect echo in the white paper’s pledge to “to increase our compatriots’ knowledge of the mainland and reduce these misconceptions and misgivings, in order to help them resist the manipulation of separatists.”
The white paper openly acknowledges that “[t]he long-standing political differences between the two sides are the fundamental obstacles to the steady improvement of cross-Straits relations.” To solve that issue, it suggests “flexible forms of consultation and discussion” to gradually reach consensus. But it is hard to reconcile Beijing’s promise that “We are ready to engage with all parties, groups, or individuals in Taiwan in a broad exchange of views aimed at resolving the political differences” with its flat refusal to engage in cross-strait talks with the DPP government.
China’s willingness to engage comes with the explicit caveat that such talks must be “based on the one-China principle and the 1992 Consensus” – which would rule out a large part of Taiwan’s population. President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP has consistently refused to embrace the 1992 Consensus, despite repeated insistence from Beijing – and she won re-election in 2020 by a landslide.
The white paper maintains the stance that time is on China’s side when it comes to Taiwan. The rise of China’s economic and military might is seen as “a key factor” in “the realization of complete national reunification” – both as a deterrent to “separatist activities” on Taiwan and as a positive force attracting more Taiwanese to China.
“[T]he overall strength and international influence of the mainland will continue to increase, and its influence over and appeal to Taiwan society will keep growing,” the white paper declares. While the hard deterrent factor may indeed be growing, China’s “appeal to Taiwan society” has nosedived under Xi’s leadership.
Repeated references to politically-motivated prosecutions and “re-education” in a post-unification scenario are only adding to Taiwanese resistance. Taken to its extreme, this sentiment is summed up in a phrase often seen on Chinese social media: “留岛不留人” (“keep the island, don’t keep the people”).
For Taiwan’s 23 million people, that’s a chilling prospect, and one the white paper does little to assuage.