China and Taiwan: Reunification or confrontation?

China’s adoption of an Anti-Secession Law (ASL) on 14 March, threatening non-peaceful steps should Taiwan declare formal independence, marked a sharp rise in tensions across the Taiwan Strait. 

By Laurence Coates

In April, mass anti-Japanese protests – in which the Taiwan question played an important role – erupted in a dozen Chinese cities. These events have been followed by a furious round of cross-strait diplomacy that has raised hopes of a possible solution to one of Asia’s potentially most dangerous conflicts. Are China and Taiwan heading towards reunion or confrontation? What’s behind recent shifts in Beijing, Taipei and the wider region and what conclusions socialists should draw?

In recent weeks, Chinas nominally ’communist’ regime has been rolling out the red carpet for a succession of top Taiwanese opposition politicians. This drama, covered to saturation point by China’s state-controlled media, marks a new phase in the troubled relationship between mainland China and the island it regards as a renegade province. On 26 April, the chairman of Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Lien Chan, arrived in China for a historic visit that culminated in a meeting with China’s president Hu Jintao. This was the first time the leaders of the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had met since the end of the civil war in 1949, which resulted in the establishment of the Stalinist People’s Republic of China, and the ignominious flight of the KMT to Taiwan.

Lien’s trip, and the visit days later by James Soong, leader of the KMT’s junior opposition ally, the People First Party (PFP), reflect an outbreak of China fever among Taiwans opposition pan-blue bloc (the name derives from the colour of the KMT emblem). On 29 April, Lien and Hu unveiled a five-point common vision to promote bilateral exchanges. They agreed that Taiwan and China should resume dialogue based on the so-called ’1992 consensus’ that states the two sides are both part of ’one China’. This so-called consensus, however, is hotly disputed and even according to the KMT allows differing interpretations of what ’one China’ should mean.

Pro-China agenda

The new pan-blue strategy is driven above all by the relentless pressure from Taiwanese and foreign capitalists for closer integration with China – the worlds fastest growing economy. KMT leaders have seized on this to boost their own position in the domestic political dogfight with the ruling pan-green bloc led by President Chen Shui-bian. The Chinese regime refuses to deal directly with Chen, whose formally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ended half a century of KMT rule in elections five years ago. In reality, Chen has abandoned any serious notion of pushing for independence, which is supported by less than one-fifth of Taiwan’s population (while a mere ten per cent favour formal ’reunification’ with China).

Under Chen’s presidency, the DPP has been ’house-trained’ partly under pressure from US imperialism, but also by the increasingly pro-China agenda of Taiwan’s capitalist class. A sensational example of this occurred in March when a pro-DPP business tycoon and former presidential advisor, Hsu Wen-lung, published a letter in support of Beijing’s anti-secession law and the ’one China’ principle. Chen himself, in yet another of Taiwan’s political u-turns, signed an accord to work for closer China links with PFP leader Soong in February. The president even said he  would not rule out Taiwan’s ’eventual reunion’ with China, provided Taiwan’s 23 million people accepted it.

The Chen-Soong agreement outraged many pan-green supporters and led to the resignation of four presidential advisers. Chen is widely believed to be behind Soong’s trip to China, although the latter, anxious not to lose ground to the KMT, denies this. Part of China’s strategy towards Taiwan has been to ’influence politics through business’, repeating a method it used in Hong Kong in the 1990s to woo the territory’s financial barons away from the departing British colonial administration. As Taiwanese socialist, James Yao, points out,  ”Nowadays Taiwanese capitalists hire at least ten million workers in China and almost all Taiwan’s top 50 manufacturing companies have subsidiaries there. The mainlands abundant cheap labour, cheap land, tax-breaks and subsidies for foreign companies, mean that China has actually become the main source of profit for Taiwanese capitalism. ”

Former archenemies

Beijing’s position of refusing to deal with Chens DPP is part of an overall strategy to keep the pressure upon Taiwan’s pro-independence parties and bolster the pan-blues. There is more than a little irony in the CCP’s courting of its former archenemies of the KMT which, when it ruled the mainland, was synonymous with anti-communism, corruption and domination by foreign capitalism.

The strikingly uncharismatic Lien, who The Economist described as ”a serial election loser”, was given the kind of reception normally reserved for world leaders. With massive and overwhelmingly favourable media coverage in Taiwan the visit has temporarily transformed Lien’s domestic poll ratings. Students at the prestigious Beijing University reportedly paid up to 120 dollars – two months’ pay for many Chinese workers – for a ticket to hear Lien speak. The audience gave him a standing ovation underlining the reactionary, nationalist and pro-regime mood among many students and intellectuals in China. Such enthusiasm for the KMT leader would be unthinkable on Taiwan’s own campuses where the mood is heavily skewed towards Taiwanese identity.

