China’s Latest Taiwan Strategy: Divide and Conquer

Beijing is continuing to tighten the screws on Taiwan, with China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun now saying that China is only willing to cooperate with Taiwanese cities and counties that explicitly accept that the island is part of China.

China has been blowing cold ever since the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party came to power in January, ringing in a series of economic measures designed to cripple or at least slow the Taiwanese economy and force it to hew closer to the unification line.

This newest tactic is actually the brainchild of Italian Renaissance strategist Niccolò Machiavelli – to divide and conquer. Zhang in Beijing in late September hosted a Taiwanese delegation of eight non-DPP local government heads, the mayors or magistrates of New Taipei, Hsinchu, Miaoli, Nantou, Hualien, Lienchiang, Taitung and Kinmen, all of whom explicitly endorse the so-called “1992 consensus,” a cryptic version of the One China principle.

Consequently branded “the eight slaves” by Taiwan’s pro-independence political camp, these mayors and magistrates earned Beijing’s promise to consider continued purchases of their constituencies’ products and expanded exchanges in tourism and culture with them.

In October a Chinese delegation visiting Taiwan cancelled its scheduled trips to DPP-ruled constituencies while vowing “deep cooperation” in tourism and agriculture with the eight pro-1992 Consensus cities and counties only.

The DPP government under President Tsai Ing-wen does not recognize the 1992 consensus and is now facing an erosion of power. This is because the “eight slave” cities and counties could possibly overcome the steep drop in the arrival of Chinese tourists and slowing Chinese purchases of Taiwanese agricultural goods apparently orchestrated by Beijing since Tsai took office in May.

By contrast, DPP’s 13 constituencies would presumably be left in the economic doldrums. The Taiwanese economy hasn’t been faring well recently, with exports faltering and unemployment high by the island’s own standards.

“You can say this is a divided and conquer strategy. Will it work? I think so,” said John F Copper, the Stanley J. Buckman Distinguished Professor of International Studies Emeritus at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, and author of countless books on Taiwan politics.

“As China sends tourists to these cities and counties and gives them other economic benefits this will show,” Copper added. “It will certainly refute the contention some DPP supporters have made that ties with China are not beneficial.”

The new tactic hits the Tsai administration in a bad patch. Tsai was elected with a landslide 56.1 percent of the vote in January, but her poll ratings and those of her administration have fallen sharply since she assumed the presidency in May.

According to a survey by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR), net satisfaction with the Tsai administration’s performance slid to - 9.9 percent in late September, down from a positive 33.9 percent in late May. Tsai’s personal net trust rating remained in positive territory in late September, at 10 percent, but this again was sharply lower than the 39.3 percent that she achieved in late May.

One major reason for Tsai’s voters’ disappointment arguably is that she failed on her promise to stop the constant belittlement of Taiwan’s political symbols and institutions by the Chinese side. When in opposition from 2008 to 2016, the DPP blasted the ruling 1992 Consensus-abiding Kuomintang for belittling on Beijing’s behalf of moves such as the proactive removal of Republic of China flags from Taiwan’s streets and venues whenever there was a chance that a visiting Chinese delegation might pass by.

Now under Tsai, the belittlement is no longer carried out by the Taiwanese government but by third-party organizations on the international stage, which seems humiliating to the Taiwanese even more. Recent examples are the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries forcing Taiwanese representatives to leave its meeting in Italy, and the International Civil Aviation Organization barring Taiwanese journalists from covering its assembly in Canada.

“The Taiwanese with their Confucian background tend to see their new national leaders as having the highest possible standards, meaning the electorate will sooner or later become disappointed with them,” explained Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan's National Central University's Graduate Institute of Law and Government, why Taiwanese officials’ approval ratings usually know only one direction – down.

Still, the Tsai administration can take comfort in the fact that the rival KMT is in a prolonged state of complete disarray. KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu‑chu is effectively unelectable with her calls for unification with China. The public’s dislike of her is reflected by the same TISR survey finding that only 26.6 percent of respondents have a favorable view of the KMT, compared to 40.5 percent for the DPP. And the KMT’s principal bank account has been frozen since September as part of an investigation into its allegedly ill-gotten political assets, which is hardly likely to help the KMT’s chances for a quick comeback, either.

The Tsai administration can also take comfort in the notion that Beijing’s forthcoming goodies to the “eight slave” cities and counties will never be felt by the voters residing there anyway. Most of the economic fruits created by the cozy China-Taiwan climate during the KMT presidency are being pocketed by greedy tourism, agricultural and trade oligopolies on both sides of the Taiwan Straits rather than the Taiwanese public. This explains why the island wholeheartedly elected an anti-1992 consensus leader this time around in the first place.