OPINION-Will China Promulgate a National Unification Law on Taiwan?

After China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office spokeswoman, Zhu Fenglian, on 16 December 2020 faced a question from a Xinhua reporter on whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would promulgate a national unification law, there have been speculations that the Central Government in Beijing would likely draft this law and that the National People’s Congress (NPC) would promulgate it in the year 2021, when the Communist Party of China is entering 100 years of its anniversary.

Zhu’s answer to the question was noteworthy. She remarked: “The constitutional law on national reunification is clear; we will take all necessary measures to promote the peaceful development of the two Straits and the process of peaceful unification.”

Zhu’s response to the sudden question raised by the Xinhua reporter must be understood in the context of two important speeches made by PRC President Xi Jinping. On December 31st, 2020, President Xi met the members of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) together with the Standing Committee members of the Politburo, including Premier Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, Han Zheng and Wang Qishan, to celebrate the New Year’s Eve. President Xi reiterated the PRC’s success in containing the spread of Covid-19 in 2020 and its achievements in anti-poverty work, economic planning, flood control and scientific advancements. All these activities, according to Xi, have contributed immensely to the progress of the Chinese renaissance.

Most importantly, President Xi added that, in 2020, the PRC insisted on the principle of “one country, two systems,” promoting the economic development and social stability of Hong Kong and Macau. The PRC, to Xi, persists in the utilization of the principles of one China and 1992 consensus to “resolutely protect the Taiwan Strait’s peace and stability.” He added: “We insist on the ideal of achieving the common destiny for the mankind, resist unilateralism and protectionism, oppose the reverse tide of hegemonism, and promote the great nation’s diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. We also promote vaccine cooperation internationally, actively making contributions to the attack on the devil virus of Covid-19 and to the promotion of world peace.” For many months after the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, President Xi has not mentioned the use of “one country, two systems” to deal with Taiwan’s political future until December 31st, 2020 – an indication that he was preoccupied with the fight against Covid-19 in the mainland for almost the whole year.

Xi’s most recent remarks on Taiwan shows that the PRC leadership has not yet abandoned the utilization of “one country, two systems” to tackle Taiwan’s political future. In fact, the speech delivered by President Xi Jinping to the Taiwan comrades on January 2nd, 2019 shows that he had appealed to the people of Taiwan to accept the “one country, two systems” model for reunification.

In January 2019, the anti-extradition movement in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) had not yet broke out until June that year. Although the anti-extradition movement in the HKSAR dealt a severe blow to the plan of Beijing to use the “one country, two systems” to appeal to the Taiwan side for reunification, a careful reading of President Xi’s speech on January 2nd, 2019 shows that he emphasized “the exploration of the Taiwan model of two systems.” It meant the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” would be different from Hong Kong and Macau – arguably a flexible step forward. Xi stressed that the Taiwan model of the “one country, two systems” would “fully absorb the views and suggestions of all sectors across the two Straits.” Moreover, “in the context of protecting national sovereignty, security and development interests, the Taiwan comrades after reunification would have their social system and lifestyle fully respected, and their private properties, religious faith and legal rights will be fully protected.” 

President Xi’s speech in January 2019 did not exclude the possibility of having dialogue with the leaders and members of the currently ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan. He said that the PRC side would be delighted to have dialogue with “any party and group in Taiwan under the foundation of one China.” 

Perhaps most significantly, Xi’s speech in January 2019 implied two possible concessions that the PRC side would eventually make if the principle of one China would be accepted by the Taiwan side. He said after peaceful reunification, Taiwan would “have peace forever,” implying that the PRC side would perhaps renounce the use of force after the Taiwan side agrees to the principle of one China. Moreover, he said the Taiwan comrades would have “more backbones internationally” after reunification with the mainland, implying that Taiwan would be allowed to join more international organizations with the support of the PRC side.

Unlike some American observers who have recently exaggerated that the PRC side would militarily “invade” Taiwan, a careful reading of Xi’s speeches reveals China’s bottom line. As President Xi said in January 2019: “The Chinese will not fight against the Chinese. We are willing to use the greatest sincerity and efforts to strive for the prospects of peaceful reunification. The reason is that it is the most beneficial to comrades on both sides and to all nationalities by using peaceful means to realize reunification. We do not promise to abandon the use of force and we retain all necessary measures and options. The target is the minority of Taiwan separatists and their activities as well as the intervention from foreign forces.”

Analytically speaking, the PRC government is likely to enact a national unification law focusing on Taiwan for the following reasons.