Beijings spin-doctors portrayed Lien’s tour as a historic turning point, describing the KMT as ” friends from afar ” and  ”compatriots” . Lien, in his keynote speech to Beijing students, spoke of ”beating  swords into ploughshares” to create cross-strait peace . In a rare reference to the real reason for the new detente he asked,  ”Why can’t China and Taiwan work together to earn foreign currency?”

Rising tensions

The CCP-KMT talks mark an abrupt turnaround, coming one month after the pan-greens organised a massive 400,000-strong demonstration in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, in protest at China’s anti-secession law. The law – which merely repeats old threats – was a major tactical blunder by the Beijing regime, playing into the hands not just of Taiwan’s pan-greens (support for independence rose five per cent in one week) but also of Washington and Tokyo, both anxious to check China’s rise as a regional superpower. The law was concocted as a warning to Taipei before last December’s parliamentary elections, which most observers including Beijing wrongly expected to strengthen the pan-greens’ grip on power. In the event, however, the pan-blues made modest gains.

At this point, Chinas central leadership would undoubtedly have preferred to withdraw the proposed legislation but were trapped by their own nationalist propaganda. Any attempt to prevent the rubber-stamp National Peoples Congress (NPC) debating the anti-secession law would have risked a split within China’s vast state bureaucracy and stiff opposition from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), where Taiwan-bashing and Great China nationalism have been whipped-up in part to justify big increases in military spending.

To minimise the fallout, Beijing twice sent envoys to Washington in an attempt to soothe US misgivings. Until recently the Bush administration has worked to keep the lid on cross-strait tensions, exerting pressure on Taiwan’s pan-green administration to tone down its anti-China rhetoric in return for a less combative stance from Beijing. But this time, US imperialism rejected Beijings overtures. In a pre-emptive warning, the US signed a new military communiqué with Japan on 19 February, for the first time citing ’security in the Taiwan Strait’ as a  common strategic objective . Drawing Japan – Taiwan’s former colonial ruler – into the cross-strait imbroglio could not fail but to antagonise Beijing.

New Great Game

The situation today is in some ways analogous to the first years of the last century, when a ferocious imperialist land grab redrew the political map of Asia. US imperialism has undertaken a series of provocative moves reflecting the abiding influence of neo-conservative warmongers inside the Bush administration. The ’neocons’, who describe Japan as the ” Britain of the Far East ” (i.e. a military satellite of US imperialism) are pushing the nationalist Koizumi government to abandon Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution and re-militarise, providing the US arms industry with a gigantic new market.

The appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations – a body he wants to abolish – follows the same pattern. Bolton is an outspoken advocate of Taiwanese independence and former paid adviser to the Taipei government. Similar moves are afoot in Japan: Koizumi has surrounded himself with advocates of Taiwanese independence with close ties to the island’s pan-green leadership. The ultra-nationalist mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, a notorious China-basher, was a guest at president Chens inauguration last year.

As if there weren’t enough imperialist powers tramping around in the Asian arena, Europe has also made an incursion. The dispute over whether to lift the EU’s 16-year-old arms embargo against China is a continuation, in a new guise, of the transatlantic split during the Iraq war. French and German capitalism in particular are keen to expand trade and investment with China, but also see it as an important future counterweight to US global domination. For the time being the EU has retreated over lifting the embargo under furious pressure from Washington. China’s passage of the ASL provided the pretext for governments in Britain and the Nordic countries to extricate themselves from a potentially serious clash with the US. But other EU governments, led by France, are sticking to their embargo-lifting guns. On a visit to Beijing in April, the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said the anti-secession law was  ”completely compatible with the position of France”  and went on to sell his hosts ten Airbus jets for a tidy 600 million euros!

Unstable China

In response to a resurgent US-Japan military alliance, and reeling from its setback over the EU embargo, the Chinese regime initially encouraged the youthful anti-Japan protests that broke out in April. While the catalyst for the protests was Japan’s approval of right-wing revisionist history books, the real underlying issue was  ”which country, Japan or China, will be the dominant Asian power of the 21st century. ” [Time magazine]

Taiwan, not least for reasons of military logistics, is a key battleground in this struggle. As Hu told Koizumi during their meeting at Jakarta’s Asia-Africa summit: ”Taiwan  touches the nucleus of the interest of China. ”

But underlining the extremely unstable political situation in China – a factor of world importance that is largely overlooked by capitalist commentators – the CCP regime found it could not fully control the anti-Japan protests. While most Chinese students at this stage are nationalistic and generally support the regime’s capitalist agenda, the anti-Japan movement was not politically homogeneous. Beijing’s fear that this movement could fuse with other protests – against the social effects of the shift to capitalism – were borne out when workers in several cities in southern China went on strike at Japanese owned companies. In mid-April, 10,000 workers at a Japanese-invested cordless phone maker, Uniden Electronics, in Shenzhen began a groundbreaking strike for trade union recognition.

Against this background, the CCP-KMT talks were a nationalistic propaganda gift for the regime, helping it keep the streets clear from what could have been huge anti-Japan rallies on the historic anniversary of 4 May (when in 1919 students protested against the Versailles Treaty which transferred German concessions in China to Japanese control).

Washington’s ’neocons’, however, who regard China as the only serious challenger to US global power in the future, will not sit back and allow the current phase of cross-strait diplomacy to proceed entirely under Beijing’s direction. Commenting on the visits by Lien and Soong, Bush called upon Beijing to open  dialogue with the ”duly elected leader in Taiwan” and that means President Chen and his cabinet.  Having tilted towards Beijing in the past (to curb pro-Taiwan populism), Washington is more than capable of tilting towards Chen and the pan-greens in future as part of a China containment strategy.

Taiwan divided

Within Taiwan, the CCP-KMT talks have aroused sharply divergent views. Pan-green politicians predictably accused Lien of  ’selling out Taiwan’ . But a majority in opinion polls have taken a positive view, reflecting growing anxiety over the risk of war, and a feeling that whichever eventual legal framework emerges, Taiwan and China are closely linked by culture, language and economic ties.

”It would seem that Lien has been able, in one trip, to resolve the half-century long stand-off across the Taiwan Strait and that peace and unification with China are now just around the corner,”  an editorial in the pan-green Taipei Times noted. Opinion polls taken immediately after Lien’s return showed 56 per cent had a positive view of the visit, with 31 per cent negative.

Departing from its earlier counterproductive policy of ’ballistic bluster’ (with 700 missiles aimed at Taiwan), Beijing has embarked upon a charm offensive. The Chinese regime offered Lien some economic incentives: an offer to lift restrictions on Taiwan tourism by Chinese citizens; a pledge to remove tariffs on imports of Taiwanese fruit; and a gift of two giant pandas!

The ’fruit offensive’ is an especially shrewd move designed to undermine DPP support in its southern agricultural heartland where many farmers have suffered as a result of WTO membership in 2001 (fully supported by the Chinese regime) and the ensuing flood of foreign farm goods.

China’s peace gestures (with the prospect of more during Soong’s visit) have increased the pressure on Chen. The fruit and tourism concessions are not worth much without an agreement on direct flights, which Taipei has traditionally blocked until a broader cross-strait deal is reached. Currently all air traffic between Taiwan and the mainland is routed via Hong Kong, Japan or South Korea.

While at first the pan-green leadership thought they could put a block on the KMT’s NGO diplomacy, they have been forced to amend this. At one point Chen speculated, ”Whether Lien means to lose Taiwan in a new round of KMT-CCP talks, after the KMT lost the mainland in its last negotiation with the Chinese Communist Party.”

But with big business lobbying hard for talks, Chen stopped attacking Lien as a ’communist propaganda tool’ and belatedly gave his blessing to the trip, describing it as ”stones to be thrown to explore the road ahead”. While the DPP is attempting to discredit the KMT as ”not representing Taiwan’s interests,” they are not prepared to say who is behind the KMT policy: the capitalists who are being drawn to the Chinese economy like a magnet. For this reason, further twists and turns lay ahead, not excluding the possibility of a Chen-Hu summit, with the pan-green leader playing the role of a Taiwanese Menachem Begin (the hardline Israeli leader who signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979).

Capitalist agenda

For socialists, the question of reunification or independence for Taiwan cannot be viewed separately from the interests of the working class in China, Taiwan and the entire region. The Chinese regime has made the reincorporation of Taiwan the touchstone of its nationalist vision of a Great (capitalist) China. Having dismantled the planned economy and the social benefits this provided (secure employment, medical insurance and pensions for example), the CCP is dependent upon nationalism to divert the attention of the masses from rising unemployment and other social ills. Consequently, any cross-strait deal concluded on the basis of the present regime would inevitably buttress its hold on the provinces and the oppression of non-Han (Han is the ethnic term for Chinese) peoples such as the Uyghurs, Hui and Tibetans.

The hollowness of the regime’s nationalist message is shown by its treatment of 140 million migrant workers from the poorer inland provinces – overwhelmingly Han Chinese – who nevertheless face semi-racist discrimination and police harassment in the cities where they work.

For the Taiwanese capitalists, the remaining fetters to the free movement of capital and goods arising from Taiwans unresolved national status have become a major irritant. This is despite the fact that four-fifths of Taiwan’s foreign investment already goes to the mainland. Capitalist lobby groups demand the lifting of the ban on investments which still applies to certain sectors and an easing of restrictions on hiring mainland staff. They want progress on government procurement (i.e. opening public sector investment projects to private tender) an issue bogged down in the dispute over what official title Taiwan uses to designate itself (it is formally still the ’Republic of China’ and Beijing opposes a change to ’Republic of Taiwan’ as a step towards independence).

Just as big European corporations lobbied for EU enlargement in order to broaden their base of operations and play workers in new EU member states off against their higher paid counterparts in the older EU countries, Taiwanese capitalists see closer integration with China as a means to free themselves from the burden of Taiwan’s higher wages and social insurance. Of course there are huge potential benefits for the population as a whole from the fusion of Asias ’silicon island’ – Taiwan is a world leader in semiconductors and computer electronics – with China’s vast labour force and world class manufacturing base. But on a capitalist basis this process will inevitably be accompanied by an offensive against the working class over working hours, labour flexibility and wages.

What alternative?

Socialists of course stand for the right of self-determination for the Taiwanese people. But the cross-strait issue – or national question in Taiwan – is sharply polarised. The island has experienced a growth of national identity over the last two decades, with the proportion regarding themselves as ’Taiwanese’ rather than ’Chinese’ rising from 18 per cent in 1992, to 40 per cent today. But an even bigger share – 50 per cent – see themselves as both.

The DPP leadership, having embraced the capitalists’ neo-liberal agenda, have failed to convince the population as a whole on the case for independence. The vast majority prefer to keep things as they are i.e. do not relish reunification with the mainland, but neither do they want a definitive break. This situation is compounded by the political monopoly enjoyed by the two bourgeois blocs – pan-blue and pan-green – whose position on attacking the working class is largely identical. Even on the cross-strait issue, following Chen’s abandonment of independence as a serious option, there is very little separating the KMT and DPP. Taking account of the popular mood, the KMT no longer stands for reunification but rather ’closer ties’ with China.

A growing disdain for both blocs explains the record low turnout – 51 per cent – in December’s election. Nevertheless in the struggle for power and positions both pan-blues and pan-greens resort to crude nationalism, which has the potential to spark serious inter-ethnic clashes in the future.

Racist elements

Just as there are left currents in both camps, there are also chauvinistic and racist elements. PFP leader Soong is a hate-figure among many Minnan, the majority ethnic grouping descended from Fujianese immigrants who began arriving in Taiwan five centuries ago. He is a Chinese chauvinist with a murky past in the KMT dictatorship. While Lien quite skilfully stressed ’peace’ during his visit to China, Soong stressed ethnicity:  ”All Taiwanese, ” he said, ” trace their bloodlines to China. ” These remarks are offensive to Taiwan’s indigenous people, of Austronesian rather than Chinese descent.

Meanwhile the DPP’s smaller alliance partner, the right-wing Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) has a racist policy towards mainlanders (i.e. those who arrived after 1949 and their descendents) over immigration and job quotas. Most ordinary pan-green voters choose these parties because they do not want Beijing’s dictators deciding their future, while many pan-blue voters are simply repelled by the antics of the pan-green leaders, engaging in meaningless and potentially dangerous provocations of China.

The key ingredient lacking in both Taiwan and China today is a workers’ party standing firmly for the unity of the working class, for socialist policies and complete independence from the bosses’ parties whether blue, green or fake red. Such a party would call for a democratic socialist Taiwan and a democratic socialist China and use this idea to capture the imagination of workers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

On the basis of socialism, through the drawing up of a democratic plan of production for the region’s resources, relations between Taiwan and China – whether in the form of independence, reunification or a new federal configuration extending to other countries in the region – could be decided on a democratic and voluntary basis.

No capitalist solution

Workers’ organisations can give no support to agreements concocted between the Chinese and Taiwanese capitalists. Of course, socialists welcome any reduction in cross-strait tensions, which can present an opportunity to break the nationalists’ grip on politics and advance the idea of a socialist alternative. But for this to happen workers must act independently of capitalist governments and parties, forging concrete links instead between workers on both sides of the Strait. The socialist answer to the CCP-KMT talks (and any future deal involving the DPP) is closer links from below: involving workers, farmers, environmentalists, women’s rights campaigners and other groups fighting for change.

There can be no permanent solution to the cross-strait issue on the basis of capitalism and imperialism. The economic, political and – in future – military scramble unfolding as Asia’s new capitalist titans rub up against each other opens a period of social explosions, shifting alliances and inevitable clashes. Only the working class of the region, by building its organisations across national frontiers, can offer a way forward.