First and foremost, after President Xi’s January 2019 speech delivered to the Taiwan people, the Taiwan side responded negatively. The political chaos in the HKSAR from June to December 2019 led to the easy victory of Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP in Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2020. The enactment of the Hong Kong national security law, which to the central government was and is necessary, has arguably proven the “chaos” of the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” to most Taiwan people, except for those supporters of the pan-blue camp who still see themselves as culturally Chinese and politically attached to mainland China. The successful impeachment and removal of Kuomintang’s Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu in June 2020 sent an alarming signal to Beijing that the Kuomintang (KMT) would perhaps become a permanent opposition in Taiwan’s political landscape in the years to come, especially as the KMT lacks any charismatic leader as with the former President Ma Ying-jeou.

Even if the PRC leaders are politically nostalgic about the good old days in the KMT era, when Ma and Xi met historically in Singapore in November 2015, the honeymoon period between the PRC and Taiwan side has been long gone. Since Taiwan under the DPP rule has been gradually drifting further away from the mainland, politically speaking, the PRC leaders are naturally eager to adopt a legal means of setting the legal parameters of disallowing Taiwan to move further away from the mainland’s political orbit. As President Xi said in January 2019, “The long-time existence of political differences is a question and root cause of affecting the stable development of the two sides. We cannot let one generation leaving this matter to another generation.” If the PRC leaders are more eager to achieve a breakthrough in Beijing-Taipei relations than the Taiwan counterparts, the utilization of a new national unification law to push for mutual contacts, dialogue and then unification would be quite likely. 

Second, some elements of President Xi’s important speech in January 2019 would likely be incorporated into the national unification law if such law would be drafted and promulgated. Xi’s speech in January 2019 had provided some contours of how the two sides would come together, firstly as economic integration through enhanced contacts in Kinmen and Matzu. Xi’s emphasis on the Chinese renaissance appears to be an appeal to the Taiwan side that a cultural union would perhaps be a step side by side with economic integration and prior to in-depth political dialogue. 

In March 2018 and November 2019, the PRC side enhanced the measures and privileges aimed at stimulating and encouraging the direct investment, residency and work from the Taiwan people in the mainland. Nevertheless, these measures were criticized by the Taiwan side as united front efforts. Furthermore, the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 has widened the gap between the two sides; human interactions from the two sides have decreased significantly amid the megaphone diplomacy exchanging words from both sides, a situation exacerbated perhaps by the US’s explicit support of Taiwan from time to time. Under the circumstances that all the goodwill gestures from the PRC side in 2018 and 2019 have met resistance and obstacles, it is not surprising that the pro-unification PRC policymakers are eager to use legal means to accelerate the processes of mutual contacts, dialogue and later unification.

It remains to be seen whether the unification law, if drafted and enacted, would include any stipulation on foreign intervention. If yes, it would necessitate the US side to reconsider its role in Beijing-Taipei relations. 

Third, a careful reading of the anti-secession law, which was enacted by the PRC in March 2005, shows that although its ten articles remain arguably valid, the law has not been very useful. Very few PRC officials and authorities responsible for Taiwan affairs have mentioned the law. Nor did it deter Taiwan from drifting gradually away from the mainland politically. In view of the rarely applied anti-secession law, a new unification law focusing on Taiwan, and perhaps touching on the HKSAR, Macau, and other inner regions of mainland China would arguably be necessary. The unrest in Tibet in 2008, the Urumqi riot in Xinjiang in 2009, and the Hong Kong unrests in the latter half of 2019 have perhaps made PRC authorities far more sensitive to the issue of national security and territorial integrity than ever before. The borderland regions of China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, must be resolved in the sense of maintaining the PRC’s national security and territorial integrity. 

Perhaps a huge challenge to the PRC policymakers is to design a far more “federal,” “democratic” and “autonomous” system for the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, because at present most Taiwan people do not see any incentive to join the PRC as a union, either culturally or economically, not to mention politically. If the Taiwan people are given more incentives to move closer to the mainland economically and politically, perhaps the central authorities in Beijing should later consider slightly relaxing its grip on Hong Kong after the national security law is implemented “smoothly” in the HKSAR. Otherwise, many Taiwan people would continue see the Hong Kong model as a “negative” example for them to be lured to the PRC orbit easily.

In short, it is quite likely that Beijing may draft and eventually promulgate the national unification law targeting mainly at Taiwan. If President Xi Jinping and his Taiwan policymakers are eager to put their stamp on the history of the 100 anniversaries of the CPC, legislating and promulgating the national unification law, which would likely include key elements of his significant speech in January 2019 and update the 2005 anti-secession law, would be a realistic possibility in the new year of 2021